That which has become the dominant idea of one person’s life, if it be launched suddenly at another, conveys no very great depth or weight of meaning to the second person — he wants to get at it by degrees, to see the steps by which the other has traveled” (Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p.97).

Charlotte Mason happens to be talking about an idea of her own in the above quote, which she wants us to understand, but she knows that if she just states her conclusions, it will have far less impact on us than if we “get at it by degrees.”  The same is true for the principles of science. So, why do we think it’s acceptable to unload a bundle of scientific facts onto children and expect them to learn or simply memorize them? Is it because that is how we were taught, and we don’t know any other way? Or perhaps it is because we already know about these things and we consider them common knowledge.

Mason reminds us:

The flowers, it is true, are not new; but the children are; and it is the fault of their elders if every new flower they come upon is not to them a Picciola, a mystery of beauty to be watched from day to day with unspeakable awe and delight” (Home Education, p. 53).

All science is delightful, but too often we try to inform our students of only the last page of the story, what we know currently, rather than to let them discover the mystery and beauty of it day by day. The periodic table, for example, means very little to a child when he first sees it. However, let him hear the story of how Mendeleyev discovered a pattern that allowed him to organize the elements that had already been discovered, and even allowed him to predict elements which he knew must be out there somewhere but hadn’t been found yet, and all of a sudden that boring table of elements begins to represent an adventure.

Science biographies allow children to work side-by-side, so to speak, with a scientist. They learn something about what it takes to be a scientist, and their respect and admiration grow as they watch these men and women sacrifice and persevere in the face of so much failure and rejection. In addition, a living biography draws our students in, making them feel like they are there. Imagine being present when William Harvey pinched a man’s main artery and watched his heart swell up with blood. That’s not an experiment you’ll find in 101 Labs for Kids! They might also find it fascinating to work side-by-side with Marie Curie as she discovers and works with radium, though handling radium is not to be desired. As our students read biographies, they are there with the scientists, pulling for them as they test their theories, building on their own understanding of the subject in the same incremental steps as science has built its understanding – one discovery leading to the next.

Scientific truths, said Descartes, are battles won; describe to the young the principal and most heroic of these battles; you will thus interest them in the results of science, and you will develop in them a scientific spirit by means of the enthusiasm for the conquest of truth; you will make them see the power of the reasoning which has led to discoveries in the past, and which will do so again in the future” (M. Fouillée, quoted by Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children, p. 128).

Students learn about the unifying ideas of the past as they read science biographies, ideas that great men claimed to be the final answer, but unlike the heroes of these books, we, who are further down the road, can see what followed. Sometimes it was not the final answer after all, and by this realization our students become more discerning regarding the discoveries of our own day. Our conclusions are not necessarily the final word either. Our children will not mock them, pridefully thinking that they would have known better, because they have traveled a long road with them in their reading and sympathized with them through the biography. They understand why their hero has come to that conclusion, even though they also now know that it was false. They have learned a valuable lesson.

Two things are incumbent upon us,––to keep ourselves and our children in touch with the great thoughts by which the world has been educated in the past, and to keep ourselves and them in the right attitude towards the great ideas of the present” (Charlotte Mason, School Education, p. 160).
Living science books allow us to travel to places we may never be able to go, and to periods in history that we were not meant to experience in person. They allow us to witness things we would have never seen otherwise, and be exposed to foundational ideas in a way that we will never forget. All of this becomes part of our being. Some students will be so caught up in the adventure that they make it their life’s work to continue the quest. Others will simply respect the men and women who do and read the current events of the day with discerning interest. Either way, science will no longer be a boring list of facts, but rather something they care about.

You can find Nicole Williams on the web at SabbathMoodHomeschool.com.  She will be providing an immersion on science for middle and high school students at the Charlotte Mason Institute conference in June at Asbury Theological Seminary.  You can find out more information at www.cmiconferences.org.

© 2016 by Nicole Williams


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  1. Pingback: My Favorite Science Biographies (Some of Them) | Sabbath Mood Homeschool

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