What can a science education be? (How stories and riddles can save the world.)


Reactions to our last post fell squarely into two camps:

  1. Oh what a beautiful idea! I wish I could have gone to a school like this.

Dialoguing with friends in Camp #2 about our "creation of the world" curriculum has made me realize that I haven't done a good job explaining why we're approaching history, science, and religion in this unusual way.

And to be clear: what we're doing really is unusual! I'm not sure I know of any other school that's setting its goals for student understanding so high.

It's to the folk of Camp #2 that I dedicate this imaginary Q & A.

Question: Plopping creation stories next to the Big Bang narrative makes me uncomfortable! What are you guys even trying to do with this history curriculum of yours?

Three things, I think!

First, we're telling the history of science.

Why? Well, scientific understanding is an odd beast: in theory, it's timeless — Gregor Mendel's idea of genetic inheritance (to take one example) could have been figured out by anyone in the ancient world.

But in practice, scientific understanding is often bound up in politics, social realities, religion, economics, and a host of other things. And oftentimes scientific discoveries depend on earlier scientific discoveries.

Science has a history, an arc — one that intersects with everything. Science is part of the grand human story — something that can get lost in the traditional curriculum! Our Big Spiral History curriculum brings us back to the humanity of science.

(Lest you think that Big Spiral History is the only way we're approach science, remember that our schools are also cultivating a scientific mindset with a host of other practices — among them question-posing & answer-hunting, dissecting technology, cooking lunch together, bringing animals & plants into the classroom, realistic drawing, Learning in Depth, and location study.)

Second, not only are we teaching the history of scientific ideas — we're emerging ourselves in the epic, personal stories of scientific discovery. 

This, I think, is something that got completely left out of my previous post.

Archimedes' "bath" method of measuring volume? Yes. William Harvey's realization that the heart was a pump? Yes! Anton van Leeuwenhoek's discovery of the "wee beasties" in pond water? Ho yeah!

And dozens and dozens of other science stories, besides. Using the Imaginative Education methodology, we can teach these stories with more intellectual respectibility and more emotional heft than is hardly ever done. We can have one of the most vivid history of science curriculums of any school.

It’s easy for students to fall into the feeling that "science" is a series of immutable truths that spring, fully-formed, from the head of Zeus. And, in reality, "science" (in one sense of the word) is exactly that — it's the real world! What's true would be true, even if no humans were around to talk about it.

But "science" in the sense of "scientific understanding" is human-hatched notions — notions that compete and prevail based on how well they are able to make sense of evidence. Notions that sprang from the heads of often quite interesting men and women, whose back stories are fascinating.

So we're not just teaching history of scientific ideas — we're teaching the history of science through personal stories. Actually, this is currently quite a hot subject! Think Bill Bryson's bestselling A Short History of Nearly Everything, which chronicles the scientific breakthroughs of the last three hundred years. Think Neil DeGrasse Tyson's Cosmos TV series, which flips back and forth between CGI representations of scientific ideas, and animated narrations of the people who first cooked them up.

We can match the wonder and excitement and intellectual heft of those works. We can even surpass them — because of the third thing we're trying to do.

We're not just telling the history of scientific ideas, and we're not just telling that history through personal stories. We're using both of those as an opportunity to puzzle alongside. 

When you watch Cosmos, you're mostly along for the ride. Neil DeGrasse Tyson frequently asks questions of the audience, but I can't remember him waiting more than 15 seconds before giving us the answer. This isn't anything against Neil — it's a limitation of the medium of television.

But we're teachers, working with kids over the long term: we have access to all sorts of tools that television (and Khan Academy) don't. We can re-create experiments. We can prompt kids to explain phenomena that don't seem to make sense. And we don't have to tell them the answer after 15 seconds — we can sit in puzzlement with kids for minutes, hours, weeks! We can prompt them to expose their confusion, to ask questions, and to imagine what a resolution might look like.

A great teacher can do this — can make kids more confused than they'd ever be on their own!

And a great teacher can be a guide, too — giving clues, assigning students to ask their adults for their ideas.

This is part of what we're aiming for with our Philosophy for Children approach to literature, history, and everything. It's also part of why we're making question-posing and answer-hunting a staple of the week.

Here, in brief, is our vision for what a science education can be:

We live in a society that has been built up by millennia of brilliant human discoveries. We're in the midst of accelerating innovation, and are plunging into a future in which this innovation stands to harm us and to help us.

We can help children understand these discoveries, as if they were uncovering them for the first time. We can do so by tapping into our lust for vividly-told stories, and for solving riddles. 

Or, at least, that's part of our vision of what a science education can be.

Stay tuned for more.