Adult origins of child-like attitudes to science

June 25, 2007 at 5:59 am | Posted in Children, Physics, Science, Teachers | 1 Comment

Rather like the chicken-and-egg question, I agree with anonymous that we are dealing with “Adult Origins of Childhood Resistance to Science” more than “Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science”, and, in a society where science is not held in high regard, this tends to lead to a downward spiral from which recovery is ever more difficult.

Also, I have to agree with anonymous in comment #2. The ball leaving the tube is a really poor question. Unfortunately, it is a typical tick-the-box mis-poser. Some kids would look at it and say “Neither A nor B, so which does my teacher think is correct?” When in doubt over the true answer, kids soon learn that the key to success at school is not to ask more questions to clarify, nor to point out discrepancies in the question itself, but to give the answer the teacher thinks is correct! (And figure out a way to justify it if necessary …) It’s no surprise kids resort to guessing which is the most appropriate answer when neither A nor B make complete sense but those are the only choices given.

Here is a prime example from the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. (Aaargh!)

I asked my three middle school kids to think about the ball leaving the tube problem on Eli Rabett’s post two weeks ago:

to curve or not to curve?

#1 said straight away “it will follow a straight line” because, as she pointed out, that was what she had been taught in physics, and they had done practicals on Newton’s Laws of Motion and there is no obvious force acting on the ball once it has popped out of the tube, so it would carry on travelling in a straight line …

#2 asked loads of questions about the angle of the tube, whether the ball had a spin going in and whether that could persist, how this question compared with crazy golf and throwing a cricket ball (both of which he is good at!), whether the ball and tube were on a flat smooth surface, or in a vacuum, and so on, and concluded “it will follow a straight line unless there is a spin on it and as long as the surface it comes out of the tube onto is not tilted or uneven”.

#3 said, “it depends on the speed of the ball and how the letter ‘C’ is made to stand up—I mean, if the letter ‘C’ is lying down, the ball will come out of the end in a curved line*, but if the letter ‘C’ is standing up, the ball will come straight up and out at the end, and then it will stop and drop with gravity down to the ground. So, it depends.”

* Notice how he related it to the letter ‘C’ because to a younger child learning handwriting skills, that is what the picture looks like, and the ink line is meant to curve onwards smoothly to the next letter!

“Promiscuous teleology” or not, I think some adults encourage children to think everything has a purpose, because that is the way some people think. Teachers are full of ‘duty’, ‘purpose’ and ‘consequences’ statements, and if parents have the same attitudes, where does a child go to find out that some things do have a clear purpose, others may have a purpose but we don’t know what it is, and others ‘just are’? Loads of adults answer a child who asks “Why?” with “Because …” and make up an answer rather than admitting more honestly “I don’t know.” or “Let’s see if we can work it out.” That is why I think some children “insist everything has a purpose” as in the quote Professor Rabett chose—simple fit-for-purpose answers suit the quick, easy soundbite era we live in.


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  1. All good points, especially that only “child #1,” made the “educated” assumption about the critical “which way is up?” question. Top marks for all of them, though, as each one thought about the problem and was able to explain their assumptions – if only more adults did so!

    Incidentally, although people love to pretend that we live in a ‘classless society,’ sociologists still study what might otherwise be called ‘class distinctions’. One of those that used to distinguish ‘working class’ from ‘middle class’ was whether or not parents regularly answered their children with ‘Because… (I said so)’. As I recall, the argument ran that children who got proper answers from adults were more likely to do well; presumably, proper answers both inform and imply respect for the questioner, which breeds confidence and (I would hope) responsibility.

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