• 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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Spreading the love

Not particularly Christmassy, but I’ll forget entirely about posting this if I attempt to save this article from yesterday’s New York Times ’til after the holidays. Here’s a taste. You can read the whole thing here (registration is free or use Bug Me Not):

At 71, Physics Professor Is a Web Star
by Sara Rimer

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Walter H. G. Lewin, 71, a physics professor, has long had a cult following at MIT. And he has now emerged as an international Internet guru, thanks to the global classroom the institute created to spread knowledge through cyberspace.

Professor Lewin’s videotaped physics lectures, free online on the OpenCourseWare of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have won him devotees across the country and beyond who stuff his e-mail in-box with praise.

“Through your inspiring video lectures i have managed to see just how BEAUTIFUL Physics is, both astounding and simple,” a 17-year-old from India e-mailed recently.

Steve Boigon, 62, a florist from San Diego, wrote, “I walk with a new spring in my step and I look at life through physics-colored eyes.”

Professor Lewin delivers his lectures with the panache of Julia Child bringing French cooking to amateurs and the zany theatricality of YouTube’s greatest hits. He is part of a new generation of academic stars who hold forth in cyberspace on their college Web sites and even, without charge, on iTunes U, which went up in May on Apple’s iTunes Store.

In his lectures at demonstrate electrostatics. Wearing shorts, sandals with socks and a pith helmet — nerd safari garb — he fires a cannon loaded with a golf ball at a stuffed monkey wearing a bulletproof vest to demonstrate the trajectories of objects in free fall.

He rides a fire-extinguisher-propelled tricycle across his classroom to show how a rocket lifts off.

He was No. 1 on the most downloaded list at iTunes U for a while, but that lineup constantly evolves. The stars this week included Hubert Dreyfus, a philosophy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Leonard Susskind, a professor of quantum mechanics at Stanford.

Last week, Yale put some of its most popular undergraduate courses and professors online free. The list includes Controversies in Astrophysics with Charles Bailyn, Modern Poetry with Langdon Hammer and Introduction to the Old Testament with Christine Hayes.

MIT recently expanded its online classes by opening a site aimed at high school students and teachers. Judging from his fan e-mail, Professor Lewin, who is among those featured on the new site, appeals to students of all ages.

Some of his correspondents compare him to Richard Feynman, the free-spirited, bongo-playing Nobel laureate who popularized physics through his books, lectures and television appearances.

With his wiry grayish-brown hair, his tortoiseshell glasses and his intensity, Professor Lewin is the iconic brilliant scientist. But like Julia Child, he is at once larger than life and totally accessible.

“We have here the mother of all pendulums!” he declares, hoisting his 6-foot-2, 170-pound self on a 30-pound steel ball attached to a pendulum hanging from the ceiling. He swings across the stage, holding himself nearly horizontal as his hair blows in the breeze he created.

The point: that a period of a pendulum is independent of the mass — the steel ball, plus one professor — hanging from it.

“Physics works!” Professor Lewin shouts, as the classroom explodes in cheers. …

Read the rest here.

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

Science summer school

Herewith some choice bits from science writer Natalie Angier’s latest title, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, in the hopes that, especially if you’re the parent of school-age children, educated at home or elsewhere, you might consider adding this to your library list or bookshelf, possibly the latter for a handy one-volume (under 300 pages) reference.

Ms. Angier’s writing style is often too breezy for me (verging on blowzy at times), but the book is a useful scientific tutorial, particularly valuable for those of us who tend to feel more comfortable in the humanities than the sciences. I especially appreciated all of the interviews and quotes from scientists in a variety of fields, all of whom come across as human and deeply interested in sharing their not particularly difficult or esoteric but fascinating passions. Unfortunately, the book has no footnotes but does have a reference section at the back, compiled by chapter, citing books as well as articles and web sites. I’ve added some other articles and book titles I’ve found, linking to the various scientists mentioned in the quotes below (the links are all mine and not Angier’s).

From Angier’s introduction, on why she wrote the book and why one should want to study science — forget about promoting “greater scientific awareness” for the abstract greater good:

There’s a reason why science museums are fun, and why kids like science. Science is fun. Not just gee-whizbang “watch me dip this rose into liquid nitrogen and then shatter it on the floor” fun, although it’s that, too. It’s fun the way rich ideas are fun, the way seeing beneath the skin of something is fun. Understanding how things work feels good. Look no further — there’s your should.

Angier talked to Peter Galison*, a professor of the history of physics at Harvard, who

marvels cheekily at the thoroughness with which the public image of science has been drained of all joy. “We had to work really hard to accomplish this spectacular feat, because I’ve never met a little kid who didn’t think science was really fun and really interesting,” he said. “But after years of writing tedious textbooks with terrible graphics, and of presenting science as a code you can’t crack, of divoring science from ordinary human processes that use it daily, guess what: We did it. We persuaded a large number of people that what they once thought was fascinating, fun, the most natural thing in the world, is alien to their existence.”

Still explaining the reasons behind the book, Angier writes,

It’s not that I wanted to take dumbing-down to new heights. In peppering sources with the most pre-basic of questions and tapping away at the Plexiglas shield of “everybody knows” until I was about as welcome as a yellow jacket at a nudist colony, I had several truly honorable aims. For one thing, I wanted to understand the material myself, in the sort of visceral way that allows one to feel comfortable explaining it to somebody else. For another, I believe that first-pass presumptions and nonexplanatory explanations are a big reason why people shy away from science. If even the Schlemiel’s Guide to the atom begins with a boilerplate trot through concepts that are pitched as elementary and self-evident but that don’t, when you think about them, really mean anything, what hope is there for mastering the text in cartoon balloon number two?Moreover, in choosing to ask many little questions about a few big items, I was adopting a philosophy that lately has won fans among science educators — that the best way to teach science to nonscientists is to go for depth over breadth.

From Angier’s first chapter, “Thinking Scientifically”**:

Even more than the testimonials to the fun of science, I heard the earnest affidavit that science is not a body of facts, it is a way of thinking. I heard these lines so often they began to take on a bodily existence of their own.”Many teachers who don’t have a deep appreciation of science present it as a set of facts,” said David Stevenson, a planetary scientist at Caltech. “What’s often missing is the idea of critical thinking, how you assess which ideas are reasonable and which are not.”

What’s also missing is the fun:

“When I look back on the science I had in high school, I remember it being taught as a body of facts and laws you had to memorize,” said Neil Shubin, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago. “The Krebs cycle, Linnaean classifications. Not only does this approach whip the joy of doing science right out of most people, but it gives everyone a distorted view of what science is. Science is not a rigid body of facts. It is a dynamic process of discovery. It is as alive as life itself.”” …

But when you treat it as if it’s not alive,

When science is offered as a body of facts, science becomes a glassy-eyed glossary. You skim through a textbook or an educational Web site, and words in boldface leap out at you. You’re tempted to ignore everything but the highlighted hand wavers. You think, if I learn these terms, maybe I won’t flunk chemistry. Yet if you follow such a strategy, chances are excellent that you will flunk chemistry in the ways that matter — not on the report card in the backpack, but on the ratings card in your brain.

Some ideas on why so many just aren’t comfortable with science or scientific principles any more:

A number of scientists proposed that people may have been more comfortable with the nuts and bolts of science back when they were comfortable with nuts and bolts. “It was easier to introduce students and the lay public to science when people fixed their own cars or had their hand sin machinery of various kinds,” said David Botstein of Princeton. “In the immediate period after World War II, everybody who’d been through basic training knew how a differential gear worked because they had taken one apart.”Farmers, too, were natural scientists. They understood the nuances of seasons, climate, plant growth, the do-si-do between parasite and host [and this is much more true of present-day farmers who farm in more traditional, less conventional methods without synthetic chemicals that kill the parasite and injure the host]. The scientific curiosity that entitled our nation’s Founding Fathers to membership in Club Renaissance, Anyone? had agrarian roots. …

“The average adult American today knows less about biology than the average ten-year-old living in the Amazon, or than the average American of two hundred years ago,” said Andrew Knoll, a professor of natural history at Harvard’s Earth and Planetary Sciences Department. “Through the fruits of science, ironically enough, we’ve managed to insulate people from the need to know about science and nature.”

Angier on “plain-truth poems of science”:

To say that there is an objective reality, and that it exists and can be understood, is one of those plain-truth poems of science that is nearly bottomless in its beauty. It is easy to forget that there is an objective, concrete universe, an outerverse measured in light years, a microverse trading in angstroms, the currency of atoms; we’ve succeeded so well in shaping daily reality to reflect the very narrow parameters and needs of Homo sapiens. We the subjects become we the objects, and we forget that the moon shows up each night for the graveyard shift, and we often haven’t a clue as to where we might find it in the sky. We are made of stardust; why not take a few moments to look up a the family album? “Most of the times, when people walk outside at night and see the stars, it’s a big, pretty background, and it’s not quite real,” said the Caltech planetary scientist Michael Brown [which link led me to this, which definitely gives me pause]. “It doesn’t occur to them that the patter they see in the sky repeats itself once a year, or to appreciate why that’s true.”

One of Angier’s best concrete tips for parents of young children, which she did mention in her CBC radio interview the other month:

Another fail-safe way to change the way you see the world is to invest in a microscope. Not one of those toy microscopes sold in most Science ‘n’ Discovery chain stores, which, as Tom Eisner, a professor of chemical ecology at Cornell, has observed, are unwrapped on Christmas morning and in the closet before Boxing Day. Not the microscopes that magnify specimens up to hundreds of times and make everything look like a satellite image of an Iowa cornfield. Rather, you should buy a dissecting microscope, also known as a stereo microscope. Admittedly, such microscopes are not cheap, running a couple of hundred dollars or so. Yet this is a modest price to pay for revelation, revolution, and — let’s push this envelope out of the box while we’re at it — personal salvation. …”Yes, the world is out there, over your head and under your nose, and it is real and it is knowable. To understand something about why a thing is as it is in no detracts from its beauty and grandeur, nor does it reduce the observed to “just a bunch of” — chemicals, molecules, equations, specimens for a microscope. Scientists get annoyed at the hackneyed notion that their pursuit of knowledge diminishes the mystery or art or “holiness” of life. … A rose is a rose is a rose; but the examined rose is a sonnet.

I’ll leave the rest for you to discover, from the individual chapters explaining the various sciences (physics, chemistry, biology — a chapter each on molecular and evolutionary — astronomy, geology, statistics, and calibration), except for this tidbit from the chapter on physics, which caught my eye as I plan the kids’ rejiggered science program for the fall:

As the science of starter parts and forces, physics can also be defended as the ideal starter science. Yet standard American pedagogy has long ruled otherwise. In most high schools, students begin with biology in tenth grade, follow it with chemistry, and cap it off in their senior year with physics, a trajectory determined by the traditional belief that young minds must be ushered gently from the “easiest” to the “hardest” science. More recently, though, many scientists have been campaigning for a flip in the educational sequence, teaching physics first, the life sciences last. Leading the charge for change is Leon Lederman, a Nobel laureate in physics and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois… .Lederman and others argue that physics is the foundation on which chemistry and biology are built, and that it makes no sense to start slapping the walls together and hammering on the roof before you’ve poured the concrete base. They also insist that, taught right, physics is no “harder” than any other subject worth knowing. Some schools have adopted the recommended course correction, and others are sure to follow.

Another modest price to pay for revelation is the cost of The Canon, under $25 at most booksellers in North America, so you can read the rest in the comfort of your own home. Two opposable thumbs up.

* In the linked interview, Dr. Galison recommends the following science books for children — English physicist Russell Stannard‘s “Uncle Albert” (that would be Einstein…) trilogy, The Time and Space of Uncle Albert, Black Holes and Uncle Albert, and Uncle Albert and the Quantum Quest (which seem available only secondhand in the U.S. but can be bought new in Canada); and Peter Sis’s “sophisticated and beautiful [picture] books” on Galileo and Charles Darwin. He also recommends the following for nonscientists: The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg, who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1979; QED by Richard Feynman; and The Elegant Universe by string theorist Brian Greene.

** Excellent for teaching kids to think scientifically is a book we discovered through the Noeo Science website, not surprisingly titled How to Think Like a Scientist by Stephen P. Kramer and illustrated by Felicia Bond (the “Mouse Cookie” lady, as one of my kids calls her).

Lastly, a summer science bonus, for those rainy days you’re not outside playing in puddles, via the Feynman website: physics coloring pages from Physics Central.