Another consequence of the rampant violation of hierarchy in science education, available to both teachers and students alike, is that students find learning about science boring.
When I ask people about their experience studying science in school, particularly physics, the answer is almost always the same, “It was boring and a lot of memorization.” If taught the way Kevin was taught protein synthesis, this is inevitably true. If you do not attain a genuine grasp of the material you are being taught, because you do not have an understanding of the conceptual context it presupposes, all you can do is memorize it and parrot it back. Memorizing technical jargon that has no cognitive standing in your mind can be nothing but boring.
To compensate for this, many science teachers use artificial means to motivate their students. Some make science a trivia game. They play Jeopardy or Science Bingo or other games contrived to make their students enthusiastic about the passive acceptance of a bunch of information these students do not really understand. I have no objection to the occasional use of games in the classroom, but if a teacher depends too much on these contrived attempts at motivation, it is a good indicator that the children are not fulfilled by the work itself. That is usually because they do not understand it.
Other science teachers have turned to more grotesque methods of motivating their students. The Wall Street Journal reported several years ago on the growing popularity of criminal forensics classes for ninth- and tenth-graders. Here is a description of a federally-funded forensics program at a high school in Minnesota:
Last summer, Minneapolis teacher Bobbie Rush led 22 ninth-graders to a deserted stretch of Mississippi River shoreline. There, they came upon a mock crime scene: a dismembered mannequin in a car trunk, a severed arm in a grocery bag and a bloody hacksaw. That wasn’t the only macabre scene the teenagers encountered. During a separate field trip to the city morgue, they saw a decomposed cadaver crawling with maggots and a mutilated corpse being boiled so the bones could be examined for signs of foul play. “Another guy got buried alive while working in a ditch,” recalls fifteen-year-old Heather Callahan, who thought the trip was fun. “He was already cut open and everything.” [Barbara Carton, “Science Teachers Rouse Interest with Gory Forensics Lessons,” The Wall Street Journal, February 19, 2002]
According to the article, the goal of classes in forensics–a highly specialized branch of applied science–is to make science appealing to today’s teenagers, who are growing up in a world of “fast-paced and reality based entertainment.”
The purpose of science education, however, is not to make science appealing to children (although that is important). The purpose is to convey crucial scientific knowledge to a child and to ensure that he actually understands the material being taught. Motivation is one of the means to that goal, and as such, it must not be separated from the goal; it must be integrated with it. Motivation flows from the right content taught the right way–both of which are dictated by the hierarchy of knowledge.
Properly taught–that is, hierarchically taught–science unlocks important facts about the physical world and demonstrates the intelligibility of the universe. It shows students the power of man’s mind to discover these facts and to use them to improve his life–to create the wondrous world of technology that surrounds us–which instills in students a strong, implicit respect for the power of reason. Properly taught, science is anything but boring–because it is anything but meaningless and purposeless.
It should be a fundamental rule in science education, and in education in general, that students are always taught material they can thoroughly grasp for themselves. If a teacher is presenting a principle about the physical world, the students should either be able to point to the evidence in reality–or to recreate the process of observation, reasoning, and generalization–that supports the principle. This means that science should be taught in a proper order: beginning with the simplest, most easily observable facts about the physical world, and proceeding systematically to more complex, abstract theories. It demands that the approach to science be essentially historical in progression, since the simplest discoveries are necessarily the earliest. This is the approach we take at VanDamme Academy.
Part 4 appears on November 26, 2006
- How To Teach Your Child: A Necessary Order To Knowledge (Part 1 of 4) (November 5, 2006)
- How To Teach Your Child: What It Means To Learn (Part 2 of 4) (November 12, 2006)
- How To Teach Your Child: Motivating Students To Learn (Part 3 of 4) (November 19, 2006)
David Harriman, philosopher and historian of physics, is the originator of VanDamme Academy’s revolutionary science curriculum. An expert both in physics and in proper pedagogy, Mr Harriman developed and taught a two-year course on the history of physics for VanDamme Academy. VanDamme Academy is now making this revolutionary physics course, “Introduction to Physical Science,” available to the public.