Category Archives: Uncategorized

Science Textbooks – Why Not?

I frequently use the following quote when pleading that people not subject their child to science instruction by way of a textbook:

“The mind is capable of dealing with only one kind of food; it lives, grows and is nourished upon ideas only; mere information is to it as a meal of sawdust to the body; there are no organs for the assimilation of the one more than of the other.” (Towards A Philosophy Of Education, p. 218)

Sawdust. That should close the book on this question, right? But you might think your child can handle a bit of sawdust in their meal, as long as it comes with a side of real food. I hear this is the case with packaged grated cheese these days, after all. But Mason tells us not to bother because our kids’ minds will reject it:

“Again, we have made a rather strange discovery, that the mind refuses to know anything except what reaches it in more or less literary form.“ (Towards A Philosophy Of Education, p. 256)

I suspect it’s the same with the cheese. The manufacturers know it will just pass right on through us, and they assure us that it won’t hurt us, so how can it be a big deal? I suspect it’s a very big deal – both the wood coated cheese and the textbook.

Just in case you need convincing that Miss. Mason held this same opinion of science books, and not just the books in other subjects, she makes herself clear:

“Books dealing with science as with history, say, should be of a literary character, and we should probably be more scientific as a people if we scrapped all the text-books which swell publishers’ lists and nearly all the chalk expended so freely on our blackboards.” (Towards A Philosophy Of Education, p. 218)

Still, some people persist. Possibly because they cannot see how their students can gather all the facts needed to pass a test someday and secure their future if they only read living books. Mason eases these fears by confirming that our children will remember all the facts they need to:

“A first condition of this vitalising teaching is that all the thought we offer to our children shall be living thought; no mere dry summaries of facts will do; given the vitalising idea, children will readily hang the mere facts upon the idea as upon a peg capable of sustaining all that it is needful to retain.” (Parents and Children, p. 277)

Charlotte Mason is so good at saying what she means to in so few words. In that single sentence, she tells us what we must do (only offer living thought,) what we must not do (offer dry summaries of facts,) and she settles our mind that the children will be able to gather the information they need. She gently appeals to us as loving and concerned parents. But in the next sentence she lays down the hammer:

“We begin by believing in the children as spiritual beings of unmeasured powers––intellectual, moral, spiritual––capable of receiving and constantly enjoying intuitions from the intimate converse of the Divine Spirit.” (Parents and Children, p. 277)

If you are like me, you needed to read that last sentence a few times. Our children, children of God, are capable of receiving intuitions from the Holy Spirit. Would we stand in the way of that? Charlotte Mason tells us that “to accept and invite the daily, hourly, incessant co-operation of the divine Spirit in…the schoolroom work of our children.” To do that we must recognize “that the Spirit is life; therefore, that which is dead, dry as dust, mere bare bones, can have no affinity with Him, can do no other than smother and deaden his vitalising influences.” (Parents and Children, p. 277)

If we cannot bring ourselves to quit the textbook because our children cannot mentally digest it, and will, in fact, refuse to digest it, and if we cannot quit just because Mason says so, maybe we can quit because the Holy Spirit, the Divine Educator of our children, is life. To stand in His way with that which is dead would be a terrible lack of cooperation on our part.

Science Writing Can’t Survive on Charm Alone

I was asked to do a one-hour science immersion class at the In a Large Room Retreat last month, and it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable classes I’ve ever done. I was asked to spend 25 minutes doing one lesson with the attendees, and then answer questions for 25 minutes. I used a lesson from my form 3 astronomy guide about the sun.

I set up the lesson by telling them what a student would have learned in the last lesson, and showing them an image they would have seen. My immersion students were picking up right in the middle of the book, and even in the middle of a chapter, so I wanted to give them some foundation. I also prepared them with a few vocabulary words they would see as they read.

I had hoped to read the assigned text aloud because the author of The Planets uses very poetic language, and I thought the parents might have a hard time with it as they may not be used to the style. But I lost my voice on the first day of the retreat and could barely be heard, so I asked the participants to read it to themselves. I think I allowed 10 minutes to read the four-page passage, but I requested that they take it slowly, reading for understanding even if they didn’t get to the end of the section by the time we needed to move on.

When they were through, I asked for an oral narration for the sake of time. I suggested that instead of narrating the passage in order, participates should just tell all the facts they could remember. What did they learn? I had written down six things I thought they might comment on, but the class narrated about fifteen ideas or facts they had read!

I then read aloud a passage from Writing to Learn by William Zinsser.  Zinsser had just quoted two pages of Archie Carr’s So Excellent a Fishe, when he commented:

That’s pleasant writing; we’re there on the beach at Tortuguero, rooting for the turtles and hoping they won’t meet a wari on their crawl to the surf. But the writing couldn’t survive on charm alone; it works because it’s grounded in scientific observation and fact. What sticks out in our mind is the hundred eggs, the digging buzzards, the returning coyotes, the signaling sea.” (p. 129, emphasis mine.)

The students in my immersion class had a similar experience. Dava Sobel, the author of The Planets, has a way with words. It’s pleasant writing. But what stuck out in the minds of my students that day was the facts.

We were not done with the lesson because I always allow a few minutes for students to dig deeper into one idea before ending a lesson. This time we learned a bit more about the counter-intuitive way the sun rotates and how the solar wind creates the northern and southern lights. But an idea was distracting me while we were completing the lesson.

What if I gathered each of the facts that the participants narrated, and I explained them. Maybe I enlisted the help of a colleague to get my explanations just right, and I included a diagram or picture where it might aid the student’s understanding. Is that not the precise description of a textbook? They start with the facts they think the students should learn and then build out. A living book is quite the opposite. The author starts with a big idea and then through charm, as Zinsser says, or simply passion, they tell what they know. The facts glide through, but they are clothed in gripping ideas.

Additionally, how many pages do you suppose it would take me to explain fifteen facts about the sun? I think it might be more than the four standard size pages my students read for this lesson. So not only would I have to lengthen the reading assignment but I wouldn’t have the narrative to carry the reader along.

Some of you might have thought that if your student is to learn the massive amount of common scientific information, he must forgo the living book to make better use of his time. In other words, more can be learned in a shorter amount of time by using a textbook than can be learned when rambling through a living book. I would assert that the opposite is likely true. If you want your student to learn as much as possible, with the added benefit that he may even care about what he learns, you really must avoid textbooks and use living science books instead.

My First Elementary Study Guide!

EL Astronomy-400From the beginning of this venture I knew that I wanted to create study guides for all three levels of science, but I wasn’t sure how that would look for elementary science. There are several parts and pieces involved in a CM elementary science curriculum, that it doesn’t feel like a cohesive plan of study. Not to mention the terminology, which seems to change when you are not looking.

I’m happy to tell you that in the end, it all came together. The various parts and pieces have found their home in this guide: nature lore, science, activities/experiments, objects lessons, special studies, exams and some good old encouragement for the teacher as well. It’s all in here. When you have finished this term, you will have finished what Mason counted as a solid term of elementary science.

I hope you and your children enjoy it!

Astronomy: Elementary Living Science Study Guide

By-and-by he passes from acquaintance, the pleasant recognition of friendly faces, to knowledge, the sort of knowledge we call science. He begins to notice that there are resemblances between wild-rose and apple blossom, between buttercup and wood-anemone, between the large rhododendron blossom and the tiny heath floret. A suggestion will make him find out accurately what these resemblances are, and he gets the new and delightful idea of families of plants. His little bit of knowledge is real science, because he gets it at first-hand; in his small way he is another Linnæus.” (Mason, School Education, 1904, p. 77)

Podcasts on Living Science

Over at A Delectable Education we are in the middle of a series of podcasts on nature study and science. You know it’s my favorite subject, so I’m thrilled that we are exploring it on the podcast. So far we have talked about Nature Study, Nature Lore books and this coming Friday we will air an interview I did with Cheri Struble, an inspiring nature study enthusiast. Next week we will move onto elementary science, and then middle school and high school science rounds out the series. I hope it is really helpful to each of you. You can always ask question on the episode blog post, or on our ADE facebook page, or here.

On another note, what do you think of my new look? I hope it is working well for you. The only problem that I’ve run into so far, is that a few of the pages from my old site will not forward to my new site. If you had any of them bookmarked, you may want to update those. The following are likely the ones you’ll want:

Enjoy!