On parenting (and teaching) in the name of science
A few weeks ago, my family and I were traveling by car during a rainstorm and my daughter, who was just about to turn four, had asked why it was raining. Holding true to his comedian form, my husband put on his “mommy voice” and started spewing very science-heavy words like meteorology, cold front, atmosphere, and evaporation, while simultaneously throwing sarcastic glances in my direction. I laughed because his impression of me was funny and (nearly) spot on, mostly because I always do my best to give an honest answer. This is especially true when it comes to science.
It is not uncommon that I receive weird looks from other parents, friends, or just those passing by, for giving my kids answers that are more science-oriented. Whenever the opportunity arises, I make it a point to chat about how trees and other plants use sunlight to make their food (photosynthesis) or that mammals have hair and drink milk from their mommies. And, more often than not, I will hear my daughter repeat my little lessons on science to her friends, which informs me that she is retaining information and that I should keep doing what I am doing.
While I feel that it is important to provide children with accurate answers to serious questions, knowing when to hold off is tantamount to acting like a teacher. Every child learns at a different pace and, whenever possible, we should try and tap into the individual learning pattern of a child. In my situation, the fact that my daughter asks specific questions about natural processes indicates that she has some level of curiosity and would welcome a child-friendly “lecture” about how stuff works. And that is precisely the reason why I answer her with above average detail. However, if kids have little or no interest about a particular subject, they will easily become bored or even agitated when they are being force-fed educational material. Unfortunately, when it comes to science, there are many kids who couldn’t be bothered and I wonder if that reflects a genuine disinterest or is a direct result of not being appropriately engaged.
This thought leads me to the million-dollar question: how do we get kids to become more interested in all that science has to offer? While it is unreasonable to expect school districts to completely overhaul their science curricula in order to meet the individual needs of each and every student, perhaps we can modify the current approaches or implement additional strategies to make science more exciting. Sure, there are scientific concepts that do require some level of rote memorization (anyone remember King Philip Cuts Open Five Green Snakes as a pneumonic device to study taxonomy?), but a lot of science can be taught through exploration.
In fact, recent findings published in the journal Cognition (reviewed in both Slate and The Economist) suggest that discovery learning – a method of inquiry-based instruction – as opposed to direct instruction, is a more effective way to increase problem-solving capabilities and critical thinking. In one of the research articles[PDF] discussing these concepts, the authors open with a quote from Jean Piaget, a developmental psychologist known for his theory of cognitive development:
The principal goal of education is to create men who are capable of
doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done – men who are creative, inventive and discoverers.
This quote embodies the basic conclusions held by these researchers. Straightforward instruction and detailed examples will certainly help kids come to the desired conclusion more quickly; however, this type of teaching can inhibit creativity as it relates to finding new and unexpected solutions to a particular problem. Furthermore, it is important to realize that intelligence is not measured by “book-smarts” alone; the ability to learn, retain, and later utilize new information for problem-solving is also a fundamental aspect of how smart we really are.
When applying these concepts to science, perhaps knowing the correct answer to a question shouldn’t always be more important than how we came to answer it. Concluding that plants grown in full sun will grow taller than plants kept in the dark is certainly important, but being able to construct a hypothesis and then test it in a way that is informative is key when honing our creativity skills and capacity for critical thinking – both of which are extremely applicable in the real world. However, because there is generally no right or wrong way to come to a specific conclusion, imposing quantitative measurements on thought progression seems like it would be rather challenging, and relying on the traditional grading system would not properly reflect student effort. Given what is known, striking a balance between discovery learning and direct instruction seems like an ideal course of action in a classroom setting. Now if teachers didn’t have to always “teach for the test.” But, that is a whole different issue requiring its own blog post.
Have I answered the million-dollar question about how to get kids to be more interested when it comes to science? Well, not really. It would be great if science lesson plans were more exciting. I am sure that being able to blow stuff up or set things on fire (in a controlled fashion) would help. Nonetheless, the points raised here are certainly some that should be seriously considered while figuring it out.
Going back to my daughter and her inquisitive nature, I will continue to provide her with detailed, yet age-appropriate science instruction (despite the risk of being made fun of). As I say to my husband, I would rather take the chance that what I say will go over her head, as opposed to not engaging because I assume that she will not understand. However, after doing the research for this blog post, I realize that I can do a better job when teaching my daughter. Instead of immediately giving her the answer, I will now guide her to come to her own conclusion(s). Of course this will take a great deal of patience, but I know it will be worth it in the end. If you have children, I encourage you to do the same. Maybe if we all became overly excited about science, our kids, by nature of imitation, would be more excited about science as well.
When it is time for my child to attend school, I hope that she will look forward to her science classes. If she does, I would like to think that my efforts to talk about science helped raise her interest. But, then again, it is possible that she is just her mother’s daughter. I guess we would never really know for sure.
A special thanks to Andrea Kuszewski, behavioral researcher and therapist, for her insight on intelligence and learning!
About the author: Jeanne is a mother of two young girls, aged 2 and 4. In her other (easier) gig, Jeanne is a postdoc at Rockefeller University in the Laboratory of Biochemical Genetics and Metabolism. There, she studies how cholesterol moves inside of our cells and relates this information to human health and the development of cardiovascular disease. In addition to being a scientific researcher, Jeanne is a self-proclaimed scientist-communicator, often blogging about relevant scientific issues on her blog The Mother Geek, as well as co-organizing a monthly science discussion series, Science Online NYC (#SoNYC), which is open to anyone who is interested about how science is conducted. You can find her tweeting as @JeanneGarb or can follow The Mother Geek on Facebook.