The Challenge of Teaching Science Correctly

In my last post, I talked about Shattering Common Science Myths, and how it can be difficult to understand (and then teach) scientific principles correctly.

I alluded to two ways of analyzing the universe:

Aristolean: In this viewpoint, science is qualitative (based on the observer’s impression), not quantitative (based on gathering data). Conclusions are arrived at based on personal observation, and mathematics is not used to validate deductions. Assumptions are made that are not tested.

Newtonian: In this viewpoint, science is quantitative (based on gathering data), not qualitative (based on the observer’s impression). Conclusions are verified by using the scientific method: data is collected through observation and experimentation, and is subject to rigorous testing and the scientific principles of reasoning.

Without scientific training, most of us take the Aristolean approach: we base conclusions about our lives on what we see from our perspective, and we do not subject our conclusions to rigorous scientific testing.

We are the products of the fuzzy science education we received. Our textbooks contained errors, and our own teachers often did not completely understand the concepts they explained to us, so it’s easy for the cycle of misinformation to continue. In order to teach science correctly, we must be willing to drop some of our long-held beliefs about the interworkings of the universe.

How Can We Be Sure We Teach Science Correctly?

1. Make Sure Our Source Material is Accurate

My sister and I discovered that it’s surprisingly hard to find textbooks that are completely accurate. In Montessori, we have a bit of an aversion to textbooks anyway and prefer to use teacher-made materials, but those can have errors as well. If you are teaching physics to children (at home or at school), I recommend these resources:

For Adults:

1. Mountain Motion: The Free Physics Textbook – This amazing textbook covering every aspect of physics can be downloaded for free. At over 1600 pages, it’s a long read, but you can certainly use it on a section-by-section basis. It is geared towards modern physics, not classical, but it definitely a good resource.

2. Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics by Its Most Brilliant Teacher – This landmark book by physicist Richard Feynman is a great way for you to educate (or re-educate) yourself on basic physics principles. It’s not meant for children, but it can be a resource that you turn to while teaching them. It’s intended for the general reader, so it’s light on mathematics and easy to understand.

For Children:

Physical Science materials from Montessori for Everyone – my sister and I have worked very hard on these, and you can be sure of their accuracy. We plan on making more as time allows!

2. Verify the Information

When it comes to science, the Internet is full of misinformation. Well-meaning people post experiments and illustrations that at the most are outright inaccurate, or at the very least, poorly explained and misleading.

If you are using the Internet to find the answer to a science question, or to find a fun experiment, be sure to consult more than one source. Wikipedia can be a good starting point, but should never be the sole source of information.

3. Make Sure We Understand What We’re Teaching

For some lessons, we can sit down with the material and present it with little or no preparation beforehand. Science should not fall in this category. We should read (multiple times, if necessary) the information and make sure we know the meanings of all the words used.

The author of the Mountain Motion textbook linked to above recommends reading information aloud, and stating it in your own words for complete comprehension. It’s also advisable to perform science experiments ahead of time, before doing them with students, to make sure that you understand how the experiment is to be done and what the desired result is.

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Challenge Your Own Preconceptions

In teaching science correctly to children, you may find yourself letting go of things that you have always believed to be true. Especially when it comes to Newton’s Laws, you will have to work through each one to make sure that you truly understand it.

I went through this process while working on the Forces Set 1 – Classical Physics material with my sister. She wrote the initial text, and then sent it to me for editing and formatting. As I read what she had written, I had to admit that I truly didn’t understand why no force is needed to keep an object in motion once it had been set in motion. I think I called her and said, “But what keeps it going?!?”

She laughed and told me that Aristotle was still in my head – in other words, I was viewing Newton’s Laws from my own limited perspective. Since friction and other forces keep objects from moving forever in our everyday world, I wasn’t able to correctly imagine what would happen to an object when removed from all outside forces.

That night I decided to tell my husband what I had learned about Newton’s Three Laws of Motion. As I explained each one, I felt a light bulb go off in my head. An object stays in motion without the application of a continuous force because a force would be needed to stop it!

Maybe this sounds obvious, but it was a breakthrough to me. I was able to “kick Aristotle out of my head”, and understand inertia like never before. As I continued working on the Forces material, there were several other ideas that had to crumble, including my understanding of centrifugal force, balanced and unbalanced forces, and circular motion.

My sister helped me to understand that when studying Newton’s Three Laws of Motion, everyone must reach a crisis point in order to understand them. They seem to contradict our own observations and experiences. In fact, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that if you haven’t wrestled with Newton’s Laws, you don’t yet understand them.

The Importance of Clear, Correct Information

In scientific study, one principle builds on the next one. So, if a child is given erroneous information (or draws the wrong conclusion based on incomplete information), they will have a difficult time understanding whatever concept comes next. From childhood up through adulthood, fundamental gaps are formed in their thinking which hinder scientific concepts and lines of reasoning.

A student who ventures into science as a major in college, or pursues a profession in the sciences, will have a huge head start over other students if they have been taught scientific principles correctly. They won’t have to undergo a “reboot” to wipe out the incorrect ideas like other students will.

Giving a child correct information ensures the development of their own critical thinking skills. They quickly realize that they cannot trust their own assumptions when it comes to scientific discovery; they must rely on the scientific method to arrive at explanations for natural phenomena.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I hope you haven’t been frightened away from teaching science, but it’s good to have a healthy respect for scientific accuracy when you approach science lessons. Let’s jump in with both feet and be students as well as teachers!

Please come back at the end of June for the last part of this science series – where my sister takes on the pitfalls of science experiments. Next week we’ll be talking about fathers and education in celebration of Father’s Day.