Friday, January 09, 2009

Messing About, and Opening Windows to the World

"Nice? It's the only thing," said the Water Rat solemnly, as he leant forward for his stroke. "Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing-absolutely nothing-half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing," he went on dreamily, "messing-about-in-boats-messing-"
Kenneth Grahame

This quote from Wind in the Willows heads up a famous article by David Hawkins called Messing About in Science, available online in pdf . I read a quote from the article in another book. My library didn't have any of his books, so instead, I requested a book called Creativity and Learning from the library -- essays written in the late 60's by various scientists and educators. These quotes are from his essay in the volume called The Informed Vision; I wanted to type them out before I returned the book from the library.

On the Schoolroom with Windows to the World

In my own way, then, I agree with the present emphasis on a "return to subject matter." In the newer science curriculum developments, there has often been an emphasis on individual work, by children, that is laboratory-like in its style. This seems to me to be of very great importance. It constitutes a delayed recognition that the subject matter of science is not, except in a derivative sense, to be found in books. The subject matter of "the liquid state of matter" is the liquid state of matter, and we had better sometimes have some of it in the classroom. Along with aprons and mops as needed!

I have tried to suggest what laboratory style might mean in elementary school contexts. Peter the Great said he would open a window onto the West, and the elementary school laboratory might do as much, onto the world. But nowadays the pressures are toward the windowless school, and I have very honest doubts. The laboratory traditions, in high school and college, are in many ways not encouraging. Nor do I wish to underestimate the difficulties in avoiding a style of laboratory work limited, as in fact our laboratory traditions mainly are, to the attempt to certify the truth of previously announced proposition, not yet understood by the majority of students who, recipe book in hand, dutifully perform.

...It is certainly possible to program work, in some kinds of laboratory science, so as to rob it of almost all romance and reduce it, nearly, to the status of rote -- perhaps not quite, if only because a student very soon discovers that the experiment seldom works the was he has been told it will, that the "best" answers still come from the book rather than from his data. In some secret way, perhaps, he learns to mistrust the book. Or does he draw the opposite conclusion, that, in this great world he is being educated into, nature is to be taken with a grain of salt?

On the Difficulties in Teaching Science

A partial explanation of these difficulties can be found, I think in the psychology of us who teach science. In some measure, by some accidental pathways not commonly followed in our age, the culture of science has penetrated at least a little into the subsoil of our minds; we have pursued it much beyond the average.

But from this there are two results, contradictory to each other. One is that we have some art in scientific inquiry; we have been absorbed in scientific subject matter and we know the fruits in our enjoyment of them. The other is that we have proven or declared ourselves, and are certified to teach. The consequence is social caste. We are the knowers, the explainers. Nothing moves us to such generous efforts as to be asked for explanations. Shrewd children, even shrewd adults, learn to ask these flattering questions, though their interest is slight and passing. For the deeper the perplexity, the more burning the curiosity, the less children or adults seek prompt explanation. When you have exhausted your own resources and still fail, then you will go for help. If you go too soon to an explainer, he does best to turn you back on your own resources, or to direct you towards acquisition of new ones.

What is true of the initiates is true, also, of those who misfortune it is to teach science without any conviction of inner illumination. Here is the book, they are told, or the syllabus, or the teachers' guide. Now teach! The style is set for them; they know they are supposed to teach, to give explanations. And we, alas, the devotees, the mystics, have set that style.

On the Failure of Progressive Education

... and this leads me to my practical conclusion from the failure of progressive education to win its way into a permanent place in education. Where that movement succeeded, it did so because the world of children's exploration was amply provisioned with subject matter they could explore well, could penetrate deeply. Where it failed, it did so because the freedom for active involvement was inadequately provisioned. This inadequacy was often concealed by a preoccupation, illegitimate in the absence of provisioning, with the maturation of the child personality. "Freedom of expression" was often seen as a good in itself...

I wonder if we've gotten a bit more disillusioned nowadays about the limitations of the progressive school. At least, while reading these two essays, I was thinking that this is exactly the sort of thing that I do think works in a homeschool fairly well, but would be very difficult to manage properly in a regular school. In a home, a child is free to putter about in the kitchen or outside, mixing this and messing about with that, meanwhile getting a good sense of how things work. Because he is in a close relationship with his home environment and his family, there are natural opportunities for a constructive, healthy freedom. In the school -- I think Hawkins is right that the successes have been few, for more reasons than one can list here. He seems to think that the path back can be found, while I would doubt it more; most of the progressive educators that I know of who were serious about education have moved towards advocacy of homeschooling.

I think the same difficulty with well-meaning "over-teaching" arises sometimes with teaching literature. The Ignatian educators used to warn against "erudition" and caution the teacher to express it sparingly. The Ignatian teacher was to keep his eyes fixed on the goal of "self-activity" on the part of the student. That is, much as most teachers would like to simply impart the wisdom he has gained directly into the veins of the student, this simply isn't doable. The knowledge thus gained will be second-hand -- that is, not knowledge but what the ancients called "belief". Belief is fine in certain areas, but it is simply not the same as knowledge. Say I learn a certain way to factor. It will do me very little good unless in some way I understand, even if incompletely, what a factor is and how numbers work.

Of course, the teacher does have knowledge that the student doesn't. His role isn't unnecessary just because it is secondary. But it does seem to me that a good deal of "messing about" is important in laying the foundation for further, more focused work in any field. For philosophy, a lot of questions discussed and thought about; for literature, plenty of reading and listening and imagining; for science, plenty of experience in the natural world.


Stephanie said...

Willa, that's the link from our library to -- have you seen it? If you have online library access, you can get onto your account, then go to WorldCat from there, and you can have access to ANY LIBRARY IN THE WORLD. I nearly fainted when a coworker showed it to me. The stuff comes to your account at your local library (our either gets the book from interlibrary loan or actually buys the requested material for the library's collection), and then you return it locally, and it goes back home.

Stephanie said...

hmph. It doesn't look like my library link is a proper link. Just find

Willa said...

I found the WorldCat site and it looks as good as you said. I'm still trying to figure out how to make it work with my local library. It looks like we do have an ILL but no online way to access it. Details... Well, anyway, THANKS!!! Just seeing that site made my day. I see we do have one of the books over at our local university but I'm not connected, unfortunately, otherwise I could have just requested it that way.