Curriculum for Teaching Science and Scientific Thinking (Essential Skills Series)

See Essential Skills for a Modern World for an overview of this series on science and critical thinking skills.  I discuss science and scientific thinking in the post Follow the Ant. The recommendations below are based on my experience educating my sons and myself over the last decade. In my next post, I’ll explore other resources for fostering scientific thinking and increasing scientific understanding. 


Okay, you’ve followed the ant. Well, perhaps you’ve considered sending your kids out to follow the ant, asking them to return and fill you in, but hopefully you’re thinking about your children’s science education in more practical terms. Here’s a bit of assistance.

Choosing curriculum

Formal curriculum isn’t the most essential part of a child’s or adult’s science education , but I do know it’s what comes to mind when we think about teaching science. For the youngest students, I’d not bother with formal curriculum. Explore the world together. Follow your child’s interests or introduce him to yours. Go to the library and explore the science sections for children and adults. Watch science shows for kids and for adults, but mostly DO science by interacting with the natural world.

When you start selecting formal curriculum, be choosy. Insist on a curriculum that puts science at the center and avoids other agendas. (The scientific process is quite different from theological thinking. Mixing them makes for a poor education in both. Don’t do it.) Look for curriculum that requires the student to ask questions and to think about possibilities. Many texts intended for schools simply don’t do much of that, nor do many of the big-name publishers for homeschoolers. Inquiry science is the formal name for science that puts questions and thought before answers, and, frankly, it’s hard to find. Worry less about tests, as far too many ask for facts rather than concepts applied to new situations, and scientific thinking is a process, not a series of facts. Yes, facts are important, but divorced from doing science, they don’t create scientific thinkers. Look for questions higher up Bloom’s taxonomy, where questions require application of facts, analysis, evaluation, and creation.

Hands-on experiences that do more than show a taught concept are crucial to teaching the observational skills and thought processes necessary for developing strong scientific thinking. After-the-lesson demos may strengthen fact retention but they don’t stimulate the “why” brain as well that the same demo before the lesson. At least some of the labs and hands-on opportunities should require the learner to design the experiment, ideally formulating the question from observations they’ve already made. It’s fine if not all do. There is plenty to learn from cookbook labs, including technique and the range of possibilities of how to answer a question.

Many lab manuals and texts don’t have this focus, either because of the classroom logistical issues when children ask questions and figure out a way to search for answer (for standard curriculum) or parental ease (homeschoolers are often looking for ease of delivery, understandably). If your favorite option doesn’t do this, alter the experiments a bit. Instead of passing the lab worksheet to your child, read it over and think. What’s the question the lab asks? If I give my child that question and the materials in the lab (plus a few — be creative) without the instructions but with plenty of time and some guidance, could my child find a way to answer the question? (In a later post, I’ll give some guidance on altering labs to be more student-driven and aimed at developing scientific thought.)

Even if your curriculum is full of cookbook labs that you’re uncertain of how to alter, don’t despair. Just ask questions not answered by the text directly. Don’t be afraid to ask the ones you don’t know the answers to, and don’t worry about settling on a single answer. You’re better off wondering and wandering to more sources to search for more answers. After all, a good amount of scientific work is research in response to a scientist’s questions. Again, refer to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Model asking questions that apply, evaluate, and analyze rather than simply require remembering and understanding. Your children will soon do the same.

Here’s a short list of options to consider. It’s not exhaustive. All assume parental involvement. (I’ve not looked for early learner science curriculum in many years.)

  • Building Foundations for Scientific Learning (Bernard Nebel, PhD): Written for parents and educators, these books are designed for non-educators with little science background guiding learners in pre-high school science. Suggested materials are inexpensive and easy to find. This is NOT a workbook or text but rather a source for the instructor.
  • Middle School Chemistry (American Chemical Society): While designed for schools, this curriculum is an easy-to-use, sound introduction to the fundamentals of chemistry for young learners. The materials are easily obtained, and the lessons are clear for both learner and teacher. Here’s my review and materials list.
  • Biology Inquiries (Martin Shields): A full complement of inquiry-based biology labs for middle and high schoolers with clear directions for the instructor and plenty of questions for the students. The materials are generally available through Home Science Tools and your local drug store. (I teach out of this book when I teach Quarks and Quirks Biology.)
  • Exploring the Way Life Works (Hoagland, Dodson, Hauck): This is a text, but it’s the friendly type. This is the text for my Quarks and Quirks Biology course, used along side Campbell’s traditional Concepts and Connections to fill in some details. You’ll not find any fill-in-the-blank questions at the end of each chapter of this thematically arranged book that moves, in each chapter, from the very small to the very large.
  • CPO Science: CPO’s labs offer some fine opportunity for inquiry learning, and the texts are clear and easy to use. However, they often require specialized lab materials. The science-comfortable homeschooling parent can often improvise, but this may be a barrier to some. It’s worth a look on their student pages, however, at the student record sheets for examples of how questions about observations can lead to deeper thinking. (Here’s my review of CPO Middle School Earth Science. I’ve used Foundations in Physics and Middle School Physical Science as well, and find them all similar in style and strong in content.)
  • Just about any curriculum you like to use, with some modifications: Inquiry can happen alone but it’s fostered by community, even if that is just parent and child at the kitchen table or in the backyard. Take the curriculum you’re using now and read through it ahead of your child. Before your child reads, ask questions about what your child thinks now, or perhaps ponder together how something might work. Search online for a demonstration that will encourage thinking before the informational part of a lesson. Ask questions that reach beyond remembering and understanding. Yes, this is harder than presenting the book and some paper for answers or simply doing the labs as given, but scientific thinking isn’t fostered by multiple choice and fill-in-the blanks. It takes conversation.

There’s more to learning science and scientific thought than curriculum, and even a terrific inquiry-based curriculum only the starts the gears of the young scientific mind. My next post will discuss other tools for teaching scientific thinking that you just might want to include in your science learning at home. While you’re waiting, go outside. Watch the ants or the clouds (and see where the ants go when the clouds come). Ask questions. Look for answers. Science is everywhere.




Reading the Classics…Sometimes

January 2010 009I’m not as well-read as I wish I was.  I’m a once-English major who’s avoided a host of mandatory classics that my Engineering-major friends read for pleasure. I’ve not read through all of Dickens, Austen, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and countless others, and, frankly, I only want to want to. Sure, I’ve read a good amount of standard fare, enjoying much of it and merely surviving some. Faulkner eluded me, or more likely bored me to the point of poor comprehension. I started Anna Karenina several times, starting at age twelve, and never made it past the first chapter.

I read, voraciously when time allows. The problem is that time rarely allows. Sure, you make time for what matters, but parenting and homeschooling two boys while also wearing the hats of writing instructor, Physician Assistant, church volunteer, foster caregiver for cats, physics instructor, and single homeowner doesn’t leave much time for long afternoons curled up with a book. And by the time I make it to bed, I’m spent. If I make it through a chapter of one of the many books and magazines that live on the empty side of the bed, it’s a miracle. I’m midway through The Radioactive Boy Scout (Ken Silverstein), Japan: True Stories of Life on the Road (ed. Donald George and Amy Carlson), Rosy is My Relative (Gerald Durrell), How to Write a Sentence (Stanley Fish), the latest copies of Scientific American Mind and Brain, Child, and a knitting pattern book. At a chapter or article a night, I’m accumulating more reading material faster than I have a chance of reading it. And I’m not reading the classics.

And neither are my kids. Oh, they’ve read plenty of them as the years have passed, almost always assigned by me or by an online literature instructor. Both boys are willing readers, my younger with a heap of Horrible Histories on the floor near his bed and more in the car, by his seat at the kitchen table, and on the end tables near our couches and chairs. Oh, a book about zombies is in the mix, too. He’s enjoyed the classics he’s read or that I’ve read to him, but he doesn’t seek them out. Well, he plowed through a copy of Beowulf a few years back, and his copy of Lord of the Rings is battered and well-travelled, but he’s not picking up the Hemingway or Dickens on his own.

My older reads, too, although less prolifically and almost always nonfiction. His nose is either in Popular Science or one of his growing number of computer repair books, although some Bill Bryson or other lighter fare will appear at points. He did manage a list of fantasy and science fiction books this last summer, all required by a Coursera class. Some he liked; some he didn’t. None inspired him to explore the genre more. And he’s frank about it — the classics just don’t appeal to him. And for my older, not appealing is a fast track to not retaining. I sympathize.

Like with most subjects, our literature studies have been eclectic. I’ve avoided studies based around comprehension questions and other bottom-of-the-Bloom’s-Taxonomy pyramid activities. As one who struggles with remembering names and the favorite drink of the antagonist in chapter 7, I’ve always hated those questions. And without exception, every literature class I took, from junior high through college, relied heavily on comprehension questions. I stunk at them, losing the joy of the story while trying to guess what the quiz questions would be. It spoiled a fair amount of literature for me, blunting my thirst for more since most of what I associated with classic literature was the tedium tinged with panic as I read for quizzes rather then for story and joy. Thus as a homeschooling parent, I’ve avoided this method of teaching literature.

My younger eagerly laps up literature in his Online G3 classes, where discussion fills class time and meaty, high-on-the-pyramid questions dominate the homework assignments. He talks about reading more on his own, but despite my strewing them in his path, he gravitates to the familiar Horrible Histories or whatever the comfort reading of the season is. He’s a habit-driven child who finds it hard to break routine, even in his reading. I’m comforted that he’s generally interested in literature but not certain how to encourage him to try more on his own.

I’ve had some success wooing a child to read a book himself by reading the first several chapters aloud. Since my younger was born, I’d read to my children, either books in entirety or parts designed to pull them in and launch them on their own. This has slowed down as their bedtimes have moved later and our days have been busier. Classics filled most of our read-aloud selections, but plenty of popular fiction and nonfiction worked their way in. Just this last fall, I read Peter Pan to my younger (somehow I’d even missed that one), following up with the Michael Clay Thompson’s  Literature series, Alice, Peter, and Mole. (Review to follow when we make it through more.) This is one of four in a series available through Royal Fireworks Press with a focus on discussion rather than regurgitation.  Now, he actually doesn’t mind comprehension questions, but I don’t see the point in spending time on them. I’d rather discuss the book and literary techniques, noting connections between it and other books read. Most of all, I want to keep the focus on the discovery about our past, our selves, and the universe available through reading.

I hope that’s happening. I hope the balance we hit by my negligence interrupting my diligence gives them what they need to continue to be lovers of the written word, the sort to never leave the house without access to reading material. I hope they find some classics that speak to them, informing their writing and pushing their standard for what they read just a bit higher. But most of all, I hope they learn to read to learn and continue to feel a deep need to read long works requiring sustained attention. I’ll continue my job — gentle exposure focused on the bigger messages of a book rather than the little details. And maybe I’ll try some of what turned me off so long ago just one more time. After I finish what’s sitting on the empty side of the bed. 

Review: Lightning Literature & Composition 7th Grade

Lightning Literature and Composition for Seventh Grade by Hewitt Homeschooling Resources was the first packaged literature program I purchased and used some 4 years ago with my older son, and this September, it’s returning to our shelves.  This fall, my 10-year-old will explore fiction, poetry, and autobiography through this comprehensive program for middle schoolers that is easily used by gifted elementary children or reluctant readers and writers in early high school.  I enjoyed walking my older son through the program four years back, and I’m eager to walk through again with his brother albeit at more distance, since he’ll be working on the program under the tutelage of Headmistress Guinevere of Online G3.

Lightning Lit 7 is the first of two secular middle school literature studies from Hewitt, who also published 11 high school level literature classes, ten of which are also secular (Christian British Authors is obviously not). The middle school courses are scheduled over an entire school year, although my older son easily completed it in one semester, and my younger’s class will follow the same shorter timeline.  Assigned readings include The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Mark Twain), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll), The Story of My Life (Helen Keller), All Creatures Great and Small (James Herriot), along with two short stories (Rikki Tikki Tavi and The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky) and a dozen poems.  The short stories and poems are all found in Stories & Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children, and anthology compiled by Harold Bloom.  In addition to those books listed, each family needs a student guide (reusable), workbook (consumable), and teacher’s guide, which provides answers and a 36 week schedule.  At just under $92 for the entire package, this is a fairly affordable program that leaves the buyer with a good-sized stack of fine literature at the end.

The course is divided into eight chapters of varying length.  Each begins with a short biography of the author or poets and a suggestion of what to look for while reading.  A vocabulary list with definitions by chapter follows, as do two comprehension questions for each chapter.    The vocabulary list appears to be for reference only, since no reinforcement for the vocabulary appears in the workbooks.  It may be handy for some learners to have on hand while reading, but I have yet to raise a child who will use such a list while immersed in a book.  The comprehension questions are largely just that — basic checks for facts and understanding.  My older son answered these aloud with me, which allowed both of us to see how well he was paying attention while reading (a serious challenge for him if he’s not interested in the reading material, persisting to this day).

The meat of the lesson follows, starting with a brief literary lesson.  Throughout the course, these lessons cover plot line, rhyme, poetic structure, sound in poetry, creativity, dialogue, autobiography, and the character sketch.  The lessons are sound but, in my opinion, brief and a bit shallow for a middle school course.  The so-called mini lessons (sometimes as long as the main lesson) extend each chapter a bit and cover writing openings, outlining, limerick, haiku, cinquain, list poems, nonce words, choosing writing topics, brainstorming, and word choice (called “saying it with style”).  More of the lessons and mini lessons focus on writing instruction than on literary analysis.  I’d like to see more analysis and teaching of literary terms, but for the child who hasn’t had formal introduction to genre and literary terminology, this is a fine way to start.  For my older son, this course was just that — his first introduction to learning literature and what makes it work.  For my younger, who used Literary Lessons from The Lord of the Rings last year, this books seems light.

While writing, especially fiction and poetry writing, takes precedence over literary analysis in Lightning Lit 7, I don’t consider this a stand-alone writing curriculum, given it covers only fiction, autobiography, and poetry.  By the middle school level (and preferably before), most writing instruction should focus on the sort of writing the vast majority of us will do in high school, college, and beyond:  nonfiction, academic writing.  In my opinion, Lightning Lit 7 gives some fine advice for the creative/fiction genres, which may delight budding writers, but its lack of focus on the essay irks me.  (We’ll pair it with Michael Clay Thompson’s Essay Voyage to round out the writing component.)  While the literary lessons are a bit scant, the writing exercises at the end of each chapter offer a chance for an instructor to choose an assignment best fitting the child’s abilities or learning needs.  There are some fine assignments there, although without some outside instruction on essay writing and (for some assignments) academic writing, these assignments will be challenging to execute well.

The only consumable part of the program is the workbook section.  The workbook pages are to be done after the literary and mini lessons and before the writing assignment.  Plenty of writing instruction occurs here, much of it prewriting work, although Chapter Six provides an exercise on writing a coherent paragraph and another on finding topic and support sentences,which fits nicely with Michael Clay Thompson’s Paragraph Town.    Some workbook pages focus on grammar and punctuation, providing reinforcement of these skills, but, as with vocabulary, grammar instruction is not the aim nor focus of Lightning Lit 7.  There’s a bit a busy work, with a crossword puzzle and word search in each chapter.  We skip those, and I’m not sure why they’re included in this program.

Overall, Lightning Lit 7 is a fine introductory course for the child new to literary and poetic terminology.  A middle school student could certainly complete it independently, although working with a parent or other adult through the lessons would likely add to the depth of the program.  Aside from some of the writing assignment questions, most of the work sits on the first two levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy:  recall and understanding.  A parent or teacher could easily encourage discussion higher up the pyramid, encouraging analysis, evaluation, and creation.  (For Alice in Wonderland, consider adding Michael Clay Thompson’s short literature book, Alice, Peter, and Mole, which takes three classics and guides the instructor on teaching them through the upper levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. We’ve yet to use this very new addition to the MCT Language Arts line, but it looks quite promising.)  Using the materials in a small group or co-op setting would also increase the chances of students making connections and using higher level thinking.  Lightning Literature 7 is a sound start to examining literature, easy to implement, and easily expanded upon as needed.  It’s compressible into a semester course or can be used over the course of a whole year, as designed.  It’s one of very few in its field (a secular approach to book-length works), and with the caveats listed above, is a fine program.

How Does Your Homeschool Bloom?

The new Bloom Taxonomy, with skills gaining complexity as you move up the triangle.

Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Perhaps that’s a familiar pair of words.  Perhaps not.  In short, Bloom’s Taxonomy is an ordered list of six learning objectives designed by a committee of educators in 1956.  Benjamin Bloom headed that committee, so the name went to him over time.  Sounds like a homeschooler’s nightmare.  Committee of educators?  Many of us removed children from school to avoid having our children educated by committee.  1956?  Wasn’t that when rote memorization and corporal punishment reigned?  What use is that to me, a homeschooling parent?

Plenty.  Consider for a moment what learning means to you.  What do you want for your children’s education?  Few of us would say they simply want their children to remember numerous facts, since we’re aware the knowing times tables, spelling rules, the dates of rule for England through the last 300 years, and the genus and species of the ant on the kitchen floor.  No problem with knowing those things.  The first two are tools that can make learning a bit more easy.  The last two are perhaps, at best, lessons in rote memorization, which is a skill as well, handy in medical school and when gathering edible mushrooms.

Bloom’s Taxonomy reminds one that remembering is only the base of learning.  When we ask one to locate the parts of a snail or name the states and capitals, we’re working at the bottom of the pyramid.  Classical education gives four years to honing this skill in the so-called grammar stage, from grades 1 through 4, capitalizing on the sponge-like minds of our youngest kids. Montessori takes advantage of this skill as young as three, emphasizing geography and science at that young age with great success and interest.  For some folks, especially when their interest is piqued, this love of knowledge acquisition never end.

Understanding is the second stage, where one classifies material by any number of criteria, grouping and regrouping.  “Why?” is the question by which we often understanding.  Why does the rain fall from the clouds?  Why did the Civil War begin?  Summarizing and narration, popular activities in many homeschooling methods, fits well into this stage, since it goes beyond simple fact and asks one to restate just what is important into his or her own words.  For classical homeschooling, this takes place in the logic stage, grades 5 through 8.  (Three year olds may take the prize for frequency of asking why, although not all kids really care about the answer until years later.)

For too many homeschool curricula, especially math, history, science, and language arts for the pre-high school set, this is as far as evaluation of learning goes.  Most fill in the blank, short answer, and multiple choice tests require little more than these skills, although at late high school level and beyond, more may be required.  Many workbooks and tests in homeschooling resources stop here for the younger 2/3 of children, only asking them to remember and understand.   It’s not enough.

This is where good use of Bloom’s Taxonomy allows educators, homeschoolers and teachers and alike, to make learning really happen.   The third level, applying, asks one to take that remembered, understood information and use it.  This may mean making a model of a watershed or writing an example of a declarative sentence starting with an appositive and containing a prepositional phrase.  Problem solving utilizing previously learned math rules, such as finding the area of a floor plan, fall into this arena.  This is where knowledge starts to be manipulated and used.

Analyzing takes another jump in thought, and at the fourth level, the learner needs to manipulate information in new ways.  Here, comparing and contrasting activities fit.  What might have been, what could happen later, and discussing what problems occurred are all tasks of this level of thinking.  Knowledge from multiple domains is manipulated, shaped and reshaped, and understanding of a bigger picture occurs.

At the fifth level, evaluating, requires the ability to judge material and create an argument to support one’s thesis.  The thesis could literature based (Which character in Huckleberry Finn shows the greatest growth?), historical (Who was more responsible for the Cold War, the US or USSR?  Defend your answer.), scientific (Critique Pasteur’s use of the scientific method.), or any mix of domains.  Classical education’s final stage, the rhetoric stage, focuses on these very skills.  Certainly success in college and beyond demands ability at this level of the taxonomy.

The sixth level, or top of the pyramid, is creating.  Somehow, creating seems more valued in the traditional second grade classroom (I recall having to draw and write about an invention at age 7.) but isn’t emphasized later on.  Science calls for creating and idea generation by its nature.  Ask a question, devise an experiment, draw conclusions, judge what should come text.  Inventing something (a machine, a methodology, even a taxonomy) or improving upon an existing one fall under this tip of the pyramid.

Of course to apply, analyze, evaluate, and create, plenty of understanding and knowing must exist.  But if a seven-year old (or far younger) can invent and create, surely these needn’t be done in order.  Newer science curriculum, which is often inquiry based (Quite simply, see a demonstration or model, ask questions, make inferences, then get all the vocabulary.) starts higher up the pyramid, even backwards, some may say,  yet the understanding that can come from inquiry based learning is impressive.

Is it more work to hold the discussions, grade the papers, and create and score the tests that come with the higher levels of thinking?  Absolutely.  Do many homeschool curricula approach the elementary and middle school years this way?  Absolutely not.  Should this change?  Absolutely.

The jobs our children will hold as adults will likely require them to create new things and ideas, to judge what is a better or worse choice, to compare options, and to apply knowledge to new situations.  Whether they end up in medicine, law, engineering, education, or in the music studio over their garage, they need the same tools.  Let’s not educate our kids on the first two steps of the pyramid.  Let’s start early, asking them to create, evaluate, analyze, and use their knowledge.


A Very Incomplete List of Curricula Using Bloom’s Taxonomy

Michael Clay Thompson (notably the grammar recipes in the Magic Lens loops but examples exist throughout)

Suppose the Wolf Were and Octopus (questions aligned with the taxonomy, with books for kindergarten and beyond)

CPO Science (Very usable at home and inquiry based.)

Singapore Science (While the content for the elementary texts seems scant by American standards, these teach real scientific thinking quite well.)

Middle School Chemistry (Excellent inquiry science)

Singapore Math (All those Challenging Word Problem texts are great application of skills.  I’ve seen nothing better for the elementary set.)

Art of Problem Solving (Fantastic curriculum for highly talented and driven math students.  Pre-algebra debuts in August.)


Calculus for Young People (Discovery-based math for those in early elementary through adulthood.  Don’t be scared by the title.)

Online G3 (History, Literature, Grammar and more, G3 offers classes for highly and profoundly gifted kids.  Most class time for literature and history is spent on the top 4 levels of the taxonomy.)