Teaching the sciences

Every science can and should be taught “top-down”–that is, starting from the most visible and obvious, then digging deeper and deeper into less-visible details. The study of each science would be spread over the entire 12 years of public education, each year promoting deeper understanding. This implies that the sciences would be studied in parallel, not serially, and continually. It also means that the studies would be thorough, and that all students would participate.

For example, the main content of biology can be taught in this order:

  • varieties of plants and animals
  • populations of plants and animals
  • ecosystems
  • detailed behaviors of plants and animals
  • anatomies of plants and animals
  • evolution
  • embryology
  • cells
  • genetics

Of course, even though the material would be presented and studied in a top-down order, there would be an awareness of greater underlying detail. For example, students would learn right away that the variety of plants and animals is due to evolution, the principles of which they would learn in detail later. Similarly, each step would reflect back onto earlier material.

There are many reasons why the top-down approach is preferable. I will address them in this order:

  • intellectual capacity and skills
  • vocabulary and awareness
  • recapitulation of history
  • tools and materials
  • interruptions
  • qualified teachers

This will be followed by a further proposal for revamping the K-12 curricula.

Intellectual capacity and skills

Young children are very adept at rote learning, but not capable of deep reasoning, nor are their motor skills advanced. The top-down presentation allows time for reasoning and motor skills to develop as the intricacies of the subject matter unfold.

The early grades are the best time to start purposeful observation of the world. Simple collecting is one of the best ways to stimulate and hone observational skills.

As students grow, they acquire a greater capacity for reason and abstraction, while gradually learning by practice what science and scientific methods are.

In addition, greater and greater reading and writing skills are required and applied as the student digs deeper into the details of the subject.

Vocabulary and awareness

The top-down approach begins with the everyday vocabulary and awareness of the world and builds on these so that thought and discussion progress naturally and logically.

For example, making and labeling a leaf collection begs for terminology to describe the differences among the leaves, and for ways to abstract and describe the similarities.

Recapitulation of history

The top-down approach is an approximate recapitulation of the actual history of the sciences. This means that the approach may be more “natural” than other approaches. It certainly offers the opportunity to include the details, personalities, and sequence of the actual history into current instruction. The history of science is one of the more important of the humanities.

All sciences began with the observation of the superficial and obvious, then worked their way down into more details. In fact, most sciences began simply as collections of objects or their descriptions.

Tools and materials

Classrooms in the early grades are less likely to have the advanced tools and materials necessary to teach the more advanced details of any science, just as the students are less likely to be able to understand and manipulate those materials and details. The top-down approach might require no special material at all in the early grades.

Interruptions

If for any reason a student’s science education is interrupted during the top-down sequence, he or she will have the broadest view possible at that point in his or her career. One could argue that a broader view is generally more important in everyday life than the underlying details. If the person later returns to the subject, he or she will have the context in which to continue.

Qualified teachers

It is unfortunate, or perhaps necessary, that science in the early grades is, or must be, taught by teachers who do not have a deep understanding of the material. The top-down approach tends to relieve them of that responsibility, although not of enthusiasm for the subject.

Another proposal

The world-view, practice and results of the sciences are core aspects of Western culture and of the Enlightenment that has brought us so far from the Dark Ages. A person cannot be a fully cognizant citizen of the West without a general knowledge of the sciences. What could be more relevant to students? Furthermore, it is this world-view of Western culture that has permeated other cultures, enhancing their ability to clothe, feed, shelter, entertain, and govern their citizens more effectively.

Therefore, the sciences should be the main theme of the entire 12 years of public education. This approach can satisfy all the informational and intellectual needs of a well-rounded person. Reading and writing and arithmetic obviously can be learned in this context. Mathematics, including statistics and logic, is necessary. The history of science and the biographies of scientists are interwoven with general history and are literature in their own right, ensuring that the study of the sciences is among the humanities. Science and its subject, nature, are entirely relevant to the practice and history of the arts. Foreign language studies are entirely relevant. There is even a scientific basis to music.

In fact, most subjects can be explored from a scientific point of view, while at the same time enjoying their emotional and aesthetic appeal. Which is to say that we would not ignore subjects that are peripheral to the sciences, or look at all subjects from only a scientific point of view; the sciences are simply the core.

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