Teaching Science to Young Minds

Steve Elliott, 2006

The purpose of this short essay is to discuss how science ought to be taught to Elementary grade students in our classical Christian school. It is not intended to be a statement that goes beyond that. It will no doubt change and evolve as we move forward in our understanding of these things, but we need to start somewhere, and Point A is here. I hope it causes as many questions as it provides answers.

Let’s first get our terms agreed upon. In the modern world, we have in many ways turned the notion of science on its head. Usually the term is meant to denote any and all subjects to which the “scientific method” can be applied. We have come to worship in our culture the notion that all things are empirically provable, when they are not. Those things not empirically provable are considered unknowable or non-existent. Our school certainly does not teach science from such a standpoint. So what do we mean when we talk of the subject of “science?” For the purposes of this essay, we will confine its meaning to studies in the natural material world. But this does not mean that we don’t seek the connections to be found between the physical and the meta-physical, because we most certainly do.

We must distinguish as well between “science” as an educational notion, and “science” as an educational subject. Scientia of old (say from the writings of Aristotle) would connote any discipline of study, particularly the knowledge base of that subject. It was used in distinction from the artes (art) or skill of thought necessary to address such a subject. Science of old, then, was not approached until the necessary tools of learning had been acquired, except perhaps in very general terms as fodder for the development of the skills.

We must realize that we are to some extent being “non-classical” when we place any emphasis at all on any sciences (let alone the natural sciences) once we see the distinction made above between scientia and artes. The assumption for the moment in our school is that the elementary or “grammar” student can still interact with the physical world while building these arts. As the seven liberal arts concern themselves with both word and number, the natural integration of both in the natural world allows for a great “laboratory” for working out these skills in our students.

So what should be the “experiments” in this “laboratory” (to extend our analogy perhaps farther than it will stretch) of natural science? I would set forth the following characteristics as being the most desirable for our students at this age: introduction, diversity, curiosity, and delight. Let me discuss each in turn.

The ideal of introduction is in part very practical in nature. As we give the bulk of our time to the development of the seven liberal arts in the basic “subjects” that can best build these skills (Latin, Literature, and Mathematics), we must of necessity give less time to other subjects, including our studies of the natural world. One must keep in mind then when teaching “science” that it is not a “core” subject at this age. While some students will show great proclivity for the subject, we must keep our eyes on the prize: developing a student, not a scientist. If we do our job well, there is every hope that those gifted and interested in this vital area will move on with the tools we have given to them to become the next Newtons and Faradays of the coming generation. So “science” at this age is not interested in mastery, but in introduction. The rest of my concerns grow out of this first one.

Diversity aids in the ideal of introduction. We must not be guilty of causing our students to move toward specialization at this age. Yes, perhaps the Life Sciences are “easier” for some of us to wrap our minds around and more readily available for inspection than Astronomy or Chemistry, but all the areas of our natural world should be included. I believe strongly in keeping every grade moving through multiple sub-disciplines of science, not concentrating on any one until at least Seventh grade. Of course another great effect of such diversity is the chance for that many more lines of integration with our other studies and the broadening of not only our students but the teacher as well.

The singular trait that will aid the elementary teacher and student is the natural curiosity all youngsters bring to the natural world. They want to touch, to interact with some specimen’s form, experiment with its functions, and generally bombard the teacher with all manner of questions. This is wonderful in teaching a student to ask great questions, which is often how I summarize classical theory in one sentence. Classical students should be more prepared to ask the right questions than to simply provide the right answers. “Science” is a glorious way to coach our young questioners. And as we move away from the modernist tendency to demystify everything by simply giving it a label and moving on as those all answers were now known, we will have to not only put up with, but revel and take joy in the inevitable metaphysical questions that good questioning of a physical phenomenon will always engender. You really have to know your Bible to teach Science well!

It is my assumption that if our first three ideals (Introduction, Diversity, and Curiosity) are pursued, our last (Delight) will naturally follow for almost all students. If we keep our lessons at a general level (unburdening them from tons of mastery level knowledge), and broaden them by tasting of every subject under the sun, and do it in a manner that builds curiosity, then they should delight to stick their nose into this stuff. I would never adopt this ideal alone, but it seems to follow on the heels of the other three.

Now I made you read all this philosophy before getting to the brass tacks that you wanted up front: how do you teach science to young minds? I will summarize the ideals above with several bulleted points aimed at giving direction toward the types of lessons I wish to see in our school in the natural sciences.
• You have been assigned a series of topics to cover in your class periodically. You will first and foremost have to be enough of a student of these topics to be able to introduce them to your students. Be prepared to study!
• Questions are the essence of classically teaching Science. Move from the basic “what” type questions to ones of “why” as quickly as the topic allows. I (as teacher) would write out as many great questions for the topic as I can think of, and then be prepared for your students to ask ones you never thought of.
• Learn along with your kids. The classical educator does not have to “know it all.” Be able to say, “That is a great question that I don’t know the answer to. Let’s look it up.” Inevitably, most student questions are too general. Take the opportunity to teach how to arrive at more specific and refined questions, and then how to go about learning the answers.
• Become a resource addict. The web is full of info, though I would not suggest going down the “lesson plans online” road too far – most of them are boring.
• I think every unit should include the following at a minimum:
o A “loud” or awakening introduction. Get them into the subject with some sort of demonstration, illustration, question, or reading that makes them want to start questioning the topic.
o Definitions – plan in advance what terms need to be defined and understood for this topic to be clear. Again, don’t fall into a mastery trap, but labels are necessary.
o Connections – show the students how this topic is related to others you have studied, or to their daily lives, or to more philosophical or religious ideas. Again, good science will have your students with their noses in the Bible, literature, art, etc. seeking ways to better understand this phenomenon they are addressing.
o That brings up the whole area of experimentation: blows things up (safely), cut things open, watch things happen, question the next step, develop hypotheses, and look at magnifications and illustrations.
o I highly recommend journaling in science. Have them not only write down observations, but draw, graph, chart, conduct data research, etc. Demand all the normal levels of spelling, grammar, neatness, and thoroughness that should be across the board in all your studies.
o And of course, assess their studies. Everything I just covered should be assessed both in a written and oral manner. Having students prepare presentations of parts of your whole topic would be particularly beneficial not only in the gaining of the grammar and logic of the subject, but in developing their rhetorical skills as well. If you are doing one week per topic, you may need to assign the research and work a few prior to the due date to give them time for good work.
• In addition to these basics, there are a ton more options in this field:
o Guests – bring in experts (there are ton of “science guys” in our school and town) to answer some of those tough questions.
o Field Trips – go see it first hand. There are tons of possibilities, and many of them don’t cost money.
o Literature – don’t keep things in tight disciplinary boxes. Imagine all the great discussions in biology, chemistry, and physics that just one story like Pinocchio provides. What constitutes life? What properties of his wood construction would make his “life” difficult? How could you design a puppet so that it would “stand” on its own without strings? The mind just goes wild.
o Show and Tell – you would be amazed (no you wouldn’t, cause you teach them every day) what kids will drag into school if you clearly assign parameters to the subject. “I want everyone to bring in one thing from home that is made from material taken from an animal.” Just think through your parameters in advance.

In the end, it is your creativity and interest in learning more about the topic yourself that will bring your students to a higher plane of learning. My summary would quickly remind you of the main idea: build a strong questioning curious mind. The natural world is awesome material for doing such.


2 thoughts on “Teaching Science to Young Minds”

  1. very nicely done. i’m looking for an argument and can’t find one. maybe that’s because it’s January 2nd and i’m too tired, but you’ve thought through this issue very nicely.


  2. Steve,

    Thank you for directing me to this link. (For some reason, I can’t figure out how to post on the Circe forum, so here I am) I’ve printed this essay and we are going to discuss it at our staff meeting as part of our science discussion. I really like what you had to say about the subject. We teach Greek and Latin at our school (starting in 1st grade) and have a Latin Choir three times a week for an hour, so it’s obvious why we cannot put much time into a suject like science (which is as it should be). Where is your school?


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