Saturday, September 14, 2013

How I teach science (or: How I really screw up when I teach it)

I won't lie to you. I teach science in the most horrible, convoluted way. I overload my kids- taking 37 years of knowledge on a topic, and raining it down on them in 30 minute segments. I use multimedia (documentaries, short video clips, or slideshows I've created). I am excited about the topic, I talk breathlessly.
Wikipedia image by Misc. CC BY SA 2.0
Oh, I'm not ALWAYS that bad. Occasionally I download a 'grade appropriate' topic or unit from somewhere. These are... slips, though. I rely on them when the topic is a bit too simplistic and I can't think of anything overly exciting to add to what's already out there. So what effect does this... total immersion in a topic have on my kids, you might be wondering? And how does that compare against my 'slip-ups' when I rely on much more age-appropriate material?

 I am blessed with children who are very similar to me. I love new information, I eat it up. I don't want the 'Unwashed masses' account of something... I want the stuff written for the experts: the scholarly papers, the complex analysis. Don't tell me something is BECAUSE it IS- tell me WHY that theory was created. Include a bibliography, and be forewarned that I'll be checking up on the sources. That's my kids, too. Age appropriate material results in this: my 9yo daughter, already knowing everything there is to know about our life cycle unit before we'd read a single page, educated me on the 'mating dance' of seahorses. My 11yo son, asking (in exasperation), "Why do we only learn a tiny bit when there is so much more to know?" Yep. They hate 'age appropriate' material as much as I do. Somehow, over-immersion works here. And nope, maybe it doesn't make sense. Shouldn't I be giving them a bit this year, a bit more next year, ad nauseaum? Shouldn't I be teaching them the basics, so I can build on it later? I know exactly what you are saying. The part of me that is still trapped in the paradigm of public school thinks that, too. But when I try- when I threaten to slow down the learning, or I reign myself in drastically, my kids complain. Not enough information! They cry. School is too easy! they wail.

From Wikimedia. GNU license
So I continue to over-teach. I don't, ever ever ever, expect my kids to learn everything I throw at them. I am not big on tests, and rely mostly on conversations or the occasional verbal 'pop-quiz' to test their absorption. I explain carefully, completely, patiently. I answer questions, or look them up if I don't know. I study myself, so I have enough knowledge to teach something as completely and thoroughly as I can. I know they won't remember it all- but the amount they DO remember amazes, delights, overwhelms me. I would never be upset if they didn't pick something up- I am happy to review again. I am not overloading them with info to force them to know it- I am giving them all the knowledge so they can think, Oh ok, THAT'S why xyz happens! It makes it possible for them to understand the connections so the individual packets of information are not adrift in a sea of nothingness. Understanding the whys of science- and therefore understanding the individual bits- is NOT THE SAME as 'constructivism' in math, or anything like the crappy current math theories. I'll talk (or rant) about those another time. Math is very specific, follows certain rules, and, in my opinion, is best understood by knowing those rules forward and backwards (and then, with that mastery, being able to muse on those rules). Science is broad, sometimes it follows specific rules and sometimes it doesn't. Yes, there is math in science, but it almost (to me) seems to have more in common with writing than with mathematics: a rule is a rule until it isn't. It USUALLY works a certain way until... evolution, a quirk of nature, a mutation.. means it doesn't.

 Science is all around us. Rain is science, dogs are science, cleaners are science, cooking is science. Science affects us in a way we, perhaps, don't even think about. I'm always surprised (horrified?) when someone tells me they don't like science: we are the products of that very process! There is no separating ordinary life from science. Even thinking involves science! Kids are learning science all the time, on their own. Even a baby, dropping toys from a highchair, is involved in scientific experimentation and reasoning: what happens if, they might wonder. Hypothesis, theory, results. They might not know the term 'science', but they are engaged in it, nonetheless. So if babies can do it, why do we expect our kids to need it spoonfed in tiny tiny doses?

Image on Wikimedia Commons by Green Lane. GNU
 I mentioned that I occasionally slip and use 'pre-made' units for science. I have NOTHING bad to say about those units, and I appreciate the incredible hard work that goes into creating them. There are a lot of lovely ones on What I advise is taking your material beyond the page, in whatever method works best for your kids. Sure, you want your kids to know the differences between vertebrates and invertebrates, but don't stop the conversation there. Let it flow naturally, encourage the curiosity even if you think the questions are 'beyond' your child. Because this is what will happen: they might not remember the details of what you said, but the concept of vertebrates/invertebrates will be crystal clear because it isn't a 'random' fact. They won't be left wondering (like I was) what the difference is between reptiles and amphibians, unclear what each has over the other, or why the animals aren't all in the same group.

 Yes it's an overload. I'm not suggesting you do it unless you think your kids can handle it. We love science, and that makes a difference here.  So I give them what they want, I feed the masses as full as they can handle. I respect their intellectual capabilities, and I foster that to the very best of my ability. Someday, they will remember all of this information that I've given them. Someday, I see them greeting something obscure I said, lost in the mists of memory, like a childhood friend, "Hey, I remember you!" It won't be foreign, strange, convoluted, or complex. It will just be one piece in a jigsaw puzzle. The first time, they saw it in the box, looked at it, and put it back. But later... later they will see it and know exactly where it goes.

 Kids are young, they aren't stupid. I abhor half-explanations for the same reason I hate kiddy versions
of 'adult' things. A kid's telescope is awful, and no... you can't see anything overly important. Kid coloring sets have dried up, useless markers. Scribble pads are nice... unless you want to paint a watercolor or something to keep. Giving my kids real tools- grown up (but safe!) tools, is much much better. Glue sticks are horrible.. they are the root of all evil (yep, hyperbole.. but have your ever tried to really stick something you'll look at, or handle, later on? What a waste of time!!), but glue.. glue works. Encourage the mess and the learning will come... let it be silly, crazy, voluminous, wonderful. Let them experiment with the real thing- in this case the REAL knowledge. You will be building a lasting foundation- laying framework they won't even realize they have- for later. No kiddy versions.

So I overload my kids with science. I teach it in a way that contradicts everything I've ever read about teaching, and kids, and is the exact opposite of how I teach math, writing, or reading. It's a disastrous way to teach a complex subject. And it works.

Copyright free image.  Wikimedia Commons

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