Saturday, June 18, 2016

Hunting tadpoles in an NGSS world

Photo by Jessica Pierce, with permission
I am going tadpole hunting with my aunt and uncle in an hour. We'll creep along the edge of a pond, muck around our ankles and nets in hand, dodging poison ivy and biting bugs, because it brings us joy.

Between the three of us we have over two centuries of living and hours to play on weekends, and this is what we chose to do, even in the 21st century. We have evolved little in the past few thousand years, despite what the futurists would have you believe.

Plants are aware, if not conscious. They are as much alive as you and me, and in many ways far more sophisticated. They communicate to each other, and to animals. They respond subtly, precisely to the world around them, and are more aware of what's happening than most "civilized" humans.

Without a background in natural history, without a childhood immersed in the natural world, a child in our culture has little chance of realizing the lives of the living beings around us. Without this knowledge, all the talk of "interdependent relationships in ecosystems" is like the love song of a twisted psychotic stalker--not just meaningless, but passionately dangerous.

NGSS promotes the practice of science; it does little to promote natural history. This matters. It's like learning the mechanics of sex by using a mannequin--it can be done, but really, what's the point? If a child doez nort fall in love with the natural world, with its deep nuances and rhythms, with its internal beauty, then pushing her to become a scientist becomes a cruel exercise. Benchwork is a hard, lonely business.

Take a child tadpole hunting--you'll do more good for America than anything I can do within the cinder block walls of my classroom.

Ironically, even corporattions would benefit--you want scientists?
Let children roam in the real world.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

NGSS will not produce a nation of scientists

US Navy judging science fair contestants (public domain)

If you want a child to learn science (as opposed to engineering or technology or the catechism we pretend is science), it will require (for most) a quasi-religious conversion--a search for truth beyond what one knows, or thinks she knows.

Such a child should be taught not to tolerate the conventions that keep her glued to her seat, asking permission to leave the room to pee.

Such a child should be taught not to tolerate statements without evidence, even the obvious ones. How do we know the Earth turns? How do we know the season are related to the Earth's tilt? How do we know atoms exit?

Fastfission via WIkipedia, 

We praise children for drawing the Rutherford model of the atom, a model long ago replaced. We praise them for making oobleck, for making batteries out of lemons, for making elephant toothpaste.

God help the child that truly challenges her second grade teacher on how we know the sun does not "rise"--we ask children to deny their own reality in order for them to succeed in a classroom culture thrust upon them.

Not every child is destined to be a scientist (thank Zeus), but we should encourage every child to think independently, to support claims with evidence, and to have the courage to call bullshit when appropriate.

The Next Generation Science Standards, while not awful, have a misplaced urgency for producing workers as opposed to scientists. A career as a scientist (as opposed to an engineer or a technician) ain't for the weak.

NGSS folk: To say we need to understand science to use technology is a baldfaced lie.

My life koan: What is a hypothesis?

Alice and the Dutchess (Lewis Carrol)

The "scientific method" is neither, but it's convenient for folks who know little of science to press onto children who know even less.

The concept of hypothesis is the heart of science--and yet after decades of trying, I have yet to be able to define what it means to myself, never mind children.

I imagine a Rōshi posing the question to me:

Enso by Yuma , CC

 "What is a hypothesis?"

And no matter what I answer, it is incomplete or wrong or banal or tautologous or incoherent or vapid....I imagine myself locking eyes with the wise elder, hoping he can see the wisp of understanding in my eyes before it all falls apart the moment I open my  mouth.

And maybe that's the point--the concept of hypothesis is more primal than our spoken language.

I can say what it is not, though--it is not a prediction, though it is used to make predictions.

A hypothesis presumes some model of how the natural world works, which requires that one has a relationship with the natural world, and is itself about the relationships within this relationship you have with the natural world.

Or, as the Dutchess said to Alice:
"Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise."

Applying the Next Generation Science Standards requires knowing "simple" words like matter, energy, and hypothesis. Look at any school textbook and see how space is used to talk about any of these words.

Tattooing a ensō on your forehead does not make you a Buddhist; following the scientific method will not make you a scientist.

OK, zen science teacher masters--What is a hypothesis? I'd love to post your responses.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Coding, NGSS, and cultural madness

“But I don’t want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can’t help that," said the Cat: "we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad."
"How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here.” 

Aside from coding (and more on that in a minute), pretty much everything about computers and their use impedes the spirit of the Next Generation Science Standards.

If the goal of the NGSS standards is to create scientific thinking in a child, then the child must be immersed in the natural world, swimming in the sea of sensations outside of our artificial universe of screens.

Everything on a screen is reduced to pixels and sampling, following algorithms--the foundation of reality in a machine is defined by humans.

The natural world cannot be captured intact by the models we create.

An impossible being that visited me one evening.

Coding for schoolchildren matters. It helps develop a working sense of logic and presents interesting challenges for young brains. I could say the same for solving Sudoku problems or learning to use a slide rule. All of these have value for similar reasons.

What separates coding from other exercises is the potential for a child to see the machine for what it is; to develop a feel the algorithms beneath the life we now impose on humans, to expose its artificiality.

If a child gets that, she just might see the cultural delusions that limit her ability to see the universe around her.

Still, in a world where we have become the gods, where artifice becomes reality, a child may never know what she's missing when she no longer notices the earth around her. And maybe that's the point--a child less distracted by reality will be that much more compliant when she's sitting in her corporate cubicle.

Science starts with the mud between a child's toes.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Thomas Hardy vs. the NGSS

This is a year old, but I like it, and it' my party....

Basil seeds taken from a seed pod.

"I rather like this . . . outside all laws except gravitation and germination."
Sue Bridehead, Jude the Obscure

All of us are bound by the laws of physics, entropy, and mortality.

All of us are open systems consuming organic materials, stripping off the energy and stuff we need to live, then tossing off the useless remnants to be put back together again and again and again by the sun, as close to a corporeal god as humans will witness.

This week thousands of children here in NJ took the state biology "competency" test, at significant cost in time and money. Turns out you can be competent in biology without knowing anything about life.


Few folks read Hardy's Jude the Obscure anymore, and aside from his rich descriptions of life before electricity and petroleum raised our culture to its current (and temporary) fantasies, I've little reason myself.

Sue and Jude had "escaped" (temporarily) from the culture that molded the roles of men and women of the time.

"You only think you like it; you don't. You are quite a product of civilization."
Jude in response to Sue
Image by Steve Paine, CC

Our children are the product of the lies we share with them. The images and the voices on the screens we give them, knowingly and willingly, help create the fantastic and false universe they live in.

Technology perpetuates fantasies; science, done right, demolishes them. They both grant humans immense power to manipulate the world.

The European Church, the center of power in the western world, supported science early on, until the truths of science shattered deep truths of the Church.

When we confound technology with science, when we insist that engineering hold the same place as science in a classroom, we are perpetuating our fantasies at our peril.

None of us live outside the laws of gravitation, or germination, of life, of entropy, and of, ultimately, death.

If a child "understands" entropy without a nightmare or two, you're teaching tech not science.

Monday, May 23, 2016

We are all Louis Slotin

 An award--and a few months later, a fatal slip.
"At 3:20 PM on Tuesday, May 21, 1946, Louis Slotin's hand slipped-- a small, practically insignificant blunder, except that Slotin was the chief -bomb builder at Los Alamos, and at that fateful moment he held in his hands a plutonium bomb core named "Rufus".  The slip caused a chain reaction that in turn released a deadly "prompt burst" of radiation.  Slotin and others saw a blue glow and felt a momentary flux of heat on their faces.  Slotin flung the shell to the floor but it was too late. The damage was done.  In the milliseconds it took for the plutonium to spit its deadly neutrons, Louis Slotin became a walking dead man."  -Paul Mullin
Slotin was 35 when he saw that blue flash, the beginning of a long few day as he burned from the inside out.

Hubris, confidence, arrogance, laziness, cleverness, humanness.

We are all Louis Slotin, pushing edges, trusting our senses, our muscles, over the power we coalesced. It is why we are the dominant species, and also why we will not be on this planet much longer than the wink of a stegosaurus's eye.

We name plutonium bomb cores.
We worship dead humans.
We forget who we are.

You are no more (or less) gifted than the earthworm a few yards away from you, churning through the soil, eating, fucking, being.

If you teach science, technology, marksmanship, political science, or anything else that entrusts humans with power, remember Louis Slotin in your prayers, if you still pray.

The earthworm will be here long after we are gone.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Lessons on soil, lessons for the NGSS

What's new is just a reminder of what was once old. The Next Generation Science Standards is two words too long--science standards is sufficient.

Each generation of westernized humans thinks its the  pinnacle of evolution, but we're no more "advanced" than the earthworm's (almost) perfect fit with the soil under our feet. We are a dependent on good dirt as the worm, though a lot less appreciative.

E.J. Russell, a soil chemist,  wrote Lessons on Soil in 1911 based on his work with school children in Wye, England, long before any of us were born.
"The book is intended to help children to study nature; there is no attempt to substitute book study for nature study."
The heart of science starts with observing the natural world; the soul of science is our imagination, putting together what we observe into a coherent framework. Without the heart, you are working with groundless souls, and we have plenty of religions to choose from if that is your aim.
"The necessity for finding local illustrations constitutes one of the most fundamental differences between Nature Study subjects and other subjects of the school curriculum. The textbook in some may be necessary and sufficient; in Nature Study it is at most only subsidiary, serving simply as a guide to the thing that is to be studied; unless the thing itself be before the class it is no better than a guide to a cathedral would be without the cathedral...."
"No description or illustration can take the place of direct observation; the simplest thing in Nature is infinitely more wonderful than our best word pictures can ever paint it." 

Dr. Russell sounds prescient, anticipating the complaints of teachers who feel time pressure. Working with nature requires knowing the local, requires hands on activities.
"Of course, this entails a a good deal of work for the teacher, but the results are worth it. Children enjoy experimental and observation lessons in which they take an active part and are not merely passive learners. The value of such lessons in developing their latent powers and in stimulating them to seek for knowledge in the great book of Nature is a sufficient recompense to the enthusiastic teacher for the extra trouble involved."
 Little of the new pedagogy is truly new, though lots of money changes hands with every announcement of the Next Big Thing©.

The book itself has many brief, easy, thoughtful experiments requiring standard school lab-ware and a patch of ground. No computers, no videos, no worksheets, no DCI arrangements.

We are of the earth and of the air, ultimately put together by light. There's a lesson worth teaching.