by John Krieger
I am normally a fan of field guides. I think every library should have observational guides to the birds, insects, and rocks of our world. Unfortunately, whenever they try to aim themselves at children and to be “educational,” they often end up diluting their value as a catalog with explanatory gibberish. Let me use this field guide gibberish as a useful illustration in miniature of what passes for educational material throughout many of our books, television programs, and schools.
Consider the following excerpt from an astronomy field guide that I was recently shown. (This passage makes up about half of the text on the two-page spread devoted to “Earth and Moon.”)
At Earth’s center is a metallic core of mostly iron and nickel. The core extends about halfway out to the surface. The outer part of the core is liquid and is the source of Earth’s magnetic field. Surrounding the core is a rocky, metallic mantle, and around that is a thin outer crust. Volcanoes, earthquakes, and movement of the crust called continental drift have changed Earth’s surface over the 4.5 billion years since it formed.
Earth’s satellite, the moon, was formed in a spectacular collision of the very early Earth with a smaller planet. The collision blasted rocky debris into orbit around Earth. Over time, the debris gathered together, forming the moon. The moon is heavier on one side. The extra pull of Earth’s gravity on the heavy side slowed the moon’s rotation. Now the heavier side always faces Earth.
Are you fascinated? Can you remember any of what you just read? Why not? Go back and look at the sentences. Every last one of them is a simple declarative statement, a bald assertion with no evidence. You could validly claim that there is no style or eloquence in these passages--There are no questions, no analogies, no “dress-ups”, no charisma at all. But style isn’t the half of it. Look at the logic of it. Every sentence states a conclusion, a very non-obvious statement, asserted blindly with no evidence. There is no pointing at observable facts, no wondering at possibilities, no marshaling of data, no reasoning at all. There is no connection in your mind to anything you might have seen, or found curious, or cared about. There is also no reason for you to believe any of it, other than the fact that someone wrote it down. The author could just as well have told you that the Earth’s core is mostly lead and tungsten, and that the inner part is liquid. You would have no way to know the difference, and no reason to care. Such statements have no connection to your mind or your life. There is no attempt whatsoever to convince you of anything, only an attempt to fill your head with fancy-sounding trivia.
And yet this is what passes for “educational material” on most of our bookshelves and cable channels. My college textbooks, all of the traditional middle school textbooks that I have seen, “educational” programs on TV--with some minor exceptions, they are almost universally delivered in the same unreasoning, authoritarian, declarative style. I call this the “authoritarian approach” to science, and I see it everywhere. It is so pervasive and common and conventional, that it requires a special effort to realize that there is something wrong with it, or what the alternative might be.
But there is an alternative.
Consider a recent discussion I had with my students. I showed them a picture of a full moon, and encouraged them to go look at the real thing in the sky. Then, like looking for duckies and horsies in the clouds, I asked what they saw in the freckles on the moon. We spent a fun class period finding lobster claws and ghosts and faces in the cloudy features of the moon. One student informed me that Chinese and Japanese cultures traditionally see a rabbit in the moon, which is something I hadn’t known before. Can you see the rabbit in the moon?
Then I showed them a dozen other pictures of the moon--rising, setting, in various phases. I even showed them one from the Southern Hemisphere in which the moon was upside down. What do you suppose we noticed? Wherever the moon is, we always see the same shapes. The moon always shows us the same face. Isn’t that weird? If the moon is a sphere, wouldn’t we expect it to turn, and to show us different faces at different times? But it doesn’t. However the moon moves, it keeps the same side facing towards us at all times, and keeps the back side forever hidden from us. The face might be turned clockwise or counterclockwise, or be upside down, but it is always the same face. We never get to see what’s on the other side.
(By the way, someone already tried to explain this to you. This is more or less what the second half of the “Smashing Planets” paragraph above was trying to explain.)
We also noticed that, as the moon rises up into the sky, or sinks down below the horizon, the same freckles are always leading the way. The face of the moon has a “front” that always moves forwards across the sky, and a “back” that follows behind. Now whenever the students look at a full moon, they can (I hope) imagine an arrow through it, showing the direction it is traveling through the sky, and they are able to do this because they have become familiar with its face. Ask them to show you the front and back in the picture above.
Now, which of these two “styles” or approaches to science is more interesting? Which will result in longer-lasting, more useful, and more satisfying “knowledge”? The authoritarian approach simply asserts conclusions, with no evidence, and usually no charisma. What I try to do is to take children by the hand, by the mental hand so to speak, and help them learn to observe and think about the world that they see. When I teach science, it is not my goal to enable students to recite facts and figures. It is my goal to enable them to recognize the world, to be familiar with it, to be at home in it. For those things that need explanation in a child’s mind, I want them to understand why we believe what we believe, rather than simply telling them the “answer.” I do not see myself as an authoritarian trying to copy my knowledge into other heads. I see myself as a tour guide to the world.