Beyond Curriculum: Teaching Science and Scientific Thought (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 and curriculum in Curriculum for Teaching Science and Scientific Thinking. Critical thinking is up next. Stay tuned.IMG_1584

“Mom! Look at this!”

I leave my vegetable garden to join my younger son in his crouch over the remains of a parsley plant. Just days ago, we’d picked a few healthy sprigs for a soup, but today, I can only find a few intact leaves. What happened?

“Look, mom!” My son points at a small caterpillar stretched across a stem, inching toward the remains of a leaf. We watched, silently, focused on our visitor/thief. It took a moment before I saw the rest of them, six or ten similar caterpillars marching and munching. At only a few centimeters long, skinny with yellow, black and white, they were attractive. Fascination quickly replaced annoyance with our garden guest as we explored the nearby plants, inspecting them for visitors and damage. Only the parsley was eaten, with the flower to its right and the tree to the left untouched and uninhabited.

After a long observation, we went inside to research what we’d seen. Using an insect field guide, we identified the caterpillar as the larval stage of a swallowtail butterfly, common to our area. We returned the next day to check on our friends, but they’d stripped the plant and, apparently, moved on. The parsley plant rebounded, but was never touched again that season. We never finding a pupae nor an adult swallowtail. We’d done science, though, and that was satisfying.IMG_1277

My children’s science education started early, although it was one of the last subjects I taught formally. Before my older son was three, I named the plants for him. Hydrangea. Tulip. Black-eyed Susan. Boxwood. Dandelion. I’d named other parts of his world: His trains from Thomas the Tank Engine. Animals at the zoo. Colors. Letters. Numbers. Foods. Adding the flora of our yard just made sense. Is naming science? Certainly. Naming fills the sciences. Our planets, stars, and galaxies have names, as do elements and compounds. Taxonomy alone would make for a meager science education, but it’s a lovely place to start.

Naming gives a common language for what happens next in a child’s science education: Questions. While “What’s that?” is the refrain of the toddler, “Why?” is the mantra of the preschooler. Sometimes, we don’t know. It’s okay to say that. We’d be wise to model their question-asking by wondering aloud back to them. Why does the bee sting? Why does the ice melt? Why do the stars twinkle? Why don’t the planets? We can ask without answering, allowing time for wonder.IMG_1346

Scientists, the ones in labs and in the field, after all, don’t have all the answers. They have questions that are borne from observations paired with wondering, and they look for answers, but answers, the hard and firm kind, are often elusive, and life-long scientists are used to having more questions than answers.

Teaching our children and ourselves science and scientific thought required that we do three things:

  1. Observe the world, both natural and technological, naming what can be named.
  2. Name what you see. If you can’t name it, see if you can get close.
  3. Ask questions about what we see, wondering how that world works.
  4. Through research, experimentation, and more observation, pursue answers to those questions.

IMG_1448It doesn’t require the right curriculum (or any at all) or an advanced degree in science or math. It simply requires curiosity and the willingness to think about what is, wondering why and searching for answers.

Observation is simply a matter of practice. Take time to follow the ant. Watch the clouds move across the sky. Take off the back of your computer and look around. Turn your houseplants and watch their leaves turn back to the light. Take a magnifying glass to the mold on your bread. Watch yeast come to life when you go to bake new bread.

Observation can go beyond our homes and haunts. Nature and science videos — well done ones from reputable folks (most NOVA, Cosmos, David Attenborough, etc.) offer fine views of what we can’t see locally. The internet offers us even more, although use caution when taking your science observation online. Not all you may see is real, and using good critical thinking skills to sort through sites is a must (more on those skills in the next post). takes us to the stars and beyond.  The Periodic Videos bring us chemical reactions we should not try at home. BBC Nature provides images of the very big, very small, and very hidden.  While nothing beats observing the natural world unfold in real life, these sites and more can bring the big, small, and hidden into view.

IMG_1557Name what you see. Our best research tools at home are a set of field guides. While we buy some new, we’ve picked up most at used bookstores over the years. (Don’t be put off by old editions. A cardinal from the 1960s is still a cardinal, although given climate change, you may want a more current source for its geographic range.) Find guides for flowers, birds, trees, garden plants, clouds, and rocks and more. Yes, you could use guides designed for cell phones, but, for me, it’s easier to page through pictures in a pocket-sized field guide, looking for a match than to peer in bright sunlight and tiny images on my phone. Either way, look it up. Name what you’re seeing.

Ask questions. Specifically, teach your child to ask questions by asking them yourself. When first guiding a young child in this process, ask questions you know the answer to along with ones you don’t. It’s good for kids to hear an adult say “I don’t know,” followed by “What do you think?” That’s science.  Use naming language in your questions as much as possible. “What’s that male mallard duck doing when he sticks his head under the water?”  “How does that penicillin treat your strep throat?” Use the language of science — specific names paired with specific events  — as you form your questions.IMG_1313

Pursue answers.  Look up what you don’t know. Some families keep a notebook handy on walks for questions to look up later. We’re not one of those families. (I figure what we remember to pursue is what caught our attention the most.) Again, be careful of the sites you trust when taking science online.

Then take the next step. Do the experiment. Does the yeast bubble (respiration — releasing carbon dioxide) at a different rate if the water is cold than if it is warm? What does hot water do? If you add a bit of sugar, does that change the process? Plenty of experimentation can be done at home without fancy equipment. Resist buying books of experiments. While these guided demonstrations can lead to better understanding of a principle, they rarely have the child ask the question. Instead, the question is provided along with the answer.

You can use those books of experiments to spur questions, however. Use the lab as a demonstration punctuated with questions like “What do you think will happen if…” and “What do you think is happening?” Or turn a lab into a demonstration and let the questioning begin. Consider the experiment where the hard-boiled egg pulls into a bottle when the flame at the bottom of the bottle burns out. It’s a study of temperature and air pressure. Rather than doing what most experiments do — explanation first with lab later — invert the order. Do the experiment. Then ask questions. For each proposed answer, think about ways to test the answers. Do what’s practical and safe. (And discuss the impractical and unsafe along the way.)

Above all, have fun. Observe the world with curiosity and thought. Name what you can. Ask questions. Search for answers. Cultivate your own and your child’s scientific thinking every day.

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.




Essential Skills for a Modern World

IMG_1380 Again I’ve been disappointed while on the internet. I should know better than to expect scientific accuracy and critical thinking skills in the world of social media, where opinions are valued over truth, and truth is often “Because I said so” or “Because someone on the internet said so.” It’s circular reasoning reinforced by ego and emotion. No matter how many times I blunder, trying to inject scientific rigor and critical thinking into conversations filled with fear, supposition, and emotion, I don’t seem to learn that far too many adults don’t understand enough science or have enough critical thinking skill to navigate today’s information-filled world.

If pressed today to pick two skills essential to teach our children and ourselves, I’d pick an understanding of science and the ability to think critically. I’ve not the hubris to suggest an entire list of most important skills to teach your child, whether they learn at home or at school. The list would grow long and be impossible to order, as we live in a world where life is far more complicated than a hundred years back. Reading. Writing. Math. Government (and history). Housekeeping. Cooking. Personal finance. Swimming. Apologizing. Interviewing. Music and art, or at least the appreciation of them. Rudimentary social skills. How to be wrong. How to use your computer and phone, and how to help your grandmother do the same. Patience. Promptness. Someone stop me, please!

When I watch the reality show that is social media and read through what passes as reporting on politics, science, current events, health, and nutrition, I realize that two skills are poorly lacking for many people, even degreed and credentialed people: the ability to think critically and a basic knowledge of the mechanisms of science and the scientific process. These basic skills often are required in tandem, although there is plenty of need to employ them independently of each other. I need critical thinking to decide if a source I’ve found is objective and informed. I need an understanding of science to appreciate where that doctor is going with that long, flexible tube and just what he expects to find and why I should care.

Many times we need both. Understanding the infectious diseases that fill the news and our world  — Ebola, measles, malaria, influenza, and more – requires some basic understanding of virus versus bacteria and immunology, but it also requires the ability to think about risk without letting fear cloud our judgement. It takes critical thinking to appreciate risks correctly — the risks of acquiring those disease ourselves, the risks inherent in the ways we treat those with the diseases, and the risk to the world’s divergent populations if we don’t. Public health touches private health in ways that can benefit or harm either, and it takes merging science with critical thinking to see how that works.

In our highly technical world, where so much of what we encounter each day has a chip and is run by a program, comfort with science and skills in critical thinking are more important than ever. How many of us understand the basic way computer programs work or even what an algorithm is? Not the programming languages themselves that are behind our Angry Birds, Messenger, Facebook, Instagram, Google Everything, and Pandora, but the basics of the stuff of programming. On and off; ones and zeros; procedures, loops, and subroutines. Whether we’re wired overtly or not, computers and the programs that tell them what to do are woven into our daily lives, keeping inventory in grocery stores, managing countless systems in our cars, and protecting our well-earned money. Thinking logically, part of critical thinking, paired with some basic knowledge of physics, can help us better appreciate what limits (and doesn’t limit) technology today. You can be certain that hackers have at least some critical thinking skills in place and not a small amount of computer science skill as well. While we may not be able to keep up with every advance or learn any programming language in its entirety, understanding more about these ubiquitous systems is wise.

In my next two posts, I’ll explore what I see as the desirable skills in critical thinking and science and pose some suggestions for how to pass those skills onto our children while developing them in ourselves. I’ll recommend a bit of curriculum to help these processes along.  I’ll share what I’ve done at home to nurture these skills in my boys as I help them to grow into adults who better understand their world and know how to find out more about that world in a way that’s smart and responsible. Passing on these skills guarantees them years of frustration with those they may meet in social media, at meetings at work, and in their personal lives, but knowing they will leave the nest asking questions and pulling from their bank of scientific understanding helps me sleep a bit more easily.


Planning Time: What’s Happening for the Younger (age 10)

After an email request for an update to my “What We Say We’re Doing” page, I decided it was indeed time to figure out what the heck we’re doing come fall.  I have plenty kicking around in my head, but that’s only the start of the real work.  Planning for my 10-year-old is the easier of the two jobs this year, so I’ll start with him.

Math:  Last year, more independent mathematical work was one of my goals.  My younger still has a fair amount of panic about getting problems wrong, so generally he checks in with me after each problem.  This drives me nuts, honestly, and while he’s sometimes willing to forgo that pattern when he’s feeling super-confident, he has a long way to go.  We slowed math down last year when his panic at the word “math” began to mount.  He’s mathematically talented, and I really struggle with his aversion to something he does so well.  We added some of Theoni Pappas‘ work for fun, and Penrose the Cat is a hit.  Anything with a cat is a hit, but I have yet to find the all-cat math curriculum. We’ll continue with Pappas and similar material as we finish up Singapore 6B and Singapore Challenging Word Problems 6, a project that shouldn’t take long.  Upon his request, we’ll work through Pre-Algebra I and II from Life of Fred. (He saw a friend’s copy and thought it looked okay.)I didn’t bother with pre-algebra with my older, heading straight to Jacob’s Algebra after Singapore 6, but this child needs confidence despite his obvious talent, and I hope time and some diversions into other aspects of math provides that.

Science:  We’re all on to Earth Science this year, using CPO Middle School Earth Science for my younger.  It’s an inquiry-based curriculum, which means that questioning comes before vocabulary and scientific thinking trumps rote comprehension questions.  I’m a fan of the inquiry method and excited to try this well-reviewed curriculum.  It’s not designed for homeschoolers, and I’ll try to keep track of changes we make and materials we need so others might benefit later.  We have a bit of Middle School Chemistry to finish still, but hopefully we’ll finish that up this summer.

History:  After a highly successful semester with Online G3‘s History of US 2B (1899 to the present), my younger’s eager to take the rest of her offerings.  First semester, he’ll take the corresponding 1A course, covering the first three books of the History of US series by Joy Hakim.  He’s likely to pick up another in the series come spring.  History is in Headmistress’ Guinevere’s hands. Whew.

Language Arts:  My younger devoured two levels of Michael Clay Thompson’s Grammar and Vocabulary books, so this year he hits the big leagues with Word Within the Word I and Magic Lens I.  As did his brother, he’ll do these with Online G3, but while I left his brother does his own devices and kept my nose (mostly) out of the class, I’ll keep tighter reign on my younger son.  We’ll read the books together, and I plan on more outside work on the vocabulary for him.  I probably should have done the latter with his older brother last year, but it just didn’t happen.  We’re only half-way through Paragraph Town’s 20 lessons, meaning the book has been read but that other activities are left to be done.  At the end of last school year, typing skills sharp from Online G3 classes, he started a blog (Bertram’s Blog).  He’s abandoned it so far this summer, but it’s built his confidence as a writer.  Hopefully, we’ll move into Essay Voyage as the year progresses.  For the fall, he’ll take Lightening Literature 7, again with Online G3.  Can you tell we adore Headmistress Guinevere and her classes?

The Rest:  As a family, we’re trying Rosetta Stone Spanish I in hopes of providing all of us with some exposure to the language before someone takes Spanish in a classroom (likely my older son, who needs two years of it before college).  Karate continues to be our main source of PE, and we may be up for our black belts in March.  Piano study for my younger also continues.  Spelling with Steck-Vaughn materials was a wild success.  Who knew we just needed a traditional old workbook approach for that subject?  He’ll move onto the 5th level this year, and he’s delighted.  Handwriting issues have hit and hit hard. A year and a half of cursive via Handwriting Without Tears has produced many tears and no usable cursive.  His older brother fared no better, so, like his older brother did, we’ll move him back to print and finish out Handwriting Without Tears Can-Do Print.  His printing is far better than his older brother’s who has some serious dysgraphia issues, but it is still a work in progress.  Thankfully, both boys type quite well.

Of course, these plans are all subject to change, but this is one year for one child that I feel I’m looking at plans that could really work. As always, suggestions and “been there, done that” stories are welcome.





Chemistry Updates

Note:  The HS Chemistry page is updated through Week 34

Thompson Lab 10.2: Oxidation States of Manganese (before)

Today was our 34th Chemistry class.  I’d like to say it’s our last, but I couldn’t can cram all of an introduction to organic chemistry (alkanes, nomenclature, carbon bonding, etc) into one session.  After we do complete that topic, we’ll have explored 19 chapters in Zumdahl’s Introductory Chemistry: A Foundation and all the labs listed for college prep chemistry in Robert Bruce Thompson’s All Lab, No Lecture:  Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments.  They’ve taken four tests, submitted over 20 lab reports, entered three essays in the American Chemical Society’s International Year of Chemistry (IYC) contest, completed numerous problem sets, and watched an unknown number of Kahn Academy videos and assorted YouTube chemistry demos.

I hope they’ve learned something.

Thompson Lab 10.2: And the color change after

They sound like they’re learning, look like they’re learning, and (generally) test like they’re learning.  I’ve suffered far more self-doubt teaching them Chemistry this year than I did teaching Biology last year, but then the life sciences are my domain.  I’ve stayed at least a half-step in front of them all year for Chemistry, although the instructor’s manual for their text and answer guide for the lab book have made this half-step possible.  I know I’ve learned a bunch, and I’m fairly certain they have, too.

I’m vacillating between final exam options.  Last year, I used a past edition of the New York Regent’s Living Environment exam, which they found easy after the tests I’d been crafting all year.  I may use the Chemistry version of the same, or perhaps a practice SAT subject test instead.  I’d love to give both, but mutiny may occur.  Either way, I’d like THEM to know they’ve learned something that’s testable in the bigger world, the world beyond my kitchen table.   This may not be important to them, but it’s vital to me.

Thompson's 10.1: Reduction of Copper Ore to Copper Metal

While their “book knowledge” growth is impressive, it’s their lab skills that have made the biggest leap.  They’re far more able to trouble-shoot a lab before they start, predicting changes they have to make due to lack of equipment on our end, for example.  They work together far better than they did in the fall (and last year), managing to divide the “fun” tasks fairly and actually work together.  I have no doubt they’d be ready to succeed in any high school or college level laboratory.

Here are a few highlights from our year:

  • Making napalm (Thompson’s lab 18.3).  Gasoline, a styrofoam cup, and matches.  The neighbors asked calmly if they should be seeing smoke.  The calm affirmative from my son was part of an exchange had over that fence many times.  (double displacement reaction)
  • Distillation.  The fancy set-up is part of the fun.  Choosing what to distill is another.  See my previous post on making brandy.  (separating substances)
  • Anything flammable, explosive, or generally dramatic.
  • Impromptu quizzes about the periodic table (I stay out of these, as my memory is a poor match for theirs.)
  • Modifications to labs to speed up those boring wait times.  (Why use a 9-volt battery for electrolysis of water when current from the wall makes for a much faster reaction?)

So far, injuries have been minor (a slight burn here and there), my house is still standing, and our neighbors have habituated to seeing smoke in our driveway and hearing loud pops from the yard.  While the latter causes me to wonder how much smoke it would take for them to call the fire department in the event of a real fire, I’m relieved that they’ve come out of the class with four limbs and two eyes each. (Safety is always a must.  Goggles and lab coats are nonnegotiable. )   I’ve only nixed one lab due to safety concerns:  creating a working cloud chamber and watching the alpha particles (or at least the condensation trail they leave) from Americium 141.  They’re bummed.

Copper sulfate solution aflame

We have amassed a rather embarrassingly complete chemistry laboratory, although the boys are quick to point out it lacks a vacuum filtration device, a good pH meter, silver nitrate, and chloroform.  They’ve survived without.  There were some chemicals we couldn’t obtain, not being a certified school, and a few labs we didn’t complete due to the cost of the materials, but we did remarkably well for a homeschool lab.  Lack of radioactive elements aside, they’ve had the materials to really dive into serious chemistry.

So what’s on the schedule for next year?  Not physics.  Not from me, at least.  I’ll teach a one semester co-op class using the National Institute of Health’s free supplements, including a section on bioethics and one on sleep.  My teen may take a course on Meteorology from a local university, or he may work independently on that subject, which has been his passion since he was nine.  I’d like to see him take the Chemistry SAT Subject Test in the fall, but that’s left to be decided.  Whatever road he takes, I’ll look back fondly on this year of smoke and potential dangers and delight that the house is still standing.

AP Tests: Changes are a Comin’

Changes are coming.  The College Board, the parent of the AP (Advanced Placement) line of tests that allow high school students to test for possible college credits in subjects like Biology, American History, Music Theory, and Calculus, is making significant changes in their AP US History (APUSH) and AP Biology exams.  The January 7, 2010, New York Times notes the changes, which will be reflected in the 2012/13 school year, with more emphasis on depth of thinking and somewhat less on rote memorization of facts.


As my older son approaches traditional high school age with several high school level classes under his belt, homeschooling high school and what happens after what we’re calling “high school” weighs heavily on my mind.  Should he take classes at our local public school?  If so, which classes?  Should we just skip ahead to a conveniently located, welcome-to-homeschoolers, affordable university for dual enrollment classes?  Should he do Advanced Placement courses, and, if so, should he study on his own, online, or in a classroom?  Caught up in the desire to assure that he has myriad options open, these questions swirl around my brain at inconvenient times, such as 4 am.

Despite the Advanced Placement fever that consumes much time, energy, and pixels on some of the homeschooling high-school related list serves, I’m not an AP fan myself.  I took the AP Calculus BC some 20-plus years ago, received a 4 and commensurate college credit, and pursued a highly desirable in the want-to-be-unemployed set English degree.  My high school AP calculus class was well-done, not rushed, and inspired me to work hard, think thoroughly, and enjoy math.  I have no complaints.  I still hold that AP, for math at least, is of value in the right circumstance.  I feel markedly differently about many of the other AP offerings, especially outside of math and physics.  Especially in literature, history, and biology.

The 8th edition of Campbell's Biology for AP is 1393 pages long.  And any of it could be on the test.

The 8th edition of Campbell's Biology for AP is 1393 pages long. And any of it could be on the test.

History and biology at the college level do require a fair amount of rote memorization of facts, dates (for history), and terminology (for biology).  Unfortunately, facts alone aren’t sufficient for a college-level understanding of these subjects.  When treated as vast memorization projects, I think the bigger picture is missed.  Biology is, after all, a science of living systems, operating together, influencing one another.  Last year I taught high-school level biology to my older son, then 12 and his 13-year old peer.  Both are exceptionally bright boys, ready for higher-level content.  Both learned a vast amount of terminology and facts.  But they never could have taken the AP after my class alone, and that’s fine with me.  Unlike the rather cookbook-like labs required for AP Biology study (one doesn’t have to actually do the labs but they are fair game for the test), the boys did largely inquiry labs.  Inquiry science involves asking questions or being posed with questions and designing a suitable lab to answer those questions.  Such work takes a fair amount of factual knowledge, but additionally, it requires critical thinking, planning, and (what is, in my opinion, missing from the current AP Biology courses) true scientific thinking.  In real life science, there isn’t a plan set in front of you.  There are questions, often self-designed, but no recipe to follow.  It’s up to the scientist to design the experiment, report results, and, generally, ask more questions and design more experiments.  And if that’s what scientists do, that’s what we should be teaching our children in schools and at home from the start.  To quote Ms. Frizzle,”Take chances! Make mistakes!  Get messy!”  Hopefully the new AP Biology will allow for more of that philosophy.

While experimentation with history is not yet a possibility, thinking critically and relating historical events to each other and to present day happenings is mental equivalent.  After all, why do we study the past?  The fascinating tales of events of centuries and millennia ago is a compelling reason, but the best reason to study history in-depth is to better understand our world now be seeing where we (and everyone else) comes from.  Through history study, we gain appreciation for the sheer variety of ways to approach living in society, along with each way’s strengths and weaknesses.  Certainly some memorization of dates, names, and events is necessary, but far more important (in my opinion) is the ability to explore the past with the aim to improve understanding of the present.  When so much teacher and student time is dedicated to memorization of facts,  the forest is easily missed for all the trees.  While little of the NYT article discussed proposed APUSH exam changes, the move to categorize history into nine time periods and seven themes hopefully will aid students (and their teachers) in thinking more holistically about history.

APUSH for Dummies? I doubt the new exam changes will make that true.

I’m not against memorization, but I do hold that learning a subject well involves far more critical thinking and “playing” with information than rote learning.  A class dedicated to pushing mass amounts of facts into a child’s head is likely to have little time remaining for these same facts to be explored in-depth and chewed over.  As with of American education, the AP system perhaps sacrifices depth for in favor of breadth.  American education is often said to be “a mile wide and an inch deep”, and my take is that many AP classes (which, like or not, teach to their corresponding AP test) are largely about breadth.  I’m sure there are exceptions (even beyond math and physics), but biology and US history, very popular AP classes, are so broad that deep thinking is likely a casualty, at least for most students.

I know AP courses are necessary for applying to some colleges.  I know students count on AP credits to lower their college bills or just create more room for advanced or interesting material in college.  I am aware that, for the brightest students, these courses hold the only challenging material in many high schools.  Fine.  But for my home schooled, gifted, and inquisitive learners, these aren’t a priority as we map out our years before college.  We’re more likely to use college courses for dual enrollment (and I know controversy about that abounds) distance learning, and self-designed coursework, assuming both stay home through high school.  I realize that as they grow and the AP tests evolve, I may change my stance.  Also, since this is their education, not mine, they’re welcome to take AP classes and tests if it suits their needs and wants.

I’m encouraged by the changes in AP proposed by College Board, and encouraged for what those changes could mean for high-ability high-schooled aged learners learning in and out of school.  Changes are coming.  May they encourage our brightest children to think critically and deeply.

Have an opinion about AP testing, the new or the old?  Share away!

Knowing My Place

I’ve become accustomed to small explosions.  For several days, my older enjoyed dropping aluminum foil balls into a test tube of sodium hydroxide capped with a stopper and tube that led to a bowl of soapy water.  Hydrogen bubbles soon would coat the top of the soapy water. Add a  lit match to the bubbles, and BOOM!  Very satisfying.

My older son is obsessed with chemistry.  For Christmas 2009, he asked for (and received)  the Thames and Kosmos Chem3000 kit.  No more baking soda and vinegar for him, he announced.  He wanted the real thing, and the Chem 3ooo kit is certainly that.  For several years, we’ve had a respectably stocked science cabinet with an assortment of glassware and a dozen or so compounds we’ve used for experiments.  When we started homeschooling five years ago, science education was a top priority for my older son and I, thus the collection.  While the glassware has seen regular use over the years, many of the chemicals have been used only once or twice.  Now they’re  regularly on the lab bench desk, and I’m delighted. 

Aside from the kit itself, his inspiration and information come from Theodore Gray’s books, The Periodic Table and Mad Science:  Experiments You Could Do at Home…but Probably Shouldn’t,  an assortment of websites,  and a few friends.  He’s a pretty cautious kid, thank goodness, so my safety-concious self is coping well, thank you.  It’s fire that worries me the most.  He’s fairly likely to forget the burner is on and pass a paper/sleeve/hand through the flame.  No injuries yet, but no flame allowed if I’m not on the same floor as my young scientist. I’m actively seeking an adult mentor for him, largely to keep myself out of the path of his learning.  Years of  special interests (space, electricity, meteorology, and more) have taught me my role in these interests: facilitate, don’t teach.  I may approve chemical purchases, suggest technique (obliquely is best), and keep the fire extinguisher handy, but I should keep my instructional hat off.  Ask probing questions?  Yes.  Insist on answers backed by research?  No.

Of course, formally,  we’re studying biology this year, not chemistry.  Chemistry is next year, at least on my schedule.  But for my older, the best part is now.  So I’ll drive to the library, find a mentor, answer questions when asked, and insist on eye protection.  But mostly, I’ll stand back and delight in his true satisfaction of teaching himself.

Here are a few favorite chemistry websites:

United Nuclear (Chemistry supply retailer now in Michigan.  Can you say “field trip”?)

Digital Lab Techniques (MIT open courseware videos)

The Periodic Table of Videos (These are quite fun, if you’re really into the elements)

Theodore Gray’s Website (The guy who wrote the books.)

The Elements Song  (By Tom Lehrer)

MakerSHED (Associated with MAKE magazine.  Great supplies)