September 18, 2003
The importance of faraway theories

Physical events provoke virtual connections, there's no doubt about it. As a result of attending this physical event, I went here, and then found my way to this article about science teaching. Here, it seems to me, is the key idea of the piece:

This preference for the concrete reality of everyday life over theory and abstraction dominates educational practice. Yet science is based on a set of abstract ideas. It has to be, in order to deal with the counterintuitive behaviour of the natural world. You cannot explain electricity without introducing the idea of charge and charge carriers – but try explaining what charge is. Electric charge is an abstract model used to explain electricity. In order to understand electricity a pupil needs to know, not only that charge exists, but also that it is a model.

Once a pupil makes that leap of imagination, a whole new world of ideas opens up. When we move from understanding everyday life to grappling with an abstract system of ideas, we can really appreciate the power of science. If we avoid dealing with the problem of moving pupils towards a more powerful way of thinking about the world, we avoid teaching them science. Many teachers try to use analogies that relate the flow of electricity to water in a pipe, or a model train on a track – but the more you try to make an abstract idea concrete, the more you stop children appreciating the difference. In the end, you have little choice but to demonstrate to them how powerful the ideas are.

Teaching should not only be incremental additions to the mental territory that the pupil is already familiar with. It should also be news of faraway places, of wonders and magical beasts and faraway lands, of the earth, of the stars, and of the mind. It should include parachute drops into enemy territory (the land of the unknown), not just safe little pushes launched from existing fronts. And among those faraway places should be those occupied by the theoretical sciences, theoretical because our mere senses give us no intuitive understanding of what scientists have nevertheless learned to be true.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:42 PM
Category: Science