Further Reflections on My Practice
by Michael Rossman
How These Reflections Came About
Though it took me many years to grasp how wide and deep my support was among parents, I should not have been surprised. From outside, my practice must have seemed like a black box, within which many odd things happened – but for the most part, their children came home from my classes energized, with their eyes gleaming, quick to relay intriguing bits of information and to ask interesting, interested questions. Given such results, most parents were grateful for whatever went on inside the box, without worrying about the details.
But some were not. I never was bothered at Berkeley Montessori, but the French-American School served a somewhat stiffer clientele. Every few years a small posse would saddle up, outraged at my dissection of road-kills or loose talk about sex, and pester the current headmaster for my dismissal. In my thirteenth year there, M. Barchechat asked me to write an explanation justifying these topics in my curriculum, for him to use in my defense. As I told him some weeks later, piously, I could do this only by describing my curriculum well-enough to set such details in proper context. So this is how my “Introduction to Science Classes at E.B.” came to be written. He was taken so aback at the result, that I was not allowed actually to distribute it to parents until the next Head replaced him four years later. But I had been so energized by finally having managed a coherent account of the surface of my practice, that I kept thinking of more and more to say, even if only to myself. Though the first few reflections are rather self-involved and metaphorical, those that follow may be of more general interest.
The Terrain of My Curriculum
Another view of what I do, more metaphorical and precise, begins by thinking of my curriculum as a network of paths exploring a rich terrain; and reconsiders what students learn with me. In the course of each school-year, I do indeed traverse nearly all the ground mapped in my survey of curricular details, visiting many places repeatedly with different classes and grades. Since I teach several classes in each grade, and since each proceeds somewhat differently even in considering the same feature, due to the different contributions of its students, I can't claim that every student covers all of this ground during the course of his or her years in my classes. But I can say that each covers most of this ground, including its principal features; and that each class and almost every student are led also to unique locales, which no others will visit with me.
In this view, I am a guide, leading children to explore the wilderness of the natural world, the landscape of science. I have loved this land since childhood; I grew up exploring it at others' heels and through my own excursions, and came to know it widely. I have come to know it more deeply by leading others through it for much of my life; and by continuing to explore it myself, following the further trails that others are constantly blazing, finding my own paths between them, while thinking of how to bring my students along.
The territory is vast and deep. There's still so much I don't know about even the most familiar places, that I recognize something new nearly each time I revisit one with students. The constant spark of my own learning makes me their senior partner in exploration, rather than simply a tour guide. Sometimes we pass swiftly across broad terrains, sampling the strata of study, leaping lightly to their peaks of conclusion for snapshot panoramas; sometimes we linger by a spring of wonder, to sort through luxurious growth for the roots and fruits that will take us further; sometimes we set up serious base-camp for weeks to tackle a challenging height, and climb one step at a time all the way to the top.
Such are the rhythms of my guidance, in leading children into the landscape of science. As for what they bring back, I can't rightly say, and neither, I think, can they -- even though I often check to see whether they recall key features of key places, to reassure us all that we're on the same trip. For the internal picture of this landscape that each is developing is more particular in its individual balance of impressions, its suite of places and features remembered for idiosyncratic reasons, than I can possibly assess; and is more complex than each can express or even recognize, save in much later reflection. And these qualifications apply equally to their individual spectra of competences, developing afield in this terrain.
Of course, their own maps of this land can hardly be as sharp and comprehensive as my detailed curricular itinerary might imply. But the immaturity of their drafts scarcely concerns me, beyond judging whether they can follow my immediate steps. For I know by experience how slowly one grows to know a wilderness and feel at home. One must come to a place again and again by different routes to know where it is; one must visit it over and over, noticing one thing and then another in different lights and seasons, to begin to know its character and life; one must come to know places of all sorts to know the land. One must practice climbing on its various surfaces to grow deft, and flounder in characteristic bogs before learning to skirt them; one must learn where predictable nourishment may be found, while learning one's own tastes.
As summer camp is to school, so may our weekly excursions seem within the school's more usual processes, to the dear, open spirits at my heels on the trail. As in my actual camp, I receive them with fledgling grasps of our land already developed through family, school, and media excursions, one early versed at tide-pooling, another never having tried to climb. I take them farther and deeper afield, to the richest locales I know, sharing all I can in our brief times to help them form their own impressions of each place and how to dwell in it together as explorers. What they learn with me is at most more introduction to what may occupy a lifetime; I know it will go to compost as childhood learning does, to nourish further growth, its elements mostly beyond recall. Many will revisit these places as they mature, and some go further on their own, to know the wilderness as home. All I hope and expect they will remember of their modest practice with me is that it was the real thing -- real camping, real science -- rather than a packaged surrogate; and perhaps a vivid scene from one of our climbs. For I have often found agile fourth-graders able to follow to heights an adult would be proud to scale, with views memorable enough to last a lifetime.
I'm sure most will recall me as eccentric, as science teachers so often are remembered. But I wonder how many will come to understand how deeply personal and peculiar an exploration they have followed with me in this wilderness. Of course they can't help noticing my personal taste in our roaming, as I stop so often to inspect promising carcasses, brighten whenever they find mushrooms or crystals, and delight in poking through rotting logs for savory grubs to share, in aboriginal initiation. So to speak, such curricular elements are feathers in my cap as an educator. In class as in camp, where bluejay and owl plumes adorn my sombrero, the children grow quickly accustomed to my distinctive headgear on the trail; and seem to take a certain pride in it as a pack, to judge by how often they bring me material to maintain it.
They will doubtless recall my hat, my fondness for colorful plumes of curriculum. Yet as I lead them to so many of the standard landmarks in this terrain, most will recognize only an eccentricity of costume, appropriate to a guide of this sort, and not the deeper peculiarity of our path. For in truth, the ways I take them on are more my own than I can readily say. I do follow common thoroughfares when there's simply no other way, and often find these convenient for getting from here to there. But even with such, I prefer to find parallel routes, less obscured by the dust of custom, to freshen my eyes and theirs with bypassed curiosities. And even more, I delight in striking out cross-country, finding my own way newly across the varied terrain between one landmark and another; and in following what I find to wherever it may lead, to places made memorable only by an attention that finds moss as noble as a redwood tree, by paths that lead everywhere through each other to home.
In consequence, my version of the official map of this land is like some grizzled prospector's, speckled with signs to mark small outcroppings of precious ores, webbed intricately by dotted trails recording my private ways between them, with innumerable notes about shortcuts and seasons, in fading inks in a distinctive hand. Or so it might seem, to a younger colleague in the pedagogical field. For my students, the matter is more existential, as they know my map through the territory we traverse. For us, the field lies open as a woodland meadow, criss-crossed by principal deer-trails and rabbit-runs, old ruts of commerce, with here and there -- and suddenly everywhere, to an alerted eye -- the faint paths of some small rodent, evident in the grass left curling around its passages from rock to tree, small tunnels in the duff, tracks in the creekside mud, their intersections marked by chaff beneath the lupin, scat in the oak-crotch, webbing the land minutely in the intimate knowledge of a peculiar life. We make ourselves small, we follow the path-hollow through the grass-stems, pause to taste their blades with tongues tiny enough to feel each guarding quartz-crystal dagger, climb the oak's trunk through plumes of ostrich moss uncurling gratefully in the slight humidity of our passing breath, and seek on, until the class clock's chime recalls us to another world.
I am the rodent, I am the native guide welcoming them to my home, to go barefoot on the open trail. When I come to class barefoot, they say, "But you have no shoes." I tell them that no actual law forbids adults to feel the ground directly, and ask why their feet say "Thank you!" every time they take their shoes off. Sometimes we go on to discuss arches and exercise, malignancies of fashion, fungal infection, the numbness of sensory tissues in unvarying environments. Camouflaged as I am in sagging skin and official guise, how can they recognize the barefoot boy their own age, fresh from the creek, saying, "Come see what I found!" How can I show them the signature of order deeper than all phenomena, writ in their relation, save by rediscovering it with them in my own understanding? -- each time starting with the bare foot, the mouse-skull, the crystal at the center of the universe. Need I warn them that my view of science is as eccentric as Pluto's orbit, as personal and transpersonal as anyone's grasp of God, if they learn enough to pass for normal on the standard tests? Or may I just enjoy watching them grasp the connections, practice habits of scrambling that will leave them at home in any terrain? For they seem to take pleasure in making their own sense of the sense I have made of science, as I certainly do, and perhaps this is enough.
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"So, What's Special?"
If I reach so for organic metaphors as models to describe my teaching practice, my students' learning, and my own, it's because I am considering a peculiar phenomenon indeed. For I have been enabled by unusual circumstance to develop a praxis of elementary science education nearly from scratch, in virtual freedom from institutional influence or constraints, save for time; and have found it assuming a form of its own, with dimensions beyond the usual categories of description, embodying in unusual degree the coherence of a personal grasp of the subject.
The result is necessarily idiosyncratic, if not quite unique. Yet I might almost say that nothing is special about my curriculum, beyond its process of growth and this quality of coherence. Almost every scientific fact I teach is in the books, or in recent publications. Orthodox versions of nearly every experiment may be found in dozens of standard compendia of elementary science methods, and resourceful teachers have always adapted them at will, often more boldly than I. Other colleagues have also sent maggot recipes to the Food Insects Newsletter, and many have made more use than I of The Road-Kill Cookbook. Almost every neat way I've found to show how this relates to that has already been recognized with delight by countless independent minds, employed in their own contexts, and recorded in earnest newsletters and dutiful grant reports.
If one could gather them all, what a trove! I have hardly added anything novel. I have simply had the pleasure of recognizing such ways afresh, most often in the very process of teaching, and the freedom to weave them in my own design of awe -- inventing the wheel again from scratch, in the small and the large, in my practice as in the practice I teach. I have found this occupation thrilling, in a quiet, continual way, in itself and in the way the thrill has been shared, embracing students in a teacher's field of learning in a deeper sense than is customary in scholastic practice.
Though my curricular visions are grand and synthetic, I must confess that I have not gone very far in realizing them. My practice still amounts to no more than rags and patches, suggestive of a coherent fabric; and I have only recently grown able even to begin to see and discuss it as a whole, rather than only dither about its parts. As a whole, it is surely no more unique than the work of many other talented teachers in this field and others, and bears comparison even to teachers' work generally. For what is novel, in saying that I teach what I understand, or that the life of my learning inspires the proceeding? Any teacher's grasp of the matter is irreducibly personal, howevermuch it accord with the textbook; and one can illuminate no more than one understands, in the way one has come to understand it. Yet as my example displays such features of the general case in high relief, due to its independence, its details may merit description.
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My Institutional Context
I came to teach elementary science with unusual preparation, in spirit as a self-directed learner, and in substance as a polymath of science. At three, I loved snails; at seven, lizards; at ten, I became a field collector for a biological supply house, and eventually a fair herpetologist; and met my first microscope. In high school, my passion for microbiology intersected chemistry, and after an interlude of algae-farming led me to biochemistry lab work in college. Meanwhile, greater passions for math and science fiction converged, leading me to major in physics and then to three years of graduate study in algebraic topology, before the time's politics spun me towards a different sort of career. All along, I read omnivorously, and spent much time afield in natural environments. Though my passions for geology and mycology swelled only in my forties, their foundations likewise derive from my youth.
Such grounding left me ludicrously over-qualified to teach at this level, in any conventional sense. In another sense, I found it simply adequate to the work I undertook, and in some ways hardly so. And in yet another, it has been quite superfluous to the core of my work. I expect that my account of my practice will be generally understood, if not dismissed, as a special case, due to my unusual grounding. I can hardly deny that this has been essential to my effort to synthesize a coherent curriculum; and I'd be content to have this result be understood as a special product. Yet as I argue elsewhere, I believe that the truer magic of my method is equally available to teachers with the most rudimentary knowledge of science, provided they engage the craft in a proper spirit as learners.
Be that as it may, all my scientific training had largely gone to compost by the time I had spent seven years as a political activist, mainly in working to develop milieus and systems of self-directed learning in higher education. Meanwhile, I became a father, and entered upon science education in a most natural and innocent fashion as my son grew old enough to play outside -- overseeing an experience like mine in childhood, which extended as he joined a playgroup and I took my turns in leading it. As my interest in higher education had led me to want to follow learning from the ground up, and my son was my vehicle, I wanted to follow him on into school to observe. In those days in Berkeley, this meant participant observation; and the small school at which my sister taught, like many of the recent generation of alternative schools, was open to barter for the tuition we could not afford. Though I had grown used to employing an array of quite different skills with adult learners, all I could find to offer in trade was to teach science; and so I began, with pre-schoolers in 1973.
This reconnection with science proceeded so gently and gradually that I was hardly aware of it as such. Our lives then were so rich that science was only a prominent note in the chord of delights and mysteries we longed to sound for our child; and it remained more an enrichment than a focus at home. As for school, my interest at first was in the whole process, and the process of my involvement; science was simply my convenient ticket, and I would have taught carpentry nearly as gladly.
As my son went on to first grade, it became necessary as well as convenient for me to continue teaching in trade. I had still no intention or intimation of a career as a science teacher, being fully engaged with other roles and purposes; as with my other occupations, this one just grew. Teaching six classes one day a week to cover tuition left me somewhat aware of what I was doing as a developing craft, but without any sense of it as a minor, de facto career -- i.e., in a state of blissful innocence that continued for nine years, until my son moved on to middle school and I decided to stay, having come to like what I was doing, happy to continue it for modest pay.
I mean this resume to emphasize how purposeless and unambitious my teaching was, in any sense larger than the existential one engaging me in the classroom, or smaller than the desire to share a way of worship. I had hardly more intention than to teach some science well, as babes I taught in pre-K grew to be my third-grade students, in a context made more intimate from the start by my own child's participation.
The school was no more purposeful, nor less, in engaging me as a teacher. Indeed, its staff hardly knew what to make of the idea at first; for elementary science "enrichment" was hardly de rigeur then, and the school's own curriculum touched this base sufficiently that they had not yet sought a specialist for the higher grades, let alone considered one for pre-schoolers. Even so, as its pedagogic culture was already happily accustomed to weaving the work of talented parents into its curriculum, the staff decided to give it a try, and invited me to do whatever I might.
No one -- neither they nor parents nor I -- knew quite what to expect or hope for, from this activity, beyond some vague generalities. And no one greatly cared, provided these were satisfied. Of course, a good number of families wanted their children to get a good, early start in science. But what can one expect from pre-schoolers? Even the most anxious or demanding parent was satisfied when her own kid came home happily prattling about crystals or searching for bugs. And no one cared in a larger sense, blessed be.
For the level at which I engaged teaching, working up from a primordial beginning, was so far down the line in institutional terms that it was effectively a free space, as yet uncolonized by the expectations of a mechanized educational order. Over the decades since I was that age, the demands of industry and finance have come increasingly to determine and rationalize the operation of higher education, while high schools have adapted their curricula to prepare students for college, and middle schools theirs to prepare them for high school, and grade schools in turn have "modernized" theirs and come to depend upon minutely-subdivided corporate products to teach science as well as reading.
Though this system has its own virtues, it is hardly conducive to the sort of pedagogic experiment I have pursued. I was insulated from its influence at the start by my humble station, for the avalanche of attention to science curriculum had not reached as far as pre-school; and thereafter by my situation in a private school, and this one in particular. For although State requirements dictated science texts and curricula down through first grade in public schools, in "alternative" schools, as they were called at the time, one was generally free and indeed encouraged to teach more creatively and ambitiously. Moreover, this school had its own well-organized pedagogy, only distantly concerned with meshing with public school requirements, and hospitable to mine.
In consequence, I was free to teach as I would, i.e. to discover what I might make of the project with my inclinations and an open mind. This freedom, which seemed so simple and natural then as to be nearly invisible, now seems to me quite remarkable, as I recognize how particular and precarious its circumstances were. In effect, my practice is a mutant plant, a sui generis seedling that sprouted in a peculiar micro-niche in Berkeley long ago, in unusually favorable conditions of locale, institution, culture, clime, and season; and has flourished since in sheltered circumstance while the climate has changed. The window of opportunity that enabled me to explore freely was as unusual as it was wide, and was perhaps as evanescent.
Besides those noted above, other dimensions of my freedom bear mention. My sister's good taste had led my son and me to follow her into a Montessori school, ending then with the third grade, which provided a deeply hospitable bed for my sprouting practice. I admired Montessorian pedagogy less for the systematization reflected in its elaborated equipment than for its child-centered and holistic character, its emphasis on direct experience, and its nurture of the spirit and skills of self-directed learning. Though my own teaching was only weakly coordinated with other classroom activities, these qualities of the ambiance made me feel at home and actively supported as I worked to develop them in practice in my own way, with students prepared to enjoy them.
As for the rigidities of approach that often also characterize Montessori schools, like others dedicated to proprietary pedagogical systems, these were softened radically by the peculiar conjunction of time, place, and personnel that led a school, organized around a pedagogic culture founded in nineteenth-century Catholic Italy, to seek also to draw on the fertile wealth of new subjects, perspectives, and methods of learning that flourished in our land during the late 1960s, nowhere more remarkably than in Berkeley. By the time I joined its staff, this happy synthesis had made the Berkeley Montessori School among the best in our region, a distinction maintained for the next decade.
Its better classroom teachers wove their syntheses more integrally in their own work than did such specialists as I, who lacked Montessori training. Though some went on to this, I found myself more interested in learning what I might do -- or equally, in just playing around -- than in learning to implement prefabricated curriculum, no matter how worthy; and paid more attention to the qualities of Montessorian approach than to its details. Even so, I found my contribution welcomed and its independence respected, in its integration in the school's curriculum.
This happy circumstance nurtured the work of other talented parent-specialists as well, while they developed distinctive professional practices. Having seen how the results of such encouragement can accumulate to a school's benefit, in this case and another of quite different character, it seems to me that any school would be wise to weave this principle in the fabric of its operation. Though my own work be sui generis, a hothouse sport, in its qualities of personal investment, originality, and competence it is also perhaps simply representative of what may come by encouraging parental involvement in a deeper sense than usual, and by supporting the independent growth of coordinate practices.
The context of support I found for my own development was deepened further by an unusual stroke of institutional fortune from my sixth to my ninth years at BMS, during a general era of growth for alternative schools, as this small, flourishing example extended itself from the third to the sixth grade. I was privileged to observe close-hand the response of the oldest class's head teacher, a young man talented no more deeply than in being an avid, persistent, broad-band learner, as he engaged himself wholeheartedly in extending his principled practice to a fourth-grade curriculum, a fifth, a sixth, drawing on an ordered richness of Montessori lore, materials, and training, and the disorderly richness of local culture, reforging his personal craft while bringing his class along. As my own son went with him, I recognized with a parent's eye as well as an educator's, a radiance of learning more vital than any curriculum; and more than once wept with simple gratitude for my son's good fortune. It's the sort of thing money can't buy, nor institutional practice secure through design, save by principles more daring than any school I know has attempted to follow.
As a teacher myself, I was too occupied with extending my own practice from third to sixth grade during these years -- or perhaps simply too situated at a like center of radiance -- to grasp more than vaguely how my own example resembled the fuller one I admired. But I certainly felt a deep resonance of support, from Lee Tempkin particularly as well as from other colleagues similarly engaged, while I went about improvising my own curriculum. One other feature of my context bears mention, for the school was not narrowly age-graded. Each class had an age-range of two to three years among its 24 students, who were separated in groups when appropriate by its two teachers, but more often were simply assisted to learn at their own levels in a rich environment marked by cooperations among learners of differing capacities. This arrangement required and encouraged a similar orientation in my teaching, towards materials and lessons fit for a range of learners.
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In this context supportive of free learning, as if it were natural, I engaged science teaching with an open mind, unclouded by ambitions or particular designs. My freedom from institutional constraint was internal as well, for I approached it as an utter primitive, or nearly, without guidance by any form of teacher training as such. I took no courses in child development, attended no workshops on technique, and scanned the common references of how to teach appropriate curricula with only cursory interest. Such a course of ignorance would be inadvisable for a more general teacher, more pivotal to students' whole development; and I cannot trumpet it even in my specialized context, for there's so much to be learned that I might well have found such means more profitable than I did, as others may. Nonetheless, it left me as innocent and free as I could be, to learn about science education de novo through my own resources and practice, from the ground up.
Of course, I was colonized already -- or at least well-inhabited -- by normative models of how to go about teaching and learning science, inculcated by twenty-two years of formal schooling and reinforced subtly by most of my reading in the field. These shaped my imagination more deeply than I can grasp even now, and offered more guidance than I could usefully employ. Yet I was colonized also, in a different sense, by my impressions of the teachers who had inspired and nourished me -- not so much by their techniques, whose details I seldom remembered, as by their spirits, whose distinctive features encouraged me to recognize my own. And I was colonized as well by my own experiences as an independent learner, from childhood on, which beyond their particulars instilled me with vivid models of paths and means that I am still exploring. In this stew of influences, the hegemony of familiar ways dissolved to some extent, unbinding their elements for recombination.
Thus prepared, I began to teach science, extending a tender engagement with my own child into classes under a school's sheltering wing. My pre-K and kindergarten dozens seemed hardly more than larger, semi-civilized versions of his boisterous playgroup, and responded as gladly each time I came to take them exploring. Rainy days confined activities beyond our sharing-time to experiments with balloons, learning to weigh things, and such. But we all preferred to work outdoors, and normally did, as weather here is mild. We'd settle in a circle under the big tree in the schoolyard, to consider whatever they and I had brought that day -- picture-book, salamander, moldy persimmon, dry ice -- and in our time remaining prowl the yard, examining bees in the garden, moss in the sidewalk cracks, the spectral play of light on minutely-scratched windows. Often, I took them beyond the school, to go round a block as long as a Saturday museum tour to their short legs, and as chock-full of curbside treasures. Most precious was the vacant lot, a wilderness changing with each visit, which offered a curriculum that could stretch to college, and served me for a decade before development forced us back to the curb.
So many themes of my later practice were nascent in this preschool experience, that it seems simply the seed of a natural growth. (Or perhaps of a prolonged immaturity, to a dismissive mind.) The least obvious were not less fundamental. One I recognize is the form of our meeting, a face-to-face circle involving all equally, including me, insofar as my irreducible size allowed. I brought this collegial geometry with me into the grade-school classrooms as an active agency, rejoicing gently each time the children pushed their desks and chairs aside to make space on the rug for us to gather in our circle of purpose and delight, practicing the power to change their environment to suit their needs. When I was given a room to teach in, I brought its tables together so we could sit round them in this way. During fifth and sixth grades, one can measure the growth-spurt by our crowding; sometimes we must add a table during the year. For experiments in small groups, we separate the tables; but even then to begin, and more usually throughout, we still meet in circle to consider the world together. Though this form's function depends also on other factors, I measure its efficacy in quiet triumph by the frequency with which students look to each other while talking or listening, rather than to me for reaction.
Another basic theme, scarcely recognized in my previous writing about practice, stands out within the fundamental paradigm of how we dealt with what we considered. In general, with a thing or phenomenon, I led my preschoolers to look at it, asked them what they saw, told them something about it, and told them a story. That is to say: (1) I led them to experience it as directly as they cared to, through every sense that might be relevant and often others, for as long as we could afford, sometimes showing them how myself. (2) I coaxed their spirits and cued their minds to learn how to see what was before them, how to say what they understood, when this did not come readily; and encouraged them to think critically about each other's observations and deductions. (3) I told them something of what more I saw and how I construed it, to model ways of seeing; settled their raised questions as concretely and transparently as I could, flagging some for future wonder; and told them a bit more about the thing in focus, something interesting and unobvious -- choosing my somethings as best I could to extend the juvenile webs of knowledge I recognized.
Doubtless, this compact paradigm can be unpacked and rephrased in various ways. But I recognize its essential form in the cycles of process that structure my work with the oldest grades. How they see is extended by instruments, how they say by numbers and graphs, what I add by every way I can, as ideas join things in our consideration. But the form persists, so naturally that it hardly seems worth mentioning -- unless one compares it with its caricature, in which students are told how to look, what to see, and how to express it, and are set to practice in a punitive measuring apparatus that ensures their focus and conformity, engaging with material reduced insofar as possible to its relevant aspects, and an instructor intent on preparing them for the next such cycle.
To adults schooled in science, this paradigm may seem as natural as mine does to wee babes. Indeed, its adoption is generally understood to mark the transition from just fooling around to teaching science seriously. I'd be a fool just to dismiss it; and hardly do, as its semblance -- minus the punitive apparatus -- may be recognized in many of my classes' processes, increasingly in older grades. Yet also the semblance of my "infantile" paradigm may be recognized, in the way most teachers actually employ the strict, "mature" paradigm. So to speak, the unscripted adornment of the former is all that humanizes the latter, at the higher levels of learning it dominates; and good teachers are generally distinguished by their individual syntheses of the two.
And what happens at even higher levels of science studenthood -- alas, seldom before advanced graduate study? The "mature" paradigm is abandoned as a confining, juvenile relic and the "infantile" one gladly reaffirmed, by all concerned, as students discard their tight, hobbling training-shoes with relief, to go barefoot again on the trail as juniors in a brotherly band. It's cheeky to ask whether the normal paradigm is any more necessary than a fashion-wave of tight shoes; but not to wonder how the alternative construed in my classes might be extended continuously and coherently through middle-school, highschool, and college to levels where it seems natural again.
As for its fourth term, tell a story, I hardly know where to begin, for story is everywhere in the beginning. In my preschool circles, we practiced the essentials -- the stories of how we found it, how we dealt with it, how it lives, how it works, how it was made by whom, how it came to be, how we came to understand it, how it might be used and misused, how it might be otherwise. So much of our work was transacted through such narratives that a listener might have mistaken their textures for mere icing on the cake of content, to make it palatable to childish minds. Yet this vivid web of story is the content, the unfolding narrative of our engagement in science; and no studied fact has meaning save in its context.
This perspective is so natural and essential that one can hardly escape it. One cannot reach adulthood, within science's practice or as its spectator, without being imbued with an understanding of science as a story in progress. In the "mature" paradigm of its learning, the formal place of story is often reduced to capsules of biography and historical development, placed at chapter heads as garnish to their more important meat. Yet the throb of narrative remains implicit in even the leanest cut through any material, and sensible to any student caught up in following the story where it may lead. Here again, as above, good teachers are generally distinguished by "infantile" practices, by their ways of making webworks of story vivid, around and within the normative process and material. And here again, at yet higher levels of learning the "mature" constraint of story dissolves and its primordial, existential expression resumes, as one is welcomed actively into the narration of science.
In this light, I have simply carried story-telling on, as richly and robustly as I could, throughout my practice with higher grades -- rehearsing the nine essential tales with students at every opportunity, encouraging their improvisations, their budding roles as our story's makers. As we learn to read the narratives writ in world, they grow longer and richer, as does our own in reading them together; we look back to our own as often as to theirs in carrying these on. I tell them how Tony von Leuwenhoeck felt at my age, looking through his precious glass bead as the first one to see protozoa; I tell them how I slithered down a bluff at Point Reyes, past great splints of fossil whale-bone, to find this fragment cobbled on the beach, and which path to take to get there; I tell them how we came to wonder whether stuff was made of little bits, how we proved it, how we learned there were smaller ones, how we put them to use, how the architects of the first nuclear bomb were nearly quite sure it would not ignite all the oceans, but not certain.
Such tales are the life of the party, so to speak, and the kids can hardly match them. But we listen as gravely in circle each time one tells who gave him the fossil fish, where she found the chanterelle, how rapidly the lump in his pet rat's elderly side has been swelling, why she thinks the sugar crystals in her kitchen experiment aren't growing any more; for such tales bear the stuff of our consideration, and their practice as tellers. By fifth grade, most have learned to keep their own accounts to essentials, sparing us digressions about who threw a fit on the family trip; and some have begun to grow fluent in recounting their impressions of the stories unfolding before them on our table. I don't expect much of such fledglings; I could compel them to more written expression, but hardly have the time, and think this perhaps premature. In the circumstance I'm content simply to keep the art as pervasive and vivid as I can, as they internalize its models of practice.
Similar things may be said of theatrics as of story-telling, for the two are so allied, and the narrative of science so dramatic in texture. In pre-school, drama was explicit each time a child poured liquid from one container to another or handled a bug. We lumbered like toads and hopped like frogs, and I felt at home making my words sooo slooooow while describing these creatures' reaction to cold. In second grade, my classes grew used to molecules by modeling the three states of matter and its phase-changes with their bodies on the school-ground, in a dance that always spun out of control until I sternly condensed them. I squeaked when I spoke of bats, asked them to think how they learned to make appropriate faces of disgust, and taught them the mantra: "Don't say 'Ugh!', say 'Ah!'
After this, drama and theatrics remained integral to our work, if not incessant, in each chemical reaction, each carcass, each exploration of centrifugal force or light's focus; in the stances rejected and relearned with charged material. I encouraged this "infantile" expressiveness whenever appropriate, to vivify our project. During the Gulf War, while legions of Iraqi soldiers fried and my fifth-graders came to class fresh from news-watching with videogame blood on their thumbs, we studied complete oxidation of a hydrocarbon by pouring rubbing alcohol on a hot-plate, lighting the cloud of vapor, and jumping back from a blast of light and heat that curled our hair in real simulation of the big boys' new gas vapor bombs. But such shenanigans are remarkable only for their historical specificity; for any survey of good science teachers, at any level, will discover a wealth of productions as dramatic and memorable.
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A Dawning of Self-Consciousness
In sorting out the pertinent factors of my practice -- some universal, some peculiar -- I have been less surprised to recognize their number and variety, than their common origin. On reflection, it seems natural that so many factors might be essential to a complex organic phenomenon or process, and to its description. Nor do I think my own work unique in this regard. For an adequate description of any teacher's practice of science education -- at this or any higher level, as a specialist or a general teacher -- would require attention to every factor and dimension of description considered here for my case, albeit often with different results -- and doubtless to more, for I'm sure there are vital ones I haven't recognized.
As for the singular fact that I cannot identify a single theme of my mature practice that was not present primordially in my work with pre-schoolers twenty-two years ago, I'm hardly shrugging it off by saying: "Hey, why not? I'm still the same guy, still doing the same thing as it goes along." One might ask why I haven't learned some new tricks, observing, e.g., that I still make no use of computers in teaching, let alone of their multimedia capacities. As it happens, my reasons for this postponement are specific, and complex enough to bear description elsewhere; I risk being thought flip if I summarize by saying that these kids will learn more by studying mud directly than by using computers. But more generally, I have been content with my routine of practice, the ongoing development of kindergarten themes, because it has kept me continually learning, not least about my practice itself.
Each time I have stepped back to write about my work, over the past twelve years, I have recognized new aspects, understood it in quite different terms, grasped new angles of connection between its aspects and terms. To some degree, this is because it has kept changing from year to year in significant ways, whose sequence would take another chapter to describe. But more deeply, the progression of my views reflects the evolution of my understanding, rather than of my practice; for by the time I first began to think about it, almost every feature had long been full-fledged. Their interplay was simply complex enough to yield slowly to my understanding. Had I been more insightful, I might have understood what I was doing in kindergarten, in a more conscious sense than I did.
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Can This Be Carried On?
Still it's surprising, to recognize how much was not simply potential genetically but already expressed in that seed experience; and to review how directly each theme developed thereafter. In effect, I have simply carried pre-school education on as far as I've had the chance to, in a natural and continuous way, conserving its "infantile" character as best I could while deepening, broadening, and extending its curriculum. The question of whether it might usefully be carried further in this fashion, beyond the sixth grade, must bow to the practical problem of finding schools willing and able to support such experiment and its risks.
One might well suspect that I'm stretching the envelope of tolerance already, for it seems obvious that students entering the normal system of science education from an unorthodox system not geared to its requirements -- let alone from a "regressive" or "retarded" one -- will find themselves faced with more and deeper problems in adjusting to content and method, the longer they delay. Rather than discuss the limitations of this logic, I'll just note that the proof is in the pudding. After having had some 850 students move on from my classes, half of them after four to six years' immersion, I have had no complaint about malpreparation come back to me, directly or through my administrators, even from the few parents who have vehemently criticized some of my practices.
I'm sure there have been some complaints that I haven't heard, not only because it's hard to satisfy 1700 critical people, but because I'm sure that each of my students indeed experienced some difficulties, and many of them significant ones, in going on to other teachers and ways of teaching and learning science. Though some such difficulties were due to practices that dampened their interests and discounted their capacities, others were ascribable to deficiencies in my own practice, rather than to its relative surpluses. Even so, by now the sample of feedback that has reached me is large enough to support its general conclusion, that the various "adjustment difficulties" my graduates have faced are quite over-balanced by the capacities they have formed to deal with such and other matters of learning.
As I have heard it, the commonality and strength of this appraisal are sufficient to justify extending my approach at least through eighth grade, for enough time to enable similar practical evaluation. It may be, of course, that I've reached the limit already, and that even one more year of glorified preschool play would cost my students dearly in delay. But in view of their robust capacities for transition so far, it seems more likely that another year or two would leave most about as well prepared to deal with any deficiencies while reaching their stride in the normal system -- and leave them more broadly and deeply versed in the kinds of learning characterizing my approach.
As to whether it might be extended continuously on through high-school, I must say yes and no, on quite speculative grounds. Though the customary sequencing of high school science subjects is somewhat arbitrary, their isolation in "courses" -- i.e., prolonged units of concentrated study -- is a more natural custom, as useful as it is limiting. In thinking about chemistry, for example, it is clear that such units need not be prolonged for a school year, and might prove more useful in periods of two to ten weeks, interspersed over several years with other units of scientific study of quite different character. It's clear to me also that such units can be infused more maturely with the "infantile" spirit and multi-dimensionality of my approach; and I think that many good high-school chemistry instructors teach at least parts of their curricula in ways that would fit naturally in mine.
This is to say that I can readily conceive a chemistry curriculum through high-school, extending my approach. Such details as how it would deal with orbital bonding are beyond treatment here. But I would wager that its graduates, compared to those of most present high-school courses, would have deeper understandings of chemical theory and dynamics, of the stuff and behavior of matter in principle and in life; and of their own capacities and roles as learners and citizens of chemistry.
The trouble is, they might flunk the tests. I don't mean this literally. I expect they'd do well on tests meant to assess the coherence, depth, and utility of their understandings, their cores of fundamental knowledge; and do decently even on dumber tests assessing rote memorization. But in terms of the competitive SAT "achievement" tests that define the customary purposes and qualities of college prep courses, I imagine most of my graduates might turn out second-rate, though still quite decently compared to the general run.
For just as in competing in a scheme of extensive memorization, there's no way to cop top scores on tests that measure one's facility with a specialized set of complex routines -- e.g., predicting and calculating redox reactions -- without strenuous practice, of a kind and degree that does not develop naturally in the matrix of my practice. Facing such tests, my students would surely have to undertake much supplementary work to prep themselves well for the SATs. Though those who chose to make such extra investment would probably do very well, this requirement certainly counts as a defect in my approach, in real-world terms, if not as proof positive of its inferiority. Even so, I imagine that in comparison to properly-prepped peers who scored 4's and 5's on the SAT Achievements, and so were excused from introductory chemistry in college, the better graduates of my unsupplemented curriculum would prove at least as well prepared to carry their knowledge of chemistry on to higher levels and into such disciplines as molecular biology and chemical engineering.
(Though this matter is on my mind often in this writing, I will emphasize only here -- or ask -- that my language throughout should be read with some forgiveness. Despite all that is personal about my work and account, and despite the literal truth of the adjective, I am uncomfortable in speaking so frequently of "my" curriculum, "my" approach, "my" students, and must trust that the reader will understand this as a convenient shorthand. I cannot help but speak as if I invented science education from scratch, including every well-known element; for in a sense, I have done so. Yet nothing small or large in my practice is proprietary. Everything has been discovered and employed by many others, and lies open to anyone's use. Even my way of weaving coherence is hardly mine alone. As for my curriculum, it is a frozen snapshot of the weaving process, or its product, like a rug. Described in sufficient detail, its design could be accurately replicated in somewhat more mechanical ways by other teachers prepared to follow directions, with much less preparation than I've had. This is to say that insofar as I describe it, my curriculum is no longer simply mine; it stands in public like any other educational model that can be applied and assessed by others. In this regard, I'd have done better to give it a grand, impersonal title -- say, An Holistic Heuristic Curriculum for Early Science Education, in acronymic pronunciation "Ah, cease!" -- than just to call it mine. And likewise for "my" method, "my" approach. If I haven't used such grand names, it's because I am less interested in replicating this product than in encouraging the process of weaving curriculum in individual ways. Here alone do I feel simply comfortable in speaking of my way as my own.)
To balance such lengthy speculation of one sort, about the extension of my practice, I will briefly entertain another of quite different kind. My practice may be accurately characterized as over-grown child's play, and caricatured as a case of arrested development, in avoidance of mature responsibilities. But equally, I think, it may be considered in deeper biological terms, as a case of neoteny. Neoteny is the tendency for organisms to evolve by exploiting the adaptive advantages of retaining infantile and juvenile features into adulthood. Such species as wolf and dog have benefited vitally from it, as has our own line since branching from apehood, e.g. in developing the retreating chin and aggressive curiosity of infancy. Might it be, that the retention of "infantile" features of curriculum and process into much later stages of science education portends an analogous advance of capacities and function, further developing and exploiting students' juvenile capacities, to the point where the whole process might be justly described as a different species of practice?
Such speculation seems a tad grandiose. Yet I must note that the impact of computers has hardly yet been felt in education, despite all the hullaballoo and billions of bucks invested since the early 1980s. We may expect that their fuller integration will change the practice of education as deeply in some regards as it has changed the practice of higher mathematics, particularly in science education (though I hope not in pre-school.) If so, some changes are likely to be favorable to education's neotenic evolution. For example, students already have access to devices for solving complex species of equations in all fields, for visualizing design, etc., that relieve them of certain major needs for repetitive practice and performance, though not of understanding; and free them to engage capacities diverted by such repetitions. The related impact on science education has been proceeding from the top down; and will extend at least through the levels where systematic data retention and relation and calculational facilities become important -- i.e., down through tenth grade in better schools, and perhaps lower. Curiously enough, this is the level where reasonable projection of the utility of my method leaves off, and my speculation begins.
In the example I considered, of chemistry, it would seem that the kinds of proficiency my students might seem deficient in, on the present key tests, are among the most likely to be supplemented by cybernetic utilities, and are likely to play lesser roles in future achievement tests as well as in practice. If so, I'd wager that my projected approach to high-school chem would win hands down. Might something of this sort come to pass generally in science education? Some fields seem more open than others, but in any, one can read some prospect of relief from traditional necessities of learning, and the possibility of engaging freed energy in deeper and more synthetic learning, developing capacities that may in retrospect be understood as having been bypassed in an earlier version of maturity. In such light, the prospect of extending my curriculum and approach generally to higher levels seems perhaps more plausible and interesting.
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My Practice as Basket-Weaving
Before continuing this catalogue of my practice's themes, it may help to see them in structural perspective. As each is rooted in my preschool work, in effect they are fibers radiating from this point, like strands gathered at the start of a basket's weaving. Considered individually, they are long fibers, each stretching through sixth grade, with its growth-rings thickest in grades two to five and tapering sharply at the ends. But it's hard to consider them separately, for they intersect in so many places and ways, and are so related to each other.
This is evident even with the few themes discussed above -- for the formal circle of our learning together is equally the circle of story-telling, the circle of participative drama, potent with their properties; and predicates qualities of active participation and direct experience for the learner, which will turn out to harmonize nicely with my approach to the material substrate of teaching, and to structuring students' influence on curriculum. In continuing this review, I will note such relations frequently, at the cost of occasional redundancy. Their complete description would require a much more exhaustive and redundant tract, and seems unnecessary; I hope only to convey enough sense of how such fibers are woven together to give a sympathetic reader a sense of the weaving and the whole.
As for the structure they form, I see it as a kind of basket, its surface signed with my designs, its form shaped by my taste and capacities in solving the generic problem of how to craft a container for sacred growth. That its dense interweaving of strands of practice should be so similar in style to the dense interweaving of strands of curriculum, which I discuss elsewhere, is scarcely surprising, as my practice and curriculum are so organically related. As the container is woven from living fibers of practice, one might understand the fabric of curriculum as a patterned, nourishing secretion from its interior surface, whose designs are evident also in dried encrustations on the basket's exterior.
Since some of these designs are quite striking or quirky, and some bends of shape likewise, my basket invites appraisal simply as a highly idiosyncratic example of individual craft. I can't deny that I'm proud of a few flourishes here and there, and of my use of found materials. But in examining the weave of my work, what strikes me more forcefully is its impersonal or transpersonal quality. For the nature and function of a practice, as of a curriculum, is determined less by its particular strands than by the way these are woven together; and the signature woven in mine is as little my own as it truly is mine.
In review, every connection and relation I've made -- between one aspect and another of a topic, between one topic and another of science, between science and topics of society and self, between the diverse strands of practice, between practice and curriculum -- has been inherent in the material, so openly that I have simply rediscovered it, without invention or notable craft, save perhaps for my nimbleness in tracing the connections. Might I say that I have felt the strands tugging my fingers to connect them to each other at the right angles? This sense of being directed by the internal logics of curriculum and practice pervaded me as I wove their larger structures, as a native weaver or basket-maker might find herself inspirited in working sacred materials into a healing design.
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Materials of Learning
The tangible materials of science education were no less metaphorical, for we began in pre-school simply with the phenomenal world, brought to class in fragments by the kids and me or encountered in situ as we roamed; and with the tools and materials at hand -- water, pitchers, ice in the freezer, a cobble to pound with when we couldn't find a hammer. My students' curiosity was omnivorous; and everything we considered was pregnant with discoverable mystery, which I tried to unfold in engaging ways.
The flood of their contributions struck me for a long time simply as chaotic, in a sense antithetical to order. But this hardly concerned me at first, as I was engaged so existentially and rewardingly with them in examining each thing. Though I deeply honored their random input, I was slow to recognize it as a systematic sampling of their perceived environments, modulated by opportunity and interests, in part stimulated by my class. It took me longer to recognize its distinctive substreams -- of rocks, bugs, spoiled foods, toys, ailments, dead appliances, etc. -- as such; and longer yet to learn which items in a stream reappeared dependably enough that I might use them to anchor strands of curriculum.
For example, in our region ornamental white stone is used widely enough in gardens that I can count on thumb-sized chunks of coarsely-crystallized marble to appear repeatedly among student offerings. At appropriate times and levels, these serve as pivot for discussion of mineral and sedimentary classification, metamorphic processes, quarrying, etching, sculpture, particulate lung disease, and environmental management, over time connecting many threads of inquiry in a way likely to evoke them occasionally as the student goes on through a world with white garden-paths.
By now, I have recognized a few such dependable pivots in each stream of contribution, enough together to play a major role in organizing the fabric of curriculum. No doubt, one could learn to organize it more completely around the flows of student input. But even this degree involves students organically in determining the curriculum. As this involvement proceeds so naturally through individuals, it is seldom a matter of focused democracy, though we do sometimes vote on what to consider or how to proceed. Even so, primordial forms of group will are evident in my classes' choices of attention, most strikingly perhaps in the case of dissections. But carcasses are no different from the rest of their contributions, as all lead them to discover with me a fruitful order in the chaos of the world's random bounty.
So many strands of practice intersect in my dependence on the material stuff the kids bring in, that I'll try to sort them out. In treating their stuff seriously, I am taking them seriously as individuals; and recognizing them together as responsible players in our inquiry. This recognition involves a certain parity between us, and a lack of condescension on my part; for I have continued since pre-school to bring in materials of the same sorts as they do, enhanced by my adult abilities as gatherer, and to depend on these in the same way -- rather than rely on materials of quite different nature and origin (e.g., commercial kits) to carry the main work of curriculum, leaving their offerings as token, second-rate decoration.
As my practice moved on from pre-school to the early grades, my approach to materials passed through a certain crisis, so slowly that I hardly recognized it as such. I admired Montessorian pedagogy in part for its way of developing manipulative and conceptual skills simultaneously through work with carefully-prepared materials. In contrast to its math equipment, Montessori science materials were neither coherent nor comprehensive. But I naturally tried working with those the school had available, and went further along their lines at times on my own. I worked up graded materials and their presentation, constructed some demonstration and skill-exercise boards, glued and painted six copies of the Visible Man/Woman model kit for kids to play with and grasp the 3-D puzzle of their internal organs, got kids to help with the Visible Horse kit, the Visible Frog.
This approach to teaching-materials had its pleasures and rewards, and obvious blessing. Yet something remained unsatisfying about it. What was lacking might be understood by reference to Montessori material and pedagogy at its worst. I'm sorry to chide a generally sensible school, but I'll never forget the model of leaf shapes that its teachers used with first-graders, in between their classes with me. As official Montessori equipment, imported from Europe, it wasn't cheap. In painted bas-relief on a flat surface, it offered sixteen distinct leaf-shapes, with the Latinate name of each shape underneath -- an array fit to guide a mature botanist in the field, if its selection of shapes and nomenclature had been more adapted to our continent and era.
In context, the model's use served to extend lessons in discriminating and identifying shapes, earlier exercised with geometrical figures and solids. Yet I wondered what localized numbness of mind led my colleagues to adopt such an instrument, so embodying a nineteenth-century Teutonic approach to order and skill, even for this purpose, let alone for botanical learning. Such shapes hardly had the authority of Platonic solids, and many more pertinent arrays were available for children to practice with. As for botany, the more creative teachers did have their students bring in leaves to match with the chart, rather than only trace the shapes and then draw them freehand, with labels, to learn them and such skills. And I could have gone on in kind to make a game of this matching, or better, to have my students discover from scratch the main categories of leaf-shape among local plants by studying their own samples, learning to categorize and order, and to construct our own chart to display them. Sometimes, indeed, I do go on in such ways -- but not often, as my interest is more in the leaves themselves than in their model or names.
For I just love real things! In my own practice, the difference between the real thing and its representation by a devitalized pedagogic aid is illustrated most vividly and richly in a case discussed at length elsewhere, in which I consider the relative utilities of road-killed squirrels, commercial preserved foetal pigs, and models and charts as pivots for lessons in anatomy and a wealth of coordinated subjects. But the same difference shines in every real thing, in each leaf.
For I just love leaves! They are all the same and no two alike and everything in between. Each one is rich with significant colors and patterns, revealing more the closer one looks, from shape to vein-work to secretory fur to stomata to chlorophyll stacks in the palisade cells, where our microscopes' capacities end. But one needs only one's eyes to recognize the red stipplings of viral infection ringed by the yellow of dying cells, the hole and track left by a dining slug, the aphid colony on the underside, the minute spider couched in silk beside the main rib, fat with their juices. The leaf is succulent, leathery, rich with vitamins and essential oils, tasting of complex alkaloids, odiferous; its point pricks my finger with a design to guide condensation's drip, its surface is waxy or furry to resist the wind's dehydration; its substance calls one to test it, tear it, learn its strength, split the parallel fibers of the stem; its petiole yields in appointed season, it flutters to the floor in instructive aerodynamics, before one can pick it up again and recognize the tiny clutch of pastel insect eggs arranged in formal geometry on its face.
Lord knows, there's a hundred things more interesting, pertinent, and accessible to teach about leaves, to first-graders, than the names of their shapes! But in teaching any, as in teaching the names, the leaf itself remains the best material aid, integrative and subversive, offering lessons that extend to a college curriculum, connect to a hundred strands of inquiry, and surprise us instructively with the "random" richness of the world. One cannot teach a lesson on shapes with real leaves without risking discovery of the clutch of insect eggs; nor is any lesson on shapes or any other leaf topic proper or complete without such "irrelevant" extensions.
As much may be said about any real thing (even instructional materials, when considered as things in themselves rather than as abstracted representations of things.) The real thing is numinous, potent, unique and universal, the center of the radiant universe, endlessly rewarding of inquiry, subversive of single mind.
All this is to say that as I moved on through the levels where science teaching is customarily conducted increasingly with the aid of prepared materials, from charts to models to tools, I found myself moved instead to continue using real things as well and richly I could, with the world as my source rather than commercial catalogues of teaching-materials. As a teaching-aid, the real thing is at best problematical. It was not designed for study at this level or by so many students. It is inefficient: one has to tinker with it, adapt its use. It is undependable: it rots, it breaks, it doesn't hatch. It bristles with irrelevant and distracting features: sharp edges to cut students' fingers, odd smells to lead their minds astray, damages that spur them to joke. I have cursed such qualities as fervently as any teacher might, more often than most might care to endure, in the midst of failed experiments and attempts to get students to focus.
Yet still I prefer to use the real thing, whole-heartedly. For usually it delivers, serving even the most narrowly-sought lesson; and what it delivers is set directly in the world's matrix of meaning, rather than isolated in inferential connection. And even when it "fails", i.e. delivers the unsought, the lesson is as vital and complex, for one ready to take it so. My students prefer the real thing too, so far as I can tell. Indeed, it has been our joint preference, each reinforced by the other's, that has made real-thing use so central to my practice since kindergarten, and might well keep it so far past sixth grade. The real thing is numinous, dramatic, the seed of its own story, charged with mysteries beyond any we consider; it surprises us, delights us, disappoints us, keeps us on our toes. Its use transforms the classroom, our circle of consideration, into an ongoing existential drama of engagement with the raw mystery of the world.
No wonder the kids continue to respond! And no wonder if an observer recognizes something infantile in the way we resort to a hammer in fifth grade, while trying to salvage a tape-recorder's motor for experiment, and find ourselves amazed by the stubborn resilience of its plastic case. For what have I done with real things but conserve another "infantile" quality of learning and practice, carried into pre-school from the time when every thing in the world was fresh with wonder and plumbable mystery?
In this light, the slow crisis I experienced as I considered and declined the customary uses of teaching materials was not simply one of methodology, but of spirit. As my pre-schoolers moved on into the grades, and the balance of our classes moved inexorably indoors, we found ourselves increasingly confined, dependent on bringing the world in in fragments if we were not to lose touch in a dry whirlwind of books, charts, plastic models, and audiovisual material. My attitude in encouraging this dependence may well bear interpretation as a rejection of maturity, with related consequence for my students. I can't deny that I clung to the real thing as to a teddy-bear, as I moved on to levels where I should have acted like a grown-up; but I clung to it also as a life-preserver in the practical sea.
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The Real Thing: Granite, Sulfur
The very idea of the real thing drawn from the world is less simple than may seem, and some features of its use are worth describing. One might think that a solid chunk of granite, from a basic mineral set of the sort teachers customarily order from a supply catalogue, is real enough, compared to a textbook illustration. But I wait, like a heron at the water's edge, as small bits of granite float by in the flow of student offerings, until Sarah lugs in a fine chunk from her family's weekend in the Sierra and I can spear the lesson.
Her real piece of granite is awkward, heavy, gouges the table; it is crusted on the underside with decomposition products, and on top by small discs of lichen measuring the years since its exfoliation; its grains glisten with some damnable fourth mineral beyond the basic quartz/feldspar/mica triad, that I can't offhand identify. It glows with Sarah's small pride and with my gratitude and delight for her contribution, concretized in the depth of the lesson. It comes not simply from a definite location, but from a place we all relate to, where most of my students have spent time themselves; its visual texture evokes memories of their own explorations among the distinctive forms of glaciated granite that dominate the Sierra landscape.
On the table beside the plastic contour map of California -- for I love such tools, in the right places -- its bulk evokes the true bulk of the great range that spines our state, the massiveness of the Sierran basoliths, risen from the deep. On the map, we retrace Sarah's trip from our spot on the sea-side of the Coast Ranges across the great Central Valley to the mountainous source of her specimen, and ask who else has been there or nearby. On the board, I retrace our journey in cross-section, profiling the sea, the modest coast range, the long flat valley, the granite peaks -- and then elaborate with colored pens, as we follow the oblique progress of the great offshore plate down under the continent's edge, scraping off the crumpled sediments to form our local Coast Range, sinking beneath the great valley for a hundred miles, to a depth where at last its edge melts and rises in slow bubbles of magma to solidify in granite batholiths, millions of years before their uptilting and exposure by erosion.
Sarah's specimen is specific: the large size of its crystal grains tells us it cooled slowly, leads us to speculate about its location within its particular batholith. It invites comparison with my own specimens from the Sierra, with other students', with specimens that exhibit other fourth minerals and grain patterns, leading us to begin to decipher the regional suite of granitic rock species; it invites us to judge how it would serve for a counter of ornamental stone, tempts us to find as nice a piece for the family garden.
What a rock! What a story it bears! What a way to introduce students to plutonic minerals and plate tectonics, what a way to ground them in the contours of their home! For what is unified in using the real thing is a web not simply of scientific curriculum but of deeper relation, of unlimited dimension.
This applies not only to primary things like rocks and leaves and bodies, but to our supplies and equipment, to their very elements. Take sulfur, for example, as we do when we unroll the chart of the periodic table to study the elementary alphabet responsible for the myriad words of molecule, and pin it down with our concrete samples -- lead sinkers, aluminum foil, real tin-foil from my father's childhood Christmas tree, zinc smelted from post-1972 pennies, dead embers of carbon, a raw lump from Silicon Valley, a tall canister with a shaker top. For the real thing labeled S for Sulfur does not come in a big chemical reagent bottle from the teacher's catalogue, or a little one from a child's chemistry set; nor even as the faceted crystal specimen I also display, drawn from some volcanic zone down-state.
The real thing comes from any garden-supply store, in conveniently-powdered form to shake on the broad leaves of zucchini when white mold attacks. It comes for a price my students can afford, in quantity sufficient for a hundred experiments or ten pounds of gunpowder. We pass the canister around, feel the fineness of the powder, smell it, go outside. I light some in a spoon and carry its bubbling blue flame round the circle, showing students how to waft the sulfur dioxide vapors cautiously towards their noses. The vapors are pungent and toxic; despite my warnings, a few inhale enough to cough, at times painfully; none will ever forget that smell. A narrow caution might forbid this small drama, despite the medical logic that accounts its transient pulmonary insult as a negligible addition to the ongoing effects of urban life, and the pedagogic logic that grasps this small cost as integral to my way of staging a vivid introduction to chemical reactions. But I am glad to teach them early to recognize the dangers of stuff they might use, and of using stuff in general.
Back in class, I extend this introduction in the classic way. We mix the sulfur with powdered iron, find we can separate the two powders with a magnet, mix them again, and cook the mix gently in a spoon over a candle. Testing, we find the iron's magnetism gone as completely as the sulfur's yellow, and deduce that what remains is something new -- a compound of the two, with different properties than either. This product is less striking than the previous one, until we learn to recognize it as familiar. I wish I knew a neat way to grow pyrite crystals from the dull mass of amorphous iron sulfide we make. But the real thing for my purpose comes round anyway the next time someone brings in the zillionth specimen of fool's gold and agrees to sacrifice it for the cause, doing the honors by smashing it to smithereens with a hammer.
After the scramble for pieces subsides, we test what's left with a magnet and find it unresponsive. We scrape up the powder, put it in a test-tube held by a twisted piece of wire, cook its bottom cautiously over a candle. The larger pyrite fragments pop and jump as expanding vapors fragment them en route to condensing in a half-inch crescent of clear yellow on the cooler glass above the powder. I pass the tube around, they waft it toward their noses; the stench of sulfur dioxide is unmistakable, so the yellow must be sulfur. We cook the powder more, until the air gets too fumey; dump it out, wait till it cools, test again. Dark specks fly to the magnet, confirming their identity as iron. So pyrite must be a compound of iron and sulfur -- at least. It takes discussion to wonder whether other elements might be involved, and me to say "no." Would the iron sulfide we made behave the same way, if we smashed it with a hammer and cooked it more? That's for you to check out, we haven't the time today. Will the sulfur dust kill the kinds of molds we grew last year? That's for you to check out, with spoiled stuff in your kitchen; you can use some dust from my canister, or go get more for yourself from the store. What about gunpowder? We'll make some next year.
The real thing in this case extends beyond stuff to our involvement with stuff. If pyrite crystals are so common that they litter my students' rooms, it's not just because they sparkle but because iron is abundant and by far the most important metal we use, and pyrite is among its most important ores. In our cookery, we learn the simplest way of winning a metal from its ore. Had we time to verify our imagination, we could actually pick enough of those dark specks off the magnet to heat on a rekindled ember and pound into a small pellet of crude iron, large enough to forge a sword for a Dungeons and Dragons character, or to furnish raw stock for a million nanomachines. And already we can feel the environmental cost of such industry, by the slight stinging of our eyes as the sulfurous fumes dissolve in our tears, in an intimate model of acid rain.
In this way, we recapitulate our society's technological evolution. But the cognitive neatness of this pedagogic cameo is underlain by an existential chord of empowerment. For everything here is transparent and accessible to my students -- the materials, the equipment, the processes. We don't have time in class to let more than a few test the sulfur/iron mix, crush pyrite, etc.; and their own time is so occupied that only the most motivated carry through to try at home. In this sense, the experience remains for most more vicarious than I wish it were. Yet even so, each student learns that he or she has the power to do the real thing -- not simply the teacher's experiments, but the winning, the befoulment -- and most will remember.
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Real Things vs. Imitation Things
In each of these examples, the real thing serves to anchor a complex fabric of fact and relation. As a teacher who weaves such fabrics, I like using real things -- but the matter goes deeper than personal taste, as I have no choice but to depend on them. At the risk of exaggeration and surplus abstraction, I'll try to put the matter simply. Consider all the substitutes for the real thing, customarily used in teaching science -- texts, charts, audio-visual media, models, commercial specimens, etc. Each serves to represent certain aspects of the real thing, to focus attention on these, to facilitate instruction in them. (Whether the teacher prefers the substitute or would rather use the real thing is irrelevant here.) Let's call such substitutes "imitation things," and compare the two kinds.
In general, anything that can be learned from the imitation can be learned from the real thing. This is nearly a tautology, as the imitation itself is derived -- i.e., learned -- from the real thing. Though it clearly holds for most of the general science curriculum, well beyond the grade-levels I consider, apparent counter-examples come readily to mind -- e.g., learning about the trajectory of a thrown object, or learning anything about the solar system. But even in such instances, it's clear that what one can learn by using an imitation can be better learned by recapitulating the process of producing the imitation -- the strobe track of the thrown ball, the trace of Pluto's orbit. Of course, there are major practical limits to this approach. So a first use-rule might read: "Use the real thing whenever possible, for as much of the intended learning as its use can serve; and supplement this with imitation things when their use can extend this learning significantly."
In general also, the imitation thing is preferable in many ways to the real thing, in terms of the purposes of teaching and learning it was designed to serve. It is more affordable, more readily available, easier to use, store, and maintain. It is better suited to convey this or that in particular; it does so more simply, more clearly, more efficiently, with less risk of danger, distraction, failure, surprise. Its use saves students and teachers the unnecessary work of deriving it from the real thing. So a second use-rule might read: "As almost anything that can be learned from a real thing can be taught better by using its imitations, teachers should use these as best they can, resorting to the real thing only when an adequate imitation is unavailable." Though the various imitations of a given thing often are incomparable, being designed to emphasize different aspects, when they can be compared it so often seems that the better one is so because it is "realer" in some sense, that this rule might be amended to read: "... should use the realest imitations available as best ..."
How can these conflicting rules be reconciled? From a perspective which I wish were only a caricature -- of customary practice as being thoroughly colonized and dominated, down through the lowest levels possible, by a pedagogic culture organized around imitation materials, and a coordinate commercial industry of their supply -- this conflict is only apparent and is quickly settled: Perhaps any particular can be learned from the real thing, but its imitation is better for teaching; so preference for real things is an ineffective superstition. A more humane perspective would finesse the conflict by striving for balance in the use of real and imitation things, appreciating their respective virtues. The balance might range from a taste of the real for spice, through frequent resort to it as nutritious, to dependence on it as vital. Many science teachers, perhaps most, conduct their practice in the continuum of this perspective; and my own case might be understood simply as an extreme example, save for a deeper conflict.
For the real thing and its imitation differ fundamentally in a way vital to the construction of curriculum. To put it simplistically: Imitation things dictate one way of weaving a curriculum, one kind of curricular fabric; real things promote and support a quite different way of weaving, a different fabric of curriculum and learning.
The difference is inherent in their natures. The imitation thing is admirably suited to implement a curriculum whose organization depends on the isolation of subjects and topics, and their serial treatment by linear tracks of learning, because it was designed for this purpose. By representing only some of the real thing's aspects, in an editorial way, it confines and directs the student's attention, inhibiting the possibilities of digression and connection. By comparison, for such a curriculum and way of proceeding, the real thing is indeed generally inferior, for reasons sketched above; it may be made to serve, more or less, but the teacher will yearn for a freer hand with the supply catalogue.
In contrast, the imitation thing's reduced nature makes it poorly suited for use in weaving a curricular fabric that extends in many dimensions and depends on the frequent connection and relation of its strands and topics. The teacher may still be free to connect the imitation to any other aspect of the real thing, or to anything to which the real thing is related; but the imitation typically does not suggest connection or invite relation, and supports these only passively. Its use in such weaving requires more imagination and energy from student and teacher alike, in every stitch, with discouraging effect. By comparison, the real thing is tailor-made for such fabric. Its aspects are embodied together, inviting one to recognize their relation and one's own; it comes from larger context, dangling live threads of connection.
As material and stimulus for weaving, the real thing is exuberant with possibilities, and correspondingly difficult to use. The problem is two-fold. The teacher is constantly called on to resist attractive possibilities of connection and relation, in order to concentrate on this thread or that; and to restrict them generally, in order to make enough threads substantial in the limited time available. On the other hand, in following them out, the teacher confronts more possibilities than anyone can master, and must find a way to weave connections and relations into a coherent fabric of curriculum and learning, rather than a higgledy-piggledy mess. I do not think there is a recipe for coherent weaving, or even for the proper balance between focusing and relating; in my experience it is an art, slowly learned and continually changing, as I will say below.
Though this discussion is necessarily abstract, it is illustrated concretely in the examples above and elsewhere in my writing. I may have exaggerated the practical differences between real and imitation things in some ways, but not their essential difference, nor the essential difference in the practices they favor. In any actual situation, of course, a teacher's ability to chose among and use them is constrained by real limits of circumstance and ambient custom. I don't think of this as compromising any "absolutarian" spirit of weaving freely with real things -- for some dialectic between the real and its imitation is a continual, inherent feature of practice, made tangible each time I chalk a diagram on the board or wave my hands in the air.
But I do think it useful and wise, to push the balance of use as far and as frequently toward real things as one can. In my own practice, one consequence has been that when I do use imitation things (e.g. models of anatomy or the solar system), students tend to grasp their relations and connections to real things and themselves, more readily and vividly than they might if they were habituated mainly to imitations. I think also that a certain critical proportion of real-thing use may be necessary to support the requisite balance and density of connection in a fabric of the sort I weave.
The limits of real-thing use may seem more direct and severe in teaching higher levels of physical science, as compared to biological; but this field is as open to imagination, and as rewarding. For example, I know of no substitute for diagrams and charts, in teaching key understandings of covalent bondings and ionic potentials. But the student will learn more in conjunction by using a hand-cranked generator to tear a few molecule species apart in solution or melt, and making crude calculations of the energy spent for the results, than by any labwork with equipment enabling more precise results with less-primitive involvement.
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I return to the beginning, to the pre-schoolers plying me with questions and offerings of real things drawn from the world.
It is easy to deal superficially with the issue of responding to "student input," unless one considers its deeper implications. At this level, about all my students have to offer is ignorance, raw curiosity, and a keen sense of what's interesting, what's worth looking into. As I know a lot about everything and how to look, and am full of conscious and unconscious opinions about what and how they should be led to see, they are quite at the mercy of my leadership. It's easy to make their learning entirely dependent on me, and to be satisfied with the result, since almost anything I offer them will be nourishing, unless I botch it.
This perspective governs customary science education so naturally and thoroughly, from the level where it first begins to be expressed through prepared curricula and materials, that an alternative can scarcely be conceived. Indeed, induction in science learning proceeds as a socialization to this scheme of relations and operations from the beginning. In pre-school, the teacher can afford to indulge students' random contributions and questions before turning to the lesson at hand; but as curriculum grows orderly in the early grades, the scant time for such window-dressing shrinks, vanishes. In the recent re-colonization of elementary science education by "student-centered" and "inquiry" methods, the anarchic role of "student input" is reconstituted and domesticated in stylized processes that mainly students to ask the "right" sorts of questions.
To conceive a partnership of different character between student and teacher -- or more properly, between younger and elder -- in science learning, one must look again at the beginning, at what students have to offer, then and always: ignorance, curiosity, and their own interests, capacities and response. In theory at least, this fits them well for co-leadership in an open inquiry into the world, implemented by the teacher's contribution of procedures and perspectives. Though this status may be engaged at any level, from any prior history, it is most readily conceived and supported from the beginning.
In pre-school, it was as natural for me to follow my students' interests and join with them in play to learn what we could find out, as to show them what I thought was neat and tell them why. How might some version of this early parity be conserved and extended? The problem has two faces. One involves learning how to do it -- i.e., working out in practice a continuous development of curriculum, in a way which involves students vitally in determining its content and character. The other involves having the chance and freedom even to attempt this learning; and I find it the more daunting. In the relative absence of institutional constraints, I myself have been responsible for dominating group leadership by my own agendas, precluding significant student co-direction so thoroughly that only scattered vestiges remain in my present practice with grades three through five.
This harsh and realistic judgment may be blamed in part upon the institutional constraints I do experience; for having fifty minutes of class only thirty-odd times during the year leaves me scant time to indulge fifth-graders' interests if I hope to cover methodical ground. But also the choice, and fault if such, are mine. For I have chosen to do as I've done -- yielding in part to my sense of what parents and the school value and expect; in part, to my similar internal agendas -- and might well have done otherwise even in such limited time, demoting such agendas in quest of a deep prize. For this is time enough to allow a teacher at any level to enter genuinely into a process of mutual decision with students, about what to consider and how to proceed, and carry it through with substantive results. Had I two periods a week with kids in the K-6 range, I would put one to exploring this line vigorously in parallel with the customary one, which my practice mainly follows. As it is, I rarely engage it in pure form for more than a week or two now and then, with any particular class; and well might do more. Yet some deep traces of student influence remain in my curriculum and its process.
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