For the last year or so on the ChildlightUSA blog, I’ve told you about my adventures with science teaching, Charlotte Mason style. I am again teaching a group of homeschooled students, but this year those students are high schoolers studying biology. Some of the middle schoolers who studied field biology with me last year are continuing with this year’s high school class. Other students are new to me with this class. It is a delight and a privilege to work with these students. As we delve more deeply into our study of living things, I am noticing as I did last year, that there are certain qualities among my CM educated students that set them apart, certain aptitudes that seem to be more developed among those students than among those that have not received a CM early education. So, I’d like to share with those of you who have younger children, in particular, a few observations about how growing up and learning Charlotte Mason style helps to prepare children for later science studies.
First, let’s consider the skill of observation. In an article in The American Biology Teacher, Ann Haley McKenzie wrote,
“My son is taking biology this year. He is learning about observation through note taking, lectures, and answering questions at the end of the section review. I am not amused. No anoles are lapping water off the side of the enclosure for him to observe nor can he marvel as they grab at crickets to eat headfirst. No decaying logs are resting in aquaria for him to watch over the course of the school year as different pill bugs roll up and encircle a clump of wood. The classroom walls are barren of aquaria filled with schooling fish. No time is devoted to observing the plants that do not hang from the ceiling. Desert and bog terrariums are missing so observations about varying plant species and specific adaptations cannot be made. What’s my point? How can the essence of biology be taught if observation in not at the heart and foundation of everything we do?” (italics mine)
McKenzie goes on to say that,
“Making a thorough observation should be the first entry in the portfolio for any biology course at the high school or college level. Students should be able to demonstrate that they are capable of producing a thorough observation of some biological phenomena before exiting a biology course.” 1
Observation is a key to studying biology. One of the chief ways our young CM educated children begin to learn how to patiently and carefully observe is through the type of outdoor “sight-seeing” and play described in Home Education. The children are exploring and running back to their mother, exclaiming about all they see and asking a series of questions as they observe their world. Miss Mason says,
“This is all play to the children, but the mother is doing invaluable work; she is training their powers of observation and expression, increasing their vocabulary and their range of ideas by giving them the name and the uses of an object at the right moment,––when they ask, ‘What is it?’ and ‘What is it for?”
Training their powers of observation, indeed! The high school teacher who has these students in class will be appreciative of that early training. It prepares the child for close observation in the lab and field: examining a cheek cell under the microscope, dissecting the fetal pig, sampling the woodland creek for salamander species. Those students who have enjoyed the freedom to observe under the wise and engaged tutelage of a mother like the one described in Home Education will have the patience and power to look and look until they really see. This year, the students that flourish in my class are the ones who can slow down, focus and refocus the microscope or sit quietly in the woods, and observe patiently and carefully.
Observation is a start that must then be accompanied by describing and asking questions, making hypotheses and testing them, further observation and data collection, and thoughtful interpretation of results. This is simply the scientific method in action. Again, Miss Mason is a guide in helping parents of young children to grow a scientist. Of the mother who takes her children out-of-doors and entertains their questions by pushing them to description, she says,
“…she is training her children in truthful habits, by making them careful to see the fact and to state it exactly, without omission or exaggeration.” 2
This type of truthful and accurate description prepares the child for the recording and reporting that takes place in the high school biology class. Lab reports are the primary way my students interact with what they are observing. Students must be precise in describing the materials and procedures we use and learn the vocabulary to describe what they are seeing. A child who has had a rich diet of observation and careful description in a playful setting will come much more naturally to this type of recording. Early nature study and the keeping of a nature notebook are not only delightful but help the young child develop the type of recording skills he will use when he writes lab reports for his high school science class.
Another skill practiced and honed in keeping a nature notebook is drawing. In our very first lab this year we discussed scientific drawing. I shared this story with my students:
“Louis Agassiz, scientist and teacher at Harvard University… was also the founding member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1863. One of his students, Samuel Scudder, wanted to be an entomologist. Agassiz surprisingly gave him a fish to observe, something in which Scudder had no interest. After ten minutes of looking, Scudder felt he had seen all there was to see, but that he must continue to observe since that was his assignment. Samuel Scudder reported that eventually, ‘A happy thought struck me. . . . I would draw this fish.’ With surprise, he began to notice new features in the fish. When Louis Agassiz returned to his student he said, ‘That is right, a pencil is one of the best eyes.’”3
Much lab reporting requires drawing. A student who has drawn weeds and flowers, trees and clouds, insects and birds in his nature notebook will be less intimidated by the request to draw the plasmolyzed onion cells he sees under the scope or the internal organs of the sheep he observes in a dissection.
Narration plays a role here, too. I consider a lab report to be a more formal way of telling back what has been observed. It requires careful attention to the process while it is taking place so that the telling will be accurate. A child who has learned, through the practice of narrating, to pay close attention and think while he is listening or reading is more likely to be a high school student who can process experiences and data and draw informed conclusions.
Finally, habit training and orderliness prepare a student well for my high school biology class. There is far too much in Miss Mason’s writings on these topics for me to cover here, but let me simply remind parents of young children that in saying “education is an atmosphere” Miss Mason implies a sense of order in the surroundings that fosters order in the doing. One of the struggles my students have as they move into a more structured high school classroom setting with the expectation of assignments and deadlines is simply keeping track of their work. If their early home learning atmosphere is characterized by haphazard and chaotic habits and atmosphere, they will turn in lab reports late, forget portions of assignments, or simply think that work assigned is optional. They will be hobbled by sloppiness. In contrast, the student who has experienced order, calm, and thoroughness will likely be the one whose work is complete and conscientious.
If I could boil my observations down to a motto for mothers of youngsters that will help them prepare their students for later science learning, it would be “Wonder and Order.” Science in high school done well is not reading the text and answering the end of chapter questions. It is, rather, a continuation of the observation and wonder of a young child seeing a pill bug roll up for the very first time. It is more “Oh, wow!” moments, more questioning, more fascination with the created world. Added to this kind of wonder is the growing ability to order the experiences by reporting them precisely in words and pictures, the more formal lab reports and scientific drawings.
An early Charlotte Mason education has not only the possibility of producing children well versed in history, literature, music and art. It also offers by way of “Wonder and Order” the possibility of growing young scientists. I know because I’m getting to know some of those young scientists in my class this year!
- “Biology Lives on through Observation” by Ann Haley MacKenzie in American Biology Teacher, Volume 67, No. 2, February., 2005.
- Home Education by Charlotte Mason, pages 46,47
- Louis Aggasiz story: http://people.brandeis.edu/~teuber/thinking.html#n2