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Recovering the Nature of Science: Some Guiding Principles and Practices for Middle School

By October 1, 2015March 22nd, 2023No Comments

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Confessions and Repentance
“Mr. F, can we blow something up today?” When I began teaching middle school science nine years ago, a certain sixth grade boy asked me this question at the beginning of almost every class. It was earth science, by the way.

Day after day I laughed off the eager boy’s request and told him that he would have to wait for eighth grade physical science before we could “blow stuff up.” Somehow in my mind it seemed more appropriate to indulge a teenage boy’s craving for explosions once he had been introduced to the more “advanced” sciences—once he could tell me what an atom is. Truth be told, I think I enjoyed fueling his curiosity by dangling bits of “secret knowledge” in front of him, promises about the true nature of things, revelations that would give him more control, more power—the power to blow stuff up.

A few years into teaching, however, my default disposition toward the field of science and science education—and, by extension, the natural world—began to sit uncomfortably with me. There seemed to me a conflict between how I had been taught to view the purpose of science and what Scripture teaches about man’s epistemological relationship to God and His creation.

It wasn’t until I began hearing the voices of C. S. Lewis, Parker Palmer, David Hicks, among others1, that my presuppositions about the purpose and limits of scientific study, fossilized under years of conventional education, gradually began to be unearthed.

As I continued this excavation, it became increasingly clear that I had been committing two major sins in my teaching. First, I was training my students to view “science” as discretized, disembodied knowledge coupled with precise methodology. The rich stories of scientific enterprise that lay beneath the veneer of the modern science textbook—the messy tales of men like Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, striving to synthesize empirical observations with a Christian ontology—these stories had no place in my classroom.

My second sin was more subtle, though perhaps more injurious. Mirroring my own posture toward knowledge, I motivated student learning not by reverence and love for God and creation, but rather by the appetite of curiosity.2 To borrow Lewis’ phrasing, rather than presenting the study of the natural world as a means by which to “conform [my students’] souls to reality,” I offered science as objectified knowledge with which my students could join the progress of modernity and “subdue reality to the wishes of men.”3

Last fall, the SCL Alcuin retreat provided a fresh alignment for my journey as a middle school science teacher in a classical Christian school. I had uncovered those long-buried presuppositions about science and science education, but the readings and discussions at Alcuin acted like the archeologist’s brush, bringing further clarity to how I might begin this process of recovering the true nature of science in my classroom.

Guiding Principles and Applications

I have recapitulated my takeaways from various readings and the Alcuin discussions into what I will call “guiding principles for a recovery of science education,” four of which I will discuss presently, including examples of implementation in two middle school science classes. These principles are governed by a fundamentally Christian ontology—an affirmation and sanctification of the material world, bound up in the goodness of creation, the incarnation of the Son, and the resurrection of the Son.5 Moreover, this governing ontology is participatory— that is, “being is a gift from the transcendent Creator such that things exist only insofar as they participate in the being of the Creator—whose being is goodness. Within this framework, the vocation of things is both imitation and reference.”6 This “restoration of the sense of natural interiority, of the metaphysical ‘depth’ to all things,” gives back to the world its “sacramental quality, its dimension of mystery.”7 Such a distinctively Christian ontology must reframe our epistemological approach to the natural world, an approach which I hope to articulate in these guiding principles and examples of practices.

The first guiding principle for a recovery of science education is that we must model for and inculcate in our students a humble, reverent, and charitable disposition toward creation and the study of creation. Our students’ growth in their knowledge of the natural world should lead them toward a life marked by responsible dominion of God’s creation, which looks more like cultivation than coercion.

One way to inculcate this charitable disposition is through nature study, according to the tradition of Charlotte Mason, in which our younger students take part at my current school. I used to think that nature study was just a “cute” way to do science with young children, not understanding its value beyond that. Then I had kids of my own, and I began to see the beauty of God’s world anew through their eyes. Once I watched my two girls examine a cicada carcass for nearly half an hour, turning it over, poking it with a stick, holding it delicately in their tiny hands. I have come to realize that young children do not have to be taught to wonder at creation—it is their nature
to be wooed by the reality of God’s world. In the words of Anna Comstock, an early 20th century educator and leader in the nature study movement, “Nature study aids both in discernment and in expression of things as they are.”8

If you pick up the nature study sketchbook of one of our young elementary students, you will see in their attention to detail, color, and form a truly humble, reverent, and charitable disposition toward creation. Young children seem to have the power to see and express natural beauty in ways that adults have long forgotten.

But when nature study is displaced by “science class” in the later elementary years, reverent observation tends to give way to curious analysis. Some of this change is appropriate—children should begin to ask why and desire to know how. But I wonder if we are rushing them to this analytical stage a bit too eagerly and, perhaps unwittingly, opening the door to atomism while simultaneously stifling the cultivation of a charitable disposition toward God’s world as it is.

“The expression of things as they are,” Comstock says. I should have mentioned, my girls never pulled that cicada apart to see what it was made of.

Taking my lessons from nature study, I have begun to reintroduce some reverent observation in middle school science. For example, before we begin a unit on heat transfer, I place a lit candle in front of each of my students. I then provide white sheets of construction paper and colored pencils, followed by succinct instructions: “draw the flame.”

It never fails: some students immediately begin drawing not the flame in front of them, but the vague representation of “a flame” that lives in their memory. Others make an attempt at capturing the form of their flame, but with sparing detail. I allow this activity to continue for several minutes, then clarify my instructions: “Stop what you’re doing and put your pencils down. Now, spend a few minutes studying the flame in front of you. After that, make a very careful and detailed drawing of what you have observed, using the full time we have remaining.” With these new instructions, the entire mood of the room changes; one could hear a pin drop as students work studiously to capture vivid detail.

The next day I ask the students to describe in writing the flame they had sketched. The students are able to produce effortlessly—with no flames or sketches of flames visible–descriptions that are not only accurate in detail but artistic in expression. This exercise does not teach them what a flame is or how a flame works, but after two days of study they certainly know a flame—poetically, in a way that moves them not toward intellectual pride but rather toward adoration. This is the foundation on which we build our more analytical study of heat.

This mention of adoration leads to the second guiding principle for a classical, Christ-centered approach to science education: the study of creation should be affirmed as a form of worship of the Creator. Science instruction should be situated within doxological bookends.

A few years ago I stumbled upon the awe-inspiring macro-photographs of snowflakes by Russian photographer Alexey Kljatov.9 I created a slideshow of his snowflakes set to the music of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. During a day on which we serendipitously had some residual snow on the ground, I welcomed my students into my classroom by playing the slideshow for them. Afterwards, the students were eager to collect some snow from outside and view the crystals under a microscope. After observing the fleeting beauty firsthand, I asked them to write a reflection. I have included just a few here:

“The detail God has put into these snowflakes makes me want to know more about the wonderful things He can do.”

“To see the beautiful detail in a snowflake reminds me that I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

“The snowflakes are not much different from us. We both have the same purpose: to glorify God.”

We are wise to “consider the lilies” and encourage our students to do the same. Such an incarnational epistemology invites our students into a knowledge of God and His creation that not only complements but transcends scientific knowledge.

This reference to a more human way of knowing leads to the third guiding principle toward redeeming science education: Against the positivism of the modern textbook, we must re-humanize science. That is, we must tell the story of science, examining closely the philosophical and theological implications of scientific thought as it has evolved with human consciousness throughout history. A winsome re-narration of this rich and messy history appropriately tarnishes the shine of scientific knowledge while also redeeming the coherence between the pursuits of science and the pursuit of Christ.

Last year my eighth graders researched and presented on the history of atomism instead of taking a semester exam. They studied thirty different people— from Democritus to Heisenberg—and explored their contributions to the ontology of atomism, considering
also theological implications. Together we became better acquainted with man’s struggle throughout history to wrap his mind around the nature of being.

The same students not only learned to apply Boyle’s Law, but also read about Robert Boyle himself. We did the same for Mendeleev during our study of the Periodic Table and Lavoisier during our study of chemical nomenclature. Students learned that Boyle funded Christian missions to the Far East; that Mendeleev was the youngest of seventeen children whose mother cared so much about his education that she took him across Russia from Siberia to Moscow to attend a better school; that Lavoisier, despite being renowned in his own time for his scientific brilliance, died by the guillotine during the height of the French Revolution. In stories, the objectified knowledge of science becomes reconnected to actual people who lived in space and time. My students’ interest in and appreciation for the truths uncovered by the cycle of scientific enterprise found new life when these truths became connected to a narrative, one that now can be seen as just a micro-narrative in the grander story of man’s relation to creation and Creator.

But latching on to these truths—this new knowledge about the natural world—can have a dangerously intoxicating effect. As history has shown, “where knowledge grows without wisdom and without reverence, it threatens both our humanity and our world.”10 Thus the fourth guiding principle is necessary: a normative framework should gird all of scientific study. More important than the question of can we do something with our knowledge is the question of ought we to do something with our knowledge.

We began second semester of earth science last year by reading the second chapter of Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew, where we find Digory engaged in a frustrating discussion with his Uncle Andrew, moments after Digory’s friend Polly touched a mysterious ring in the uncle’s study and disappeared. While Digory is preoccupied with the whereabouts of his companion, Uncle Andrew insists on lecturing him on the merits and costs of scientific advancement by way of a self-aggrandizing explanation of his own research, which led to the magic rings and Polly’s current predicament as the newest subject in his experiment. Accused by Digory of being “rotten,” Uncle Andrew replies,

“Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.”

Digory advocates for Polly as well as other innocent creatures that have vanished to an uncertain fate, but Uncle Andrew replies,

“Can’t you understand that the thing is a great experiment? The whole point of sending anyone into the Other Place is that I want to find out what it’s like.” (emphasis mine)

At the completion of our reading, I asked my students to answer the question: “In Uncle Andrew’s perspective, what is the purpose of scientific investigation?” This prompt launched us into a rich discussion of Lewis’ main argument from The Abolition of Man, giving us that normative framework for scientific study.

I followed this discussion with a picture study of Joseph Wright’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump11,
a beautiful reprint of which hangs on a canvas in my classroom. In this painting Wright depicts a scientist surrounded by a gathering of folks, each of whom displays a varied reaction to his recreation of one of Robert Boyle’s air pump experiments. The pump contains a bird, being deprived of air, and the scientist looks out at the viewer of the painting, hand on the air valve, almost inviting the viewer to decide the fate of the bird. The battle between curiosity and charity is palpable, and that scientist looks out at my students every day, beckoning them to take a position.

He beckons me as well.

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