Kolbe Report 12/2/23

Pamela Acker ~ How to teach Science to young children

Dear Friends of the Kolbe Center,

Glory to Jesus Christ!

In this newsletter we are going to share the reflections of our chief biologist Pamela Acker on a sound approach to natural science education.  We hope that this will be especially helpful to home-schooling parents and grandparents, as they strive to give their children and grandchildren a solid foundation on which to study natural and physical science.

Overview of an Alternative Philosophy to Science Education

For a number of years now, we have received questions at the Kolbe Center about homeschool science curricula. Currently, there are few Creation-based options available, and nearly all of them are Protestant. These texts, while removing references to evolution and endeavoring to offer scientific support for Creation, still fall short as resources to help parents teach their children science without falling into some of the same ideological problems as their secular counterparts.

There are several fundamental problems with modern science education. The omnipresent information about evolution is just one of these, which is an overt symptom of more foundational philosophical misunderstandings. Ultimately, whether or not evolution occurred is an historical question, not a scientific one. It has only come to be treated as a scientific issue because of a profound misunderstanding of what science is and how it works; and I believe that misunderstanding is cemented in the public imagination by the way that we teach science to students. Here I will discuss two of the fundamental problems that relate to K-12 science education, and lay out an alternative framework that parents can use to direct their approach to provide a science education that will inoculate their children against the primary scientific errors of our day. In a booklet that will be published by the Kolbe Center in the very near future, I will outline specific recommendations for particular activities and books that parents can use to implement this framework.

A true science is an ordered body of knowledge about some subject. As one of its primary errors, modern science education often inverts the order of learning that is necessary to build true knowledge. This is frequently done by placing the smallest “building blocks” (like atoms in chemistry and macromolecules in biology) at the very beginning of the course of study. But these things are frequently so far removed from the student’s ordinary experience as to be almost mythical – which means that with a modern science textbook, the student starts out from the beginning having to take the text’s word for the truth of everything he is studying. Thus, he is left with no real way to evaluate the concepts or attach them to his understanding of the real world, and this is not the way to build true knowledge. Instead, the student should start with what he knows to be true, and then build new conclusions on prior known premises. This way, he can be sure he is reasoning correctly.

The response to this error thus forms the first pillar of our alternative framework, and this is that the first activity of the student (and the bulk of his activity in younger years) must be focused on grounding him in experiential reality. On a practical level, this means that an afternoon out of doors is much better than an afternoon with a textbook; that a live cat is preferable to all the pictures of cats and cats’ habitats that one could muster; and that throwing a ball is more valuable than studying diagrams of trajectory and acceleration. One of the serious dangers of modern science education is that the student will mistake the images in the textbook for reality; when instead these images are models that are often put together based on very indirect knowledge. If a student spends his formative years actually interacting with reality, it will be much harder to lead him astray about it when he is grown up.

The second fundamental error of modern science education is an error of philosophy, which we might call “scientism.” This can be most simply expressed as the error of believing that the only true method to obtain knowledge is the experimental method, and the only true kind of knowledge is empirical (sensory). Thus, if one adheres to scientism, if something cannot be weighed and measured it cannot be said to be true. This is often presented in children’s texts as an exaggerated commendation for the method of answering questions through scientific experimentation, or as a near-canonization of individuals who have studied natural science using these methods. It is a subtle but effective way to prepare the student to put great faith in someone who “wears a white coat.”

The response to this error forms the second pillar of our alternative framework, and this is that the student should develop a healthy understanding of both the power and the limitation of experimentation as a way of knowing. On the practical level, this means that the student will learn the scientific method and conduct his own experiments rather than just reading about the experiments or results of others. This is tremendously important for several reasons. Without direct experience of setting up and carrying out their own investigations, students often think that if an experiment is supposed to determine between one of two options that all of the data will cluster inexorably around the correct option. The reality is that often data is a messy set of observations that require somewhat creative interpretation. Completing a single medium- to long-term research project can cure a student of the naïve assumption that when a scientist does research it comes gift-wrapped with the correct conclusion.

These two pillars – grounding the student in reality and providing an opportunity to learn how real experimentation works – form the backbone of the curriculum suggestions that will be offered below. The framework provided here is unconventional – it involves keeping children away from science textbooks as much as possible in their elementary years, beginning to introduce experimental methodology in middle school, and reserving formal study of natural science to the high school years. While you will not find this framework in contemporary schools, I believe it is the best methodology for the student to build true knowledge about the natural sciences, and to not be introduced to scientific concepts before he is truly ready to comprehend them.

This is perhaps the final mistake of modern science education – the idea that the more scientific concepts we are able to teach, and the earlier we are able to teach them, the better the outcome will be for the student. This is contrary to reality. When we clutter a child’s mind with things he cannot yet understand, learning becomes a blur and an exercise in frustration. In this field, less is certainly more – if conventional scientific study is left until a student’s intellect has developed sufficiently to engage with it, then the student himself is able to build true knowledge (based on his past experiences)and will be able to face difficult secular objections to the faith (like the theory of evolution) with solid logic and reasoning. He will be able to see science for what it is, instead of as the final arbiter of reality.

Please Keep Praying to St. Philomena!

Thank you to all of our supporters who joined in the recent novena to St. Philomena for the spiritual and financial support that the Kolbe Center needs to continue its mission. Please keep praying for the intercession of this good saint! Without additional financial support, the Kolbe Center will not be able to continue to fund my research and writing full-time in 2024. If you are not already a donor, please prayerfully consider making a yearly, quarterly, or monthly gift in order to help us to continue to produce resources for teaching about Creation. May God reward you!

Yours in Christ through the Immaculata in union with St. Joseph,

Pamela Acker

P.S. Today is a First Saturday. Please be sure to answer Our Lady’s appeal for the First Saturday devotions as described by the Fatima Center at this link.

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