Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Exciting News in Teaching Science!

Thanks to a post on the History At Our House yahoo group, I just found out that David Harriman is creating an entire science program through Falling Apple Science Institute. From the website:

There is a necessary logical order to the history of scientific discoveries. Nobody would claim that it is possible to understand calculus before grasping the principles of geometry and algebra. Similarly, one cannot develop modern genetics or immunology without chemistry, or understand modern chemistry without the atomic theory of matter, or prove the atomic theory without first grasping the basic principles of physics and scientific method. Each discovery was made possible by the previous discoveries. The history of science reveals the order in which the principles had to be learned, and therefore the order in which they should be taught.

It seems the products will not be available for a while, but we've got time. How cool is that?


C. August said...

I have read Harriman's articles in The Objective Standard, and have enjoyed them and was impressed by them.

I find his view on the hierarchy of teaching science quite interesting, and I can see a lot of good things in it.

One thing that has bothered me from the start, however, is that I don't see how it follows necessarily that because scientific discoveries followed a certain path, building on previous knowledge, that this path is also necessarily the best way to teach science now.

I'm assuming for the sake of argument that Harriman's curriculum would follow the path of historical discovery exactly, without modification -- I'd guess that this is likely not the case in reality.

Still, this quote is pretty definitive: "The history of science reveals the order in which the principles had to be learned, and therefore the order in which they should be taught." [bold added]

I am not an expert in the history of science, but I find it hard to believe that all major discoveries happened only when they "had" to happen, hierarchically speaking (note that I'm not suggesting he is implying Fate or something.) Of course a verifiable atomic theory could not have sprung out of nowhere before all the individual discoveries in chemistry and physics made it possible.

However, now that we have a certain greater context of knowledge in modern times, I wonder if it would be better to construct a hierarchical curriculum based on logical consistency and rational epistemology -- using history as a guide -- rather than simply postulating that historical discoveries inherently followed the most logical course, and that it is also the best course for teaching science.

I'm really interested in hearing what you and others think about this. It's a nagging point that I haven't been able to resolve for some time.

And one further point of clarification, in case it wasn't clear enough above: I applaud the effort to identify a valid, rational hierarchy as a guide for teaching science. What I question is the apparent argument that "because it happened this way in history, it must be the only way to teach." Perhaps I'm reading too much into those statements. Am I overreacting? Creating a strawman?

Lynne said...

Since I am not an expert in anything, I can only respond with what I do know and make guesses from there. (Felt pressure to include a disclaimer there.)

I do not agree with the premise of your "apparent argument". (Does that fit the definition of a straw-man?) I do, however, think that your appositive "building on previous knowledge" hits the fundamental nail on its proverbial head. Building on previous knowledge enables one to more fully integrate and develop his knowlege. Otherwise, wouldn't learning about new things be just a bunch of floating abstractions?

The development of scientific discoveries, and therefore the advancement of scientific knowledge, were built on previous knowledge - so I don't see even a potential conflict in learning that way. Clearly, I am missing something. What do I not understand about your concern?

Regarding Harriman's following the path of discoveries exactly, I imagine his method will be much like that of Scott Powell's approach to teaching history: focus on events which happened and are "IMPORTANT" to the subject at hand while being appropriately tailored to the student's learning level.

Most importantly to me, as the homeschooling parent, is that I get to help my daughter learn by sharing the significant abilities of men who are not only experts in their fields, but also hold correct philosophical approaches to education. That value cannot be overestimated.

C. August said...

Your comparison to Powell history method is interesting. A potential problem with the comparison I see is that in teaching scientific concepts, we're helping the students to learn about observable, verifiable truths of existence, ones that can be tested and replicated. In history, we're trying to describe and integrate things that happened in the past.

Events in history are not natural laws, thus the task of teaching them in a rational manner would be different. There is nothing to test, no lab work to verify findings. We're still dealing with concept formation, but both the concretes and the nature of the higher-level abstractions are different. Sticking to the historical facts as they happened, in the order they happened, is important. The order itself is a crucial piece to the puzzle, a piece of information in itself.

With science, I don't think the historical order of discoveries is absolutely necessarily the main guide to effectively teaching the concepts. Often, I'm sure the best conceptual hierarchy for teaching lines up quite well with the historical record, but I simply can't see that as being an absolute law.

As I said, I fully agree that a rational hierarchy of concepts is necessary to teach science. This means I fully agree with your point that "Building on previous knowledge enables one to more fully integrate and develop his knowlege. Otherwise, wouldn't learning about new things be just a bunch of floating abstractions?"

But the sense I get from Harriman is that he views history as the one and only guide to establishing that hierarchy (see the quote in my previous comment). I need more proof than that. I think it's a really good starting point, but I want more detail on the curriculum before I fully buy that argument (or perhaps find out that's not his full argument)

What I hope is that he is summarizing his position to contrast it with the prevailing (and crappy) wisdom, and is thus glossing over the fact that he will be carefully constructing a curriculum with history as a guide, but reason as the final arbiter.

I hope the guiding vision is not "in what order did scientific discoveries occur?" but instead "what is the best order in which to help children build, integrate and understand complex scientific concepts?"

Lynne said...

Well, again, we just don't yet know exactly what the curriculum will contain, but based on the fact that there is a very high correlation between the historic development of science and the hierarchy of learning AND that this connection has been replaced in the classroom by testable fact accumulation, I suspect you may be onto something when you hope he'll use "history as a guide, but reason as the final arbiter."

Can you give me an example of where an historic spine would violate or at least contradict a hierarchical science curriculum? Then maybe I could understand your concern.

C. August said...

I can't think of an example. And I went back and re-read some of the TOS article on atomic theory, and read the full article on the "Falling Apple Science Institute" website, and it's pretty clear that I'm taking this, and the quote I highlighted, out of context.

When looking at it from the perspective of "You shouldn't teach a kid how an electron microscope image helped confirm the double-helix of DNA before he even knows what a cell is" then there is nothing wrong with the quote.

Lynne said...

Glad you worked that out because I am barely hanging on by a thread in attempting to explain it beyond "it makes perfect sense to me."