A Better Way to Teach Elementary Science Part II: Start with Definitions

In Part I of this series on how to teach elementary science, I argue that the first thing taught cannot be analytics. Happily, in the elementary years, it would make little sense to do analytics anyway. It is readily a time for intuitive problem solving.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that your child is getting the robust science education they deserve. One way or the other, you as their parent will, if you desire this for them, need to provide a science curriculum for them partially or in full. The good news however is: my curriculum is designed with YOU in mind.

Literally anyone who does ANYTHING with science at the elementary age is doing something better than most children will be exposed to. But let’s turn an eye towards optimizing this process.

Vocabulary Building

I propose that a quality elementary education in science must begin with definitions. This is one of the major missing links.

Denise Gaskins writes about math that children often struggle with math problems not because they don’t understand the math but because they don’t have the reading comprehension to understand the problem being asked. Adults over estimate student’s capabilities. She has several lessons to help increase the child’s reading comprehension. She says when she does the activities, students feel like they have gotten away with not doing the problem, because at first she doesn’t ask them to do any math. But as she says she knows the real work was done when they can explain in simple terms what was actually being asked in the math problem.

The first part of science similarly cannot go straight to analytics but must first focus on raising vocabulary. A science education needs to be more than “just” science. It needs to have quality reading comprehension and definitions.

This is where the primary, fundamental focus of my program is. Most lessons are designed to make some concept as crystal clear to a child as possible. I imagine it a bit like looking at a beautiful garden. My goal is to illuminate every part of it for the child–and to inspire them to the very beauty of it.

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Concept Formation

Concept formation drives my educational approach. Healthy concept formation fuses reality and ideas. My approach to education is experience driven, but it is not to let them experience reality without any guidance whatsoever. I remember when I was little and I didn’t understand the game of football. My dad said, “Just sit down and watch it and you’ll get it.” I never got it. It was a mess of players and confusing words to me. No, proper teaching needs clear instruction.

I focus on clear lessons to demonstrate concepts, which is essentially vocabulary building. Take the example of water retention in soil. A lesson I do is to try to germinate a seed in sand, soil, and waterlogged soil. The sand drains water and is too dry. The waterlogged soil won’t germinate at all. It clearly isolates this concept of the water retention property of the soil. I provide similar such experiences that are intellectually organized.

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Too dry, Just right, Too wet

I found that this must be the first focus of all lessons. I at first teach definitions such as this. It requires a few concrete examples to do, i.e., begins with hands-on experience but which is, again, intellectually organized. Once the concept is solid, as you study more examples, the child might look for this very concept. If you teach vertebrate/invertebrate for instance, with every book you read about animals, they might take note of this as they read. You give them the power to classify and organize the information that they come across, allowing for far greater retention of information.

Simple Problem Solving at First

Towards the end of increasing understanding, the problems to solve at first must be simple, without analytics. For example, if you were to play a simple game of dodge ball, there is plenty of physics in this. Aristotle said something thrown will fly in a straight line then fall down. If you point out to your child that a ball that is thrown flies in an arc, you have given them more physics than most men over centuries ever had. You can point out concepts like trajectory, arc, and dead reckoning. The problems to solve at first must be simple like this: how do you know where to stand when you try to avoid getting hit by the ball? You have to predict the ball’s future position based on its current trajectory (which is what dead reckoning is.) Only later do you sit down with equations to show how this can up their game. How is that for a motivator–for a child who might want to really really be the best at this game?

Before getting to the analytics of science, a child must have some hands on practice with the simple problem to solve. For instance, how (un)successful will it be to teach a child about chlorophyll when the child has never grown a plant? I take this further by teaching the individual parts of the plant in isolated ways. There are lessons that can give a child a front row view to see a plant’s roots–showing that roots need nothing but water (and technically air) to germinate, and to see the Oxygen bubbles that leaves make, showing clearly the purpose of roots and leaves. Such lessons gives potency to the child and their confidence to handle plants correctly. Understanding the carbon cycle, when you get to it, becomes much more clear.

The Power of Teaching the History of Science

Towards the end of teaching science, a most powerful way is to teach the history of science. Towards the end of teaching clear concepts, it is a natural powerhouse. When you teach the history of science, you can naturally compare ideas. In particular, you can compare what people used to think to what is correct. This provides such clear lessons. For instance, take Newton’s First Law of Motion, “An object at rest tends to stay at rest and an object in motion tends to stay in motion.” By itself, this is dry–and by itself is all that is taught to students. Compare this however to what people used to think, which is, if this weren’t the case, it must be the case that the moon has someone pushing it in order to move–perhaps angels. When you compare the wrong way of thinking to the right way, the concept becomes so much more clear. And drawing on history is powerful because it gives an easy way to compare a likely potentially erroneous way of thinking–one that many humans actually had– to a correct way.

Teaching definitions is a solid first step. In Part III, I am going to be talking about the high value of fantasy play and emotions in learning science.

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