Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Rethinking Science: Aiming Toward Scientific Literacy...

I've been doing a great amount of research on science in regard to how it was studied by Charlotte Mason's students and other educators of the past in an effort to determine how to proceed forward as we near the high school level in our homeschool. Educators of modern science tend to focus exclusively on texts throwing in a few experiments. There is little field work and virtually no living books are used. The teaching of modern science is compartmentalized or divided out into the different branches of science.

In the past, educators used a more, what I would call, holistic approach to teaching science. There was copious amounts of field work or nature study. Journals were kept of each student's findings. Books written by naturalists, scientists' biographies, natural histories, and other scientific literature were used, rather than texts. In Vol. 6, A Philosophy of Education, Charlotte Mason said,
Books dealing with science as with history, say, should be of a literary character, and we should probably be more scientific as a people if we scrapped all the text-books which swell publishers' lists and nearly all the chalk expended so freely on our blackboards. (p. 218)
In addition, science educators of the past didn't separate or label the branches of science as is modern practice here in the U.S. For example, following the track of my local high school, a student is required to take three credits of science to graduate. Based on course offerings, a student's middle and high school science studies could look something like this:

7th grade - General Science
8th grade - Physical Science
9th grade - Physical Science A & B
10th grade - Biology A & B (required)
11th grade - Chemistry A & B
12th grade - Environmental Biology or AP Science Courses (optional)

As you can see, each year, the student studies a different branch of science. Once a particular branch is studied, it is most likely not revisited. The sciences are segregated by topic. Also, once entering high school, it's possible, that a student's science study involves classroom time only, never once stepping foot in the out-of-doors for any type of field study.

On the contrary, in Charlotte's schools, students studied the various branches of science concurrently, often having several streams of science going at one time. According to Nicole Williams of Sabbath Mood Homeschool,

  • CM was doing at least 4 different sciences at the same time - nature study, nature lore, which turned to biology in Form III, and science, which was more than one science topic at the same time
  • Over the course of high school, students generally read 17 books, breaking down to 3-4 per year (7 on biology/botany; 5 on earth sciences; and 5 on physics/chemistry/history of inventions)
  • Streams of science were not broke down by grade/age like modern (physical science in 9th grade, biology in 10th grade, etc.), but rather students studied multiple sciences each year - more comprehensive

Charlotte said,
The study of natural history and botany with bird lists and plant lists continues throughout school life, while other branches of science are taken term by term. (Vol. 6, p. 220)
Charlotte continued the study of botany and biology throughout. She further stated,
The only sound method of teaching science is to afford a due combination of field and laboratory work, with such literary comments and amplifications as the subject affords. (Vol. 6, p. 223)
Based upon Charlotte's words, we should be using science books of literary character, studying a variety of branches/streams of science term by term, and making sure to include lab and field work.

In addition, I've recently been reading a reprinted/updated edition of Science Matters, Achieving Scientific Literacy by Robert M. Hazen and James Trefil. In which, they make several good points. One being an explanation of scientific literacy and why it's so important.
For us, scientific literacy constitutes the knowledge you need to understand public issues. It is a mix of facts, vocabulary, concepts, history, and philosophy. It is not the specialized stuff of the experts, but the more general, less precise knowledge used in political discourse. If you can understand the news of the day as it relates to science, if you can take articles with headlines about stem cell research and the greenhouse effect and put them in a meaningful context - in short, if you can treat news about science in the same way that you treat everything else that comes over your horizon, then as far we we are concerned you are scientifically literate. (Introduction, p. xii)
Next, they admit their statement will be argued by some scholars. But most likely, it will be due to the following misunderstanding,
...that doing science is clearly distinct from using science; scientific literacy concerns only the latter. (Introduction, p. xii)
This is where I believe Hazen and Trefil are on to something that relates to Ms. Mason. Some of our students will go on to discover new scientific breakthroughs. However, many will not. Either way, we should avoid a utilitarian education in an attempt to persuade or steer our students toward a particular profession. Rather we should provide a broad and generous curriculum filled with living ideas that allow our students to use science in the day to day. Our aim should be scientific literacy.

If we look back to the work of Aristotle, DaVinci, Newton, Galileo, and the like, they weren't in a class room reading a text. Actually, they weren't even called scientists, but rather philosophers, astronomers, and mathematicians. These men were out in nature making observations, keeping journals of things they saw. They were studying the sky and testing theories, writing down their findings in notebooks. Charlotte Mason was also a huge proponent of nature note books and science journals. She said,
Certainly these note books do a good deal to bring science within the range of common thought and experiences; we are anxious not to make science a utilitarian subject. (Vol. 6, p. 223)
As students are out and about in the field, studying nature and revering God's creation, they will begin making connections between what they've read in their literary books, learned through their lab work, and observed in the natural world. This is what Charlotte referred to as the Science of Relations, through which, the student will make connections between what they are seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and reading. They will learn a little bit about all the different branches of science.

In A Philosophy of Education, on page 222, Charlotte references the words of Sir Richard Gregory in his Presidential Address in support of, "affording children a wide syllabus introducing them at any rate to those branches of science of which every normal person should have some knowledge." Charlotte is advocating for scientific literacy as opposed to utilitarian teaching. She continues after the quote by saying,
The only sound method of teaching science is to afford a due combination of field and laboratory work, with such literary comments and amplifications as the subject affords....As a matter of fact the teaching of science in our schools has lost much of its educative value through a fatal and quite unnecessary divorce between science and the 'humanities.' (p. 223)
Not only shouldn't we separate the different branches of science from themselves, but we should not separate them from the 'humanities', the study of literature, philosophy, art, etc. Interestingly, Hazen and Trefil advocate for the same type of integrated bits of knowledge.
To function as a citizen, you need to know a little bit about a lot of different sciences - a little biology, a little geology, a little physics, and so on. But universities (and, by extension, primary and secondary schools) are set up to teach one science at a time. Thus, a fundamental mismatch exists between the kinds of knowledge educational institutions are equipped to impart and the kind of knowledge the citizen needs. (p. xviii - Introduction)
Based on my research and fruit from past practice with my children, I will continue to study science throughout high school using books of literary character, scientists' biographies, natural histories, nature study, and field work. I will draw from Charlotte's writings, Ambleside Online, Sabbath Mood Homeschool, and a variety of other sources for ideas. Scientific literacy should be our goal in science teaching.


  1. Great post. I look forward to seeing what you decide to use. I'm finished with my older two kids but have my 6 year old for the future.


  2. Thanks Cynthia! I will be posting plans in a few weeks.

  3. I like this idea. As a former biology major, I have a definite lack of knowledge in other areas of science, especially geology and astronomy. I am interested in integrating them together, and especially interested in using living books at upper levels. We do now at a lower level. I'll be interested to see what you come up with, as I've often heard that's the drawback to doing high school that way - that there just aren't many great living texts to draw from. I imagine you'll find the ones that are available though :)

  4. "As a former biology major, I have a definite lack of knowledge in other areas of science..."

    You make an excellent point here! It's something that should be a concern for educators.

    Cultivating the Science of Relations not only produces better understanding across the board, but also aids in interest, leading to long term retention. I know personally I'm much more interested in something I can connect with personally in addition to connecting dots with other topics and thoughts. In turn, that interest and those connections help me to remember it.