A Better Way to Teach Elementary Science Part I: Stop Going Straight to Analytics

I have written before, extensively, and will continue to write, about how I am disgruntled with how science is currently taught (based on my experience as an American.) I write it out more thoroughly in my blog post, “Stop Questioning Students Before Teaching Them.” Teachers ask students questions before presenting them information. The most ubiquitous example is asking a student to make a hypothesis about a science experiment, about something they might not have any experience with. In the mind-body dichotomy, this is squarely on the “mind” side.

This series is going to outline in more detail a better approach to elementary education. I am diligently working on a comprehensive elementary education program. My goal is for you to look through the lessons, gain an enormous amount of information yourself, see how easy it is to learn basic concepts, and feel confident executing the lessons the very next day upon learning about them, if not that very night. Using the results, I think, will be easy. Explaining the nuts and bolts of what I do is a little harder. I am splitting this series up into several parts. I expect this to grow as I learn more.

  1. Part I: Stop Going Straight to Analytics
  2. Part II: Start with Definitions
  3. Part III: Fantasy Play and Emotions
  4. Part IV: Hands-on Projects

Stop Going Straight to Analytics

Looking at the history of the development of modern science (starting at the Renaissance era) is very illustrative and correlates greatly to how a child should be taught science. The early scientists, having just discovered the Greeks and were thus inspired to study the natural world, had no tools or analytics at first. They had no telescopes, calculators, not even clocks! The best mathematical computer they had, if lucky, was an abacus. Even paper was a luxury. They had no formal education either–other than what they read from the Greeks. They had themselves, their minds, and the reality around them. The sole purpose of formal education at that time was inwards: the refinement of one’s soul. They did what they did under constant threat of persecution (e.g., excommunication) and even death. Yet something moved inside them to solve some of the world’s biggest mysteries, the primary one of which was “what is the shape of the universe?.” This is soul-shaking stuff.


Copernicus: I’m sorry about how people treated you

So what happened? How did science go from this story of all stories–of scientific discovery, filled with adventure and persecution, of men who wanted to learn, and a constant expanding until our current modern world with airplanes and rockets–to the way education is now, in which most students absolutely dread math and science? I propose because we go straight to analytics, while void of reality and void of the history that got us here. It is the mind-body dichotomy, still very much alive.

Today, students are taught “science” but it’s done so in the old educational paradigms. People can’t move past lecture-desk-pencil-paper-memorize paradigms, which is great if you are discussing virtue or literature but not adequate enough for science. The knowledge that some men literally died producing is now presented to students in the most overwhelming, non-sensical of ways, in which their entire future is dependent on their performance on tests. Students are handed equations and taught to mechanically manipulate numbers. They have no solid sense of what it is they are actually doing, how it applies, or why it matters. This is most evidence by the ubiquitous question asked by students, “When will we ever need this stuff?”

This starts young. When we teach children addition with single digits, we intuitively point to 3 apples plus 2 more apples and say that it makes 5. As soon as we move to double digit addition, we lose this contact with reality. Instead of giving them a sense of scale, we teach them to carry the 1, which focuses first on the ones column (the least significant) and not the more significant numbers, which would give a better sense of scale.

Denise Gaskins has a brilliant alternative to this in which she presents a number scale to students. Let’s say you are subtracting 160 from 340 (to make it easy). The first thing you do is draw a scale with 340 at the top. Then you subtract 100 and you draw an arrow to 240. Then you might take away 40 and get to 200. Then you subtract 20 more and you get to 180. This gives a sense of scale of what you are doing. With enough practice with this, you can do it in your head on the spot. You can at least say, “Well 340 subtract 160 is going to get something less than 240 and something more than 140.” Now when faced with this problem, a person only taught the mechanical manipulation behind it will need a pencil and paper or likely a calculator. It only gets worse as students climb to higher and higher maths.

This certainly has application to science. Instead of giving an idea of what problems we are trying to solve, we go straight to equations. Children might learn that “Kinetic Energy is 1/2 * m * v ^ 2” but they have no idea when to apply it. Students graduate who can solve integral calculus but have no idea that what they are doing would allow them to find the volume of the volleyball they use when they play at the beach.

Science is further desecrated when we ask students to answer questions sitting in a classroom, void of reality and “guide them to reason” about a question like, “If all matter is made up of particles, why are some a solid, liquid, and gas?” Literally, some teachers ask students to, on the spot, come up with an answer that took men centuries and many powerful tools to figure out. This is the mind-body dichotomy run wild!

Of course analytics are amazing and take what our capabilities are to the next level. You can successfully plan a mission to the moon with analytics. What I am arguing is that they can’t be the first focus when learning. Humans didn’t even have Cartesian coordinates until Descartes, which was after Galileo. There is no dichotomy between “intuitive” problem solving and analytics–indeed, this is what I am arguing.

In Part II, I will discuss further the building blocks that must be there before getting into this highly precise science, which starts with teaching definitions.

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