By Patrick Farenga (© 2010 by Patrick Farenga)
A friend who knows I enjoy reading about and discussing science topics asked me to talk about science with her 10-year-old boy last year. Young John liked to build things, especially things that used electricity, so while we talked we constructed a flashlight, a burglar alarm, a telegraph, and did electrical experiments using household or easily obtained items. Besides Internet resources, which are abundant (there are many do-it-yourself videos on electrical topics on YouTube.com, for instance), we found The Thomas Edison Book of Easy and Incredible Experiments to be a useful text. Such an interest may seem normal for any young girl or boy, and it probably is, but the standard curriculum in school for fourth and fifth grade (where most 10-year-olds would be segregated) calls for just a week or two to study magnetism and electricity. But magnetism and electricity were all John wanted to study and, fortunately, his parents and I could facilitate that.
John had amassed certain ideas about science from books and the media and from his own speculation that often set his mind aflame. “Would it be possible to create a shield of invisibility? Can I make lightning bolts that I can throw with my hands?” Each question or idea led us to research the matter together, visiting web sites, libraries, museums, and electronics stores (You-Do-It Electronics in Needham, MA was a goldmine for us).
If John needed to learn some basic science before he could grasp the more involved concepts, he was primed to do so. For instance, our conversation about lightning bolts led to learning about the weather, as well as about Tesla Coils, which inevitably led to learning about the great inventor, Nicola Tesla. This led to a fascinating study about wireless transmission, a field Tesla pioneered, and, in particular, the wireless transmission of energy, one of the unfulfilled dreams of Tesla. Indeed, when we learned that a start-up business from MIT (http://www.witricity.com/) was creating commercial applications for wireless energy transmission we both felt we were at the cutting edge of an exciting idea.
We learned how to step-up and step-down electrical power with transformers and how they are used to move power from Niagra Falls to Manhattan, for instance. We walked around his neighborhood and found the electric power sub-stations, noting how on a humid day you can hear the electric power in them crackle and buzz. John spent many, many days thinking about ways to harness and use electricity in its many forms. He drew diagrams that we sometimes tried to build prototypes from and he grew impatient when they didn’t work. Science was more than just a subject to study when the bell rang for him!
When we went to the Theater of Electricity at the Boston Museum of Science it became a memorable day. The museum has two giant Tesla coils that generate big lightning bolts and thunder claps; they are part of a show that demonstrates many of the properties of electricity, especially how it is conducted. At the end of the show, John had so many questions that we spent about twenty minutes discussing them with the presenter. John asked about static electricity; one of the demonstrations we saw made a girl’s long hair stand straight up. The presenter said you don’t need a Tesla coil to make that happen and demonstrated so by rubbing a balloon on John’s head and making his hair stand up. John looked at the presenter and said, “I was wondering… If we use rubber to insulate wires because it doesn’t conduct electricity why would a rubber balloon create static electricity?”
The presenter fumbled for an answer, admitted she didn’t know, and got her boss to try and explain it to us. Her boss couldn’t give us a decent answer, saying, “When you’re old enough to study chemistry you’ll be able to learn the answer to that.” Needless to say, on the drive home, John asked that we start to learn more about chemistry. This is normally not a big interest of mine, but my curiosity was strong as a result of our discussion at the museum and we decided to learn chemistry together by doing experiments with a set his parents purchased for him.
The point of this story is that we don’t need an expert curriculum, fancy lab equipment, and highly trained science teachers to help our children learn important facts about science. They all have their place for learners at different points in their explorations, but they are not vital for helping a young child get inspired and grasp principal scientific concepts. Indeed, we can just start with the big questions kids ask about science, such as “Why don’t we fall off the earth?” and proceed from there. The details, such as learning how to calculate gravity and forces in motion, can be learned over time, as part of the exploration of the bigger question instead of the other way around. Rather than starting with small stepping-stones, prearranged by a distant science authority that assumes what an average 10-year-old would want to know and be capable of knowing about science, you can start with the big questions your children are asking about science now. By starting with the big questions, by encouraging a grand scale of thinking about science, we feed the interest and curiosity that can sustain a child’s investigation of science. If we stop those questions dead in their tracks with, “You can’t really know what the Hadron collider is until you study physics in high school,” then we do both science and our children a disservice.
In Growing Without Schooling (issue 12), John Holt responded to a parent who asked how they could teach chemistry to their child this way:
…there seem to be a number of possibilities, all of which people have actually done in one place or another. 1) The parent finds a textbook(s), materials, etc. and parent and child learn the stuff together. 2) The parent gets the above for the child, and the child learns it alone. 3) The parent finds, or the child finds someone else, perhaps an individual, perhaps a teacher in some kind of school, or even college, who knows this material and learns from them.
As for equipment, you say that your high school had a very extensive chem lab, but I’ll bet that very few of the students ever used more than a small part of the materials in the lab. I have known kids who were interested in chemistry and did it in their own basements, who were able to do a great deal of work with, at today’s prices, less than $200 or maybe $100 worth of equipment. The catalog of the Edmund Scientific Corp. is full of such equipment. Same thing is true of physics. As for biology, except perhaps in the hear of the city, it is not difficult to find animals for examination, dissection, etc. if that is what children want to do.
I won’t say these are not problems, but people who want to solve them can solve them.
You ask, “Would you expect a parent to purchase test tubes, chemicals, instruments, etc. that would perhaps only be used for one or two years, only to have the child become an artist or musician?” Well, why not? People purchase bicycles, sports equipment, musical instruments, without knowing that their children will ever become professional athletes, musicians, etc. None of this equipment (unless broken) loses any of its value—it could probably be sold later for at least a significant part of the purchase price. And, as time goes on, it will be easier to get these materials from other parents who have used them, or to arrange for swaps, etc.
I see no real need for “institutional” education at any age. There is a man named Ovshinsky, in Michigan, who stood physics on its ear by inventing a theory by which non-crystalline substances could be used to do things which, according to orthodox theory, only crystalline materials could do. For a number of years orthodox physicists dismissed Ovshinsky’s ideas. Bu he was able to demonstrate them so clearly in the laboratory experiments that they were finally obliged to admit that he was right. But he never finished high school. There are probably more cases like this that we know, and there would be a great many more except for compulsory schooling laws. It is a kind of Catch 22 situation to say, first, that all children have to spend all that time in schools, and then to say that all kinds of things can only be learned in school. How do we know? Where have we given people a chance to learn them somewhere else?
A very important function of institutions of so-called higher learning is not so much to teach people things as to limit access to certain kinds of learning and work. The function of law schools is much less to train lawyers than to keep down the supply of lawyers. Practically everything that is now only done by people with Ph.D.’s was, not so very long ago, done by people with no graduate training or, in some cases, even undergraduate training. Schools do not create much learning. What they mostly do is collect it, hoard it, and sell it at the highest possible prices. Thank you for writing. I hope you will not doubt your competence to help your child/children learn anything they want to learn, or indeed their competence to learn many things without your help.