• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming, home schooling, and building our own house. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 18/Grade 12, 16/Grade 11, and 14/Grade 10.

    Contact me at becky(dot)farmschool(at)gmail(dot)com

  • Notable Quotables

    "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
    William Morris, from his lecture "The Beauty of Life"

    "‘Never look at an ugly thing twice. It is fatally easy to get accustomed to corrupting influences."
    English architect CFA Voysey (1857-1941)

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
    Clarence Day

    "Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing."
    Cicero

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."
    Walter Wriston

    "I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
    "Oh, I couldn't take the last piece."
    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

    "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."
    Booker T. Washington

    "Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
    Attributed to Groucho Marx in "The Groucho Letters" by Arthur Sheekman

    "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

    "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, we feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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Learning to think like scientists, and learning how to think about science

I meant to post earlier this week about Natalie Angier’s most recent NYT “Basics” science column when it first appeared, but schoolwork and festivities got in the way. You can read the entire column here (registration is free); and here are some bits and pieces (emphases, as always, mine):

[Faye Cascio’s ninth-grade physical science] … students can articulate their reasoning because, for one thing, they have no choice. One recent morning, Ms. Cascio asked several students in succession to explain the logic of their answer to the same question — and, “Uh, yeah, I agree with Yasamin and Josh” just wouldn’t do.

“It’s called dipsticking,” Ms. Cascio said. “It’s really important to make sure the kids are picking this information up, and so I ask, Is this clear to you? Do you really understand it? and I won’t go on until I get a positive, satisfying answer.”

A bigger reason the students seemed to wear the material comfortably emerged when they pulled from the classroom closet genuine items of clothing: white lab coats. The Academy of Science [“the almost sneakily rigorous high school magnet science program in Loudoun County, Va., of which Ms. Cascio’s physics class is a part”] is built on the principle of what its director, George Wolfe, calls inquiry-based learning. “I want them to learn to think like scientists*,” he said, “rather than regurgitate facts.” From the moment they enter the program, students do experiments, lots of experiments. Not canned experiments, either, of the sort found in the average “science is fun!” book that spell out every step. Here, the students must design experiments themselves, which means they must learn essential lessons like how to ask questions in an answerable way, what’s your error bar, and, will you please just give me some data already. …

Ms. Cascio, 57, is a law of motion herself, a stylish dynamo whose voice retains the comforting vibrato of her natal Jersey City. As an undergraduate at Douglass College of Rutgers University, she studied molecular biology and planned to become a doctor, but while living in Greece she began teaching and fell in love with the profession, eventually earning master’s degrees in biology and education. With her decades of experience and a string of national teaching laurels, Ms. Cascio could easily have settled into rote mode, but instead she decided to join the fledgling Academy of Science, where, she admits, the pace can be grueling. “It takes a lot more time to teach inquiry than by plug and chug, by getting up in front of a class and lecturing by the book,” she said.

But how much more satisfying the nosy approach to knowing can be, and how amusing, too. In one biology class last year, for example, Ms. Cascio’s students acquainted themselves with the cell, the nucleus, DNA, proteins, evolution, taxonomy and other bold-faced biology concepts by analyzing meat and seafood products from the supermarket, discovering that, hey, the things that had been sold as scallops were actually pulverized trout pressed into scallop shapes.

Through its emphasis on Socratic parrying and creative laboratory work, the program could well serve as a model for remedying misconceptions. Nearly all scientists and educators agree that somehow, at some point during their pedagogical odyssey, most Americans get the wrong idea about what science is, and what it is not.

Science is, or should be, about the world, not about science,” said Eugene Levy, a professor of physics and astronomy and the provost of Rice University. “But for too many students, science has been presented as a large series of manipulations that they rarely understand or connect to the reality around them.” If there is a message that he wants his students to take from his introductory science class, he said, “it is to grasp that the world is in fact understandable, that rational inquiry can lead to understanding, and that there’s rarely an excuse to say understanding is beyond them.” …

By the way, I read another article (from the Albany, NY Times Union) recently about teaching science, this one about teaching chemistry in the home, by home educating parent and “hands-on learning columnist” for Home Education Magazine, Kathy Ceceri, who writes, “I decided I wanted my kids to discover a little of that fun [with science experiments], too (within reason). What I learned, however, is that doing chemistry at home is a lot harder than it used to be.” For anyone interested in the history of children’s chemistry sets, and their sad demise over the past 40 years, you’ll be interested to read the rest of the article.

One book Kathy recommends in her article is The Joy of Chemistry: The Amazing Science of Familiar Things by Monty L. Fetterolf, head of the Department of Physics and Chemistry at the University of South Carolina-Aiken, and his wife and fellow USC professor Cathy Cobb, who specializes in books on the history of science for lay readers (including this and this).

Reading to the end of the article, which includes a list of resources, I was pleased to find that last month Kathy has started a new blog, Home Chemistry; from her sidebar,

This is the year I have decided to finally tackle lab science with my homeschooled kids (14 and 11). Despite horrendous memories of my own experience in public high school chem (mostly centered around experiments that didn’t work and savvier classmates who made out their observation charts first, then invented the data to fit), I’m hoping that — freed of state testing requirements and other barriers to having fun — we’ll all get to enjoy the excitement of science without the angst.

Lots of good stuff to read through.

* I’ll put in yet another plug for one of our favorite science books, How to Think Like a Scientist: Answering Questions by the Scientific Method by Stephen P. Kramer with illustrations by Felicia (“If You Give a Mouse a Cookie”) Bond

Science with Tom Edison

John Holt, on helping a very young boy learn the names of different words, from How Children Learn:

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.

* * * *

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:

Chemistry:
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.

Physics:
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

David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work, and the related DVD series which I found in the library system; 26 discs, 13 minutes each.

* * *

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.

(L at Schola has been reading John Holt too.)

* * *

Other recent Farm School science mutterings, natterings, and ramblings:

More food for thought: connections and disconnections

Science summer school

In search of freedom and independence, and big bangs

The beautiful basics of science

I typed this all by myself with my opposable thumbs

I shouldn’t even be here posting, because we’re getting ready for the big 4H Beef Club weekend — achievement day, interclub show, and sale. (No, Laura doesn’t have to sell her heifer calf; only the steers get sold, heading straight to their doom and little wrapped packages. One reason an older friend of hers and longtime 4H member suggested a heifer over a steer.)

I’ve been reading andhearing again a fair amount this past week about the new creation museum in the U.S., since opening day is slated for Monday.

So it was a tonic to read Red Molly’s thoughts on the subject, especially in conjunction with homeschooling (HT Alasandra, and also for the reminder about the John Wayne Centennial today, for which my kids are gleeful).

Even more interesting to learn that Red Molly’s post is part of tomorrow’s, erm, creation museum carnival to be hosted by one of my favorite science bloggers, PZ Myers at Pharyngula, which, by the way, has some of the best online prehistory/evolution reading lists in a variety of categories — “for the kids”, “for the grown-up layman”, “for the more advanced/specialized reader”, etc. (scroll through the comments for more titles).

Whether or not Monday is a holiday where you are, go visit a natural history museum (scroll all the way down for related links). Of special note,

Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, Drumheller, Alberta (which offers home school discounts)

Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Ontario

Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, Ontario

American Museum of Natural History, New York City

Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago; the travelling Charles Darwin exhibit opens here on June 15, 2007 (through January 1, 2008) and has its ownwebsite

Museum of Science, Boston

Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center, Woodland Park, Colorado

Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology, Abiquiu, New Mexico

Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Thermopolis, Wyoming

National Museums of Kenya, Nairobi, Kenya

the grandaddy of them all, the Natural History Museum, in London, England

and the great-grandaddy — the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin aka the Naturkundemuseum aka the Humboldt Museum of Natural History in Berlin, with collections — more than 20 million zoology specimens, more than 3 million palaeontology specimens, and more than one million mineralogy ones — that date back to the establishment of the Prussian Academy, in 1700, and the Bergakademie (Mining Academy) in 1770. Celebrated for its Brachiosaurus brancai, the world’s biggest mounted dinosaur skeleton. Thanks to the great grandaddy OC for the reminder.

Additional links:

The Charles Darwin Has a Posse sticker page. Because you can never underestimate the power of a well-placed sticker or bookmark. As I noted in my 2005 Posse post, “As Darwin himself said, and as you can be reminded daily from a bookmark, ‘Doing what little one can to increase the general stock of knowledge is as respectable an object of life as one can, in any likelihood, pursue’.”

Understanding Evolution website, created by the University of California Museum of Paleontology; lots of resources for educators and children

Darwin Day Celebration website, with links, events, and other items leading to a celebration of the great man’s bicentennial on February 12, 2009.

The Darwin exhibit is no longer at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC — it’s opening at the Field Museum in Chicago (see above) on June 15 — but the website remains, with a good list of resources, some for kids.

The PBS Evolution series also has a niftywebsite, with some projects and links for “Teachers and Students”

American Association for the Advancement of Science

Verlyn Klinkengborg’s New York Times column, August 2005, Grasping the Depth of Time as a First Step in Understanding Evolution

Darwin Correspondence Project, based at Cambridge University; according to the project’s website, “The main feature of the site is anonline database with the complete, searchable, texts of around 5,000 letters written by and to Charles Darwin up to the year 1865. This includes all the surviving letters from the Beagle voyage – online for the first time – and all the letters from the years around the publication of Origin of species in 1859.”

Coturnix’s book list for adults

Becoming Human website

Project Beagle website and theBeagle blog

Evolved Homeschooling blog — “A collection of evolution and science resources for the secular homeschooler”.

And finally, you can join the Friends of Charles Darwin, gratis.