I was careful, when I told him the name of something, not to tell him as if it were a lesson, something he had to remember. Nor did I test him by saying, “What’s this? What’s that?” This kind of checking up is not necessary, and it puts a child in a spot where he will feel that, if he says the wrong thing, he has done wrong and is in the wrong. I have seen kindly, well-meaning parents do this to young children, hoping to help them learn. Almost every time the child soon took on the kind of tense, tricky expression we see on so many children’s faces in school, and began the same sad old business of bluffing, guessing, and playing for hints. Even in the rare case when a child does not react this defensively to questions, too much quizzing is likely to make him begin to think that learning does not mean figuring out how things work, but getting and giving answers that please grownups.
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A bit of a confession here from the would-be well-trained Farm School.
Literature-based studies work very well for us, especially for English (what newfangled types call “language arts”), and history. But literature-based science studies have been a bust. First, following The Well-Trained Mind‘s suggestions, with one discipline a year, life science or earth science/astronomy or chemistry or physics, and heavy on the narrating (with written “Narration Pages”) and notebooking (with written “Experiment Pages”). Then, in an effort to make things easier for myself, with more formal programs (Great Science Adventures, Living Learning Books), with fiddly little make-your-own booklets and worksheets. After a while, it occurred to me that while teaching science was more pleasurable for me this way, it wasn’t an interesting or effective way for my kids to learn. In fact, this rather bloodless approach was sucking the fun and fascination out of what would otherwise be very fun and fascinating subjects and ideas. They’re good books and curriculum, just not right for my kids, right now.
After a year or so of mulling the subject, a year in which we unschooled science and the kids learned a good deal (not to difficult to do in the country on the farm when dinnertime conversation tends to revolve around plant and animal genetics anyway) and in which I carefully studied Rebecca Rupp’s Complete Home Learning Sourcebook and read all sorts of things, including Natalie Angier’s new The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, I realized that young Tom Edison didn’t have programs, curriculum, or lesson plans. No sirree. He just burned down barns and boxcars with his experiments and exasperated his teacher before being sent home to his mother for his education.
I knew we’d have to move away from a well-laid out, book-heavy program for my own sake — ever so much easier to plan and co-ordinate — to a more hands-on method for the sake of my kids (ages 10, eight-and-a-half, and almost seven) — not quite so easy to plan and co-ordinate — to keep them excited about and interested in science, before it turns into incomprehensible drudgery. And dare I say it and sound like an unschooler, but often the kids’ best lessons, and when they learn the most, is when things aren’t Planned – And – Co-ordinated. Of course not. That would be too easy.
This coming year, after much thought and reading, we’re trying something new — heavy on the experiments and experimenting, light on lab reports, narration, and even reading, especially when it comes to biographies and “the history of science” stuff, which I adore but which the kids regard as frilly extras. I figure there’s plenty of time for that later. What there’s little time for now, though, is hooking the kids on the magic and fun of science. And instead of spending the entire year on one facet of science — chemistry or physics or biology, etc. — which the kids with their many interests lose patience with quickly, we’re going to do both chemistry and physics, with the usual natural history thrown in, too; if we were following the WTM framework, we’d be starting our second, more in-depth study of biology, which just might send everyone here around the bend. As far as I was concerned, that wasn’t even an option, though I was sorely tempted by Noeo Science for chemistry and/or physics, but in the end realized I didn’t want us to be constrained by someone else’s lesson plans, though I have found some wonderful book suggestions on Noeo’s reading list (including, from Physics I, Rubber-Band Banjos and Java Jive Bass, How Do You Lift a Lion? which I mentioned the other day; Fizz, Bubble & Flash; and and from Physics II, Gizmos and Gadgets: Creating Science Contraptions That Work (& Knowing Why)).
So here is the non-plan for science this year:
I’m going to take a page from Tom Edison and let the kids become boy and girl wizards. Messy, our-flasks-and-test-tubes-bubble-over experiments galore, no lab notes, and minimal books, mostly for experiments:
the old and dangerous Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments (which I wrote about here several months ago). Lynx at One-Sixteenth is using The Golden Book too, so we’ll be able to compare bangs and booms shortly.
Our old out-of-print How and Why Wonder Book of Chemistry by Martin L. Keen
Two older Dover books already on the shelf: Entertaining Science Experiments With Everyday Objects by Martin Gardner and Chemical Magic by Leonard A. Ford and E. Winston Grundmeier
Mr. Wizard’s World six-DVD set; though I think I’ll ask Tom to help the day we electrocute the hot dog.
There are so many good experiment books available, new and out-of-print, including a number by Mr. Wizard, aka Don Herbert, and even a dandy Thomas Edison one); I decided to go with what we already have on the shelf.
I ordered the K’NEX Simple Machines Set, and I plan to keep it in the living room and let the kids loose with it, with minimal assistance and guidance from me. Mechanically-minded Daniel will have a field day,
On the bookshelf, just in case:
Physics in a Hardware Store and Physics in a Housewares Store, both by Robert Friedhoffer and both out of print but which I found easily and cheaply secondhand; recommended in Rebecca Rupp’s Complete Home Learning Sourcebook. I can’t think of a better way to involve Tom’s carpentry experience and the kids’ love of tools with basic physics principles. And while we’re in the kitchen with the housewares, we can make use of kitchen scientist Harold McGee’s Curious Cook website — “exploring the science of food and its transformations”.
And on the reference shelf, if the kids want more information, though I will try not to push it, because I know that while I prefer to read about science, my kids prefer to live it:
How to Think Like a Scientist by Stephen P. Kramer and illustrated by Felicia Bond
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I’ll wait to see how this year goes before planning any more science. If the approach works this year with the kids, I have my eye on a couple of books following the same approach for the high school years, Hands-On Physics Activities with Real-Life Applications: Easy-to-Use Labs and Demonstrations for Grades 8-12 by Cunningham and Herr, and Hands-On Chemistry Activities with Real-Life Applications: Easy-to-Use Labs and Demonstrations for Grades 8-12 by Herr and Cunningham. I think the latter would be well paired with the Thames & Kosmos Chem C3000, which looks like one of the better chemistry sets available in these toothless times.
Just a bit more from John Holt on How Children Learn:
There is a special sense in which it may be fair to say that the child scientist is a less efficient thinker than the adult scientist. He is not as good at cutting out unnecessary and useless information, at simplifying the problem, at figuring out how to ask questions whose answers will give him the most information. Thus, a trained adult thinker, seeing a cello for the first time, would probably do in a few seconds what it takes a child much longer to do — bow each of the strings, to see what sounds they give, and then see what effect holding down a string with the left hand has on the sound made by that string. That is, if — and it is a very big if — he could bring himself to touch the cello at all. Where the young child, at least until his thinking has been spoiled by adults, has a great advantage is in situations — and many, even most real life situations are like this — w here there is so much seemingly senseless data that it is impossible to tell what questions to ask. He is much better at taking in this kind of data; he is better able to tolerate its confusion; and he is much better at picking out the patterns, hearing the faint signal amid all the noise. Above all, he is much less likely than adults to make hard and fast conclusions on the basis of too little data, or having made such conclusions, to refuse to consider any new data that does not support them. And these are the vital skills of thought which, in our hurry to get him thinking the way we do, we may very well stunt or destroy in the process of educating him.
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Other recent Farm School science mutterings, natterings, and ramblings: