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Unschooling Science: Slow Learning, Nature, and Life
By Wendy Priesnitz

unschooling science
Photo © Max Topchil/Shutterstock Images

There seems to be an overpopulation of snails this year in my neighborhood. I’ve accidently crunched dozens on my daily walks. One morning, I encountered a small boy who was being taken to school by his mother. He was excited by the slow moving shells on the sidewalk and was asking one question after another. Mom, in an attempt to get to their destination on time, told him he was a snail and yanked on his arm to get him to move along. Chances are, “Science” was on the schedule that day at school. And there is also a good chance that it would involve memorizing the parts of an animal or accurately duplicating the results of scientific experiments that others have already performed. Curiosity will take up too much time.

If the boy was lucky, the snails were still around when school let out for the summer. And, if he was even luckier, he wasn’t programmed right into day camp, which would require more hurrying.

When kids are allowed to be free and live at their own pace, they are natural scientists. From the day they are born, their minds search and question. They are always poking, exploring, experimenting, making messes, taking risks, making mistakes, and trying again – doing science. As Alison Gopnik wrote in The Scientist in the Crib, children’s minds naturally rival those of practicing scientists. Some children and young people may also become interested in the formal sciences. They may eventually want to search out the discoveries that others have made, learn the theories and tables, apply that information, and build their own knowledge upon it. But two things can shut down their curiosity about how the world works and take the scientist out of them: hurrying and forcing them to study Science.

In fact, those two things, all by themselves, can shut down most real learning. Once a child’s innate curiosity has been rushed away, any reason for studying science becomes elusive too. And then, we’re left with the academic subject that we call Science, which strikes fear or at least loathing in many people – as do Math and many other subjects – thought to be complicated, full of jargon, and therefore “hard.” And once we’ve separated Science out from other academic subjects, we ignore the linkages that are inherent to life on Earth and the fact that science underlies everything else. Putting certain kinds of information into a silo labeled “Science” also blinds us to the other, usually unexpected, “non-science” things we and our children are learning about all the time.

 

But here’s the thing: Science is really just life...and curiosity about it. So, taking Gopnik’s lead, I prefer to think of science as simply a blueprint for how we learn about life. Unfortunately, most of us forget to observe what’s around us. Many of us have lost the simple sense of wonder that we had as children. We don’t ask questions for fear of looking dumb. Analyzing things gets a bad rap. But when we deschool ourselves in order to help our kids learn without school (and to learn alongside them), we find ourselves regaining some of those tools of life. And then we begin to understand that we live in science, that we, in fact, are science.

But there are other impediments to learning science. They include how we view the people called scientists, what we think their work entails, and the way we make kids replicate experiments and call it learning.

When kids are allowed to be free and live at their own pace, they are natural scientists.

You may have read about the ongoing “Draw A Scientist” experiment, which began in the 1950s. School kids are asked to draw a scientist. The results are always been pretty much the same: a hairy white male wearing a white lab coat and glasses. Even adults who’ve been asked to do it came up with the same result. In one study, kids were asked to choose the scientists from a group of ten photographs; they were all scientists, but the children didn’t think the smiling ones were.

In an article published in 2011 in The Science Creative Quarterly, engineering student Peter Eugster describes the roots of this perception of science and scientists. They are widespread, he says, pointing to grade school curriculum, children’s literature, television, movies, and the print media. He also notes that some researchers have suggested that the solution lies in more inquiry-based learning, and activities that connect science with everyday life. That looks like your ordinary life learning household!
The need for more inquiry-based learning ironically highlights the fact that the stereotype is just as strong when we look at what science is about and what scientists actually do.

Most of us see science as a methodical and deliberate method of accumulating facts that prove a hypothesis. (The word “hypothesis” is almost all I remember from my high school science classes.) However, Stuart Firestein, a professor of neuroscience at Columbia University, says it’s not true. In his new book Ignorance: How It Drives Science, he writes that ignorance – not knowledge— is the true engine of science. He describes science as looking for a black cat in a dark room, and there may not be a cat in the room. He says it is “not knowing” – the simple puzzling out answers to questions – that motivates researchers, and shows how, science is – like all learning – inquiry-based. It begins, as Patricia Wall writes in a New York Times article about Firestein’s work, “with the absence of fact, understanding, insight, or clarity about something.“

Two things can shut down their curiosity about how the world works and take the scientist out of them: hurrying and forcing them to study Science.

If that’s how scientists think, I have to wonder why we go through the charade of making kids in school conduct rote “experiments” about things that are already known rather than encouraging them to find out something that’s not known. It’s certainly not because they learn much doing it. New research from the U.S. government’s National Assessment of Educational Progress tells us that American students can conduct “successful” science experiments, but aren’t able to explain the results. Results released in June as part of the “Nation’s Report Card” revealed that fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-graders could go through the motions but couldn’t use the data and didn’t know if or why their results were correct. And they struggled when more variables were added or strategic decision-making was required while collecting data. In other words, they weren’t learning much. Nor does it seem like they were particularly interested in what they were doing.

So now you know what to say the next time someone asks, “But what about Science? Surely you don’t have the ability or the facilities to teach your child Science….” Expert curriculum, fancy lab equipment, and highly trained science teachers don’t necessarily help children learn 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 grasp scientific concepts. If a child is interested in answering a science-related question, she will also be motivated to learn some of the basics first. And there are many books, online resources, science museums, and people available to help with that.

Meanwhile, remember that kids are scientists from the womb, inquiring and exploring to learn what they don’t know or don’t understand. Life learners / unschoolers have the opportunity to help them remain that way throughout childhood and later life. What we as parents can do is slow down, be defenders of our children’s curiosity, and reignite our own wonder about the world. There is time to get down on the ground and watch that snail....

Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine’s Editor, an advocate of what she calls Slow Learning, and the author of four books about unschooling, as well as six others. You can learn more about her work and read her blog here.

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