Vital Connections: Children Books and Science

vitalco.JPG (12637 bytes)I love libraries. And I am convinced that electronic information systems, as important as they are already and will become in the future, will not make books obsolete. When it comes to teaching science in the early elementary school grades, I think books must play a vital role.

And yet, I also think that textbooks are a barrier, not a help, in teaching science. This apparent paradox has a simple resolution, but it takes a bit of explanation to reach it, starting with this basic concept: the learning of science begins with a child’s personal experience of his world, not someone else’s interpretation. It begins with questions, not answers; with finding out, not being told; with butterflies and Tinker-toys, not books.

It sometimes seems that children in school are hardly allowed to live in the present; that a school’s whole effort is concentrated not on what children are doing right now, but on preparing them to do something else, later—something that never seems to arrive until they leave school behind them. By then, those youngsters are about eighteen or older. Eighteen years is a long time in anyone’s life. How much would it be worth to any adult if he could somehow be granted another eighteen years of youthful life? We all know the answer: such a gift would be priceless. And yet our schools all too often treat the childhood years not as a treasure but only as a promissory note to be cashed in for benefits later: Learn this now and it will help you later—next year, in high school, in college, in your job, some day.

I insist, on the contrary, that those first eighteen years are very special and most be valued in their own right: that the purpose of learning, and schooling, and books is not just to prepare a child for some-thing else, later on, but also—and of equal importance—to help him or her understand and enjoy what he is doing here and now.

But there is an interesting reverse side to that coin. What the child encounters and does during those years must not be narrowed in the name of education. Instead, a child’s individual experience with the world around him, outside the classroom, is the very foundation of his learning. And the purpose of education during the early years should be to establish the vital connections between childhood experience, scientific experiment, and the shared knowledge recorded in books—to make those connections as real in a child’s mind as stars, or trees, or running water.

Building on those premises, the purpose of learning in the early grades would not be the sort of thing we hear a lot about these days: not "mastery," or "competence," or even "scientific literacy" (however we define that). Such goals are appropriate eventually, but not in the earliest grades.

Mastery implies that you can handle something superbly. You know it all. Well, you can master some things in the early grades: the alphabet, for example, and the number system. But we don’t expect children in the first few grades to master complex subjects. Even competence is limited to simple things at that age: learning to tie your own shoes is a big accomplishment. Mastery and competence are the ultimate achievements of education and experience, not their beginnings.

Literacy is less obvious. It seems to imply the ability to read and write about things, and I’m certainly in favor of that. But it sounds terribly bookish when the subject is science. Science really deals with events, relationships, and objects in the real world, things that were there all along and things that we put there. That’s what it’s really about, not just the written symbols and formulas which scientists adopt for the sake of convenience

If, on the other hand, literacy is given the broader connotation of deep understanding, it overshoots the mark. It is unrealistic to expect anyone, even with the best education, to gain a rich and deep understanding in very many domains. There is just too much to understand. We may become literate in many things, but not in most things.

Instead, I would argue for familiarity as a better goal for early science education: familiarity with the world of science, the world at nature. It’s a more relaxed notion than mastery, competence, or literacy. It implies having some knowledge, but not complete or even expert knowledge. It implies a "more-or-less" familiarity with something, not an absolute.

It’s hard to have gradations of mastery, and we speak of competence versus incompetence as if they were absolutely divided. As for literacy, we can define it as we choose, and historically we have been concerned with illiteracy and the statistics that tell us how many people are illiterate, by some definition: that they simply can or cannot read at some given level of difficulty.

I am arguing for a familiarity with nature that is not complete or absolute, or even 100 percent correct, but is more or less right, more or less complete. It’s not being an expert, but it’s better than being a stranger.

To illustrate with an analogy, children should get to know science the way they get to know the neighborhoods they live in

For one thing, children quickly gain a knowledge of the boundaries of their own neighborhood; they find out by experience when they are in it and when they are not. Mom says, "Yes, you can go outside, but don’t leave the neighborhood." But she does not hand her child a map and say, "It’s two blocks in this direction and one block over, but not that part of this street, that’s a danger zone." The child learns the boundaries anyway.

As a child grows, the boundaries of his neighborhood expand, and he learns that too. There’s always some testing between parents and children to set those shifting boundaries, but it’s surprising how quickly the children learn and adjust.

Another thing about neighborhoods is that they are often rich and overlapping—not strictly limited and separated—so you get the sense, just as in science, that you are in one kind of domain or in another kind or perhaps in some area where different domains intermingle.

Children gain this familiarity with their neighborhood—what’s what and who’s who—before they can read. They recognize stores and people; they know the difference between streets, sidewalks, and lawns; they learn to recognize uniformed policemen and often they learn to avoid unsavory characters. Their knowledge of the neighborhood is incomplete and often wrong, but it is surprising how their familiarity enables them to get around and operate within their own little territory.

Children learn a variety of paths through their neighborhood: the short cuts, the scenic routes, the fun pathways. They learn what to do if they get lost: whom to ask, how to find out where to go. And they learn all this without formal instruction, without reading anything.

That early familiarity is very durable and deep. What we learn in those early years tends to embed itself profoundly in our psyches, and most of us continue to use it as a yardstick against which we assess newer and stranger parts of the world.

How do children gain this familiarity? Not by formal study of their neighborhood, but by frequent encounters with it, by contact with the people and things in it, and by trying things and finding out, for better or worse, what happens. Without knowing its formal organization, they build up a disorganized but very rich working knowledge.

Children also develop a sense of belonging to their neighborhood. Nostalgia aside, many of us don’t really want to return to the neighborhood where we were children. But the sense of belonging that we first developed there stays with us, to be transferred or enlarged, to encompass other neighborhoods as small as a city block or a small town or as large as a state or a nation. We have learned how to belong and how to participate.

That is a rough analogy, but it has some parallels in the early learning of science.

Children should get to know the neighborhood of science at an early age: not all at once by being told firmly what lies within the category of "science" and what doesn’t, but gradually by dealing directly with nature: by asking questions, examining things, and building things, by developing their own distinctions.

Seashells, for example, are not science: they are just things. Admiring their beauty is not science. Drawing them carefully may or may not be science depending on its purpose. Capturing their beauty is a wonderful thing to do, but it is not science. Trying to figure out things about seashells: that is science. But a child doesn’t care what you call it as long as it’s interesting. Do spiral shells always spiral in the same direction. or are some oriented the other way? Why? And why are some seashells found in mountaintops? Are all seashells made out of the same thing? Does it make a difference if the creatures that live in them come from salt water or fresh water? There are endless questions. By asking questions and trying to determine the answers, especially through personal investigation, children find themselves doing science without thinking it is anything out of the ordinary and gaining, eventually, a good familiarity with the territory.

They need to build a direct acquaintance with the real world around them—with rocks, trees, bugs, sounds, falling objects, tools, and structures. They should get to know them as they get to know people in their own neighborhood. Their knowledge need not be exact or complete, and no invisible explanations are required.

I am always distressed when somebody wants to tell small children about atoms or electrons, for example. Children should not be introduced to science through such abstractions, but through things that are directly accessible to their senses. The deep explanations that get to the heart of advanced scientific knowledge come later.

First, children must learn gradually to ask questions. By asking, they learn that some ways of asking are better than others because they are more likely to lead to answers. They find out that very often it helps to count things, so they see that mathematics is just another way of understanding the world.

Science is an activity. It’s pushing, pulling, counting, measuring, proposing, and testing. And science learning must be active as well. Science is making up stories, for that is what theories and hypotheses are: likely explanations and stories about why things are what they are and how things work. Science is inventing answers to the questions we make up.

So children should have experienced making up stories about the things they encounter—stories that they think could make sense out of their own observations.

The testing of these stories (hypotheses or theories) against reality can be done eventually, but without the imaginative leap to an explanation there is nothing to test. The insights will grow and mature and their progress will be erratic. That’s not important. It simply does not matter that children get some things wrong along the way, that their early explanations are incorrect. There is plenty of time to improve the explanations, in spite of the worry expressed these days about incorrect notions.

There is a group at cognitive scientists who worry about misconceptions. I worry a lot less about that than they do; after all, most of what we know—outside of our professions—is very incomplete and a lot of it, usually, is wrong, but we get by.

We need to make students feel comfortable with the things, ideas, and processes of science, just as we want them to feel comfortable and accepted in their own neighborhoods. They should develop confidence that they can ask questions and can find things out for themselves. They need to learn that it is all right if they do not know everything in science; that it is all right if there always seems to be some scientist who knows more than they do. They need to find out that what you learn is worth learning and that it can be fun and it can be helpful, that it will enrich your life. They should begin to sense that they will be able to maintain an interest in science all their lives, and that they should cultivate such an interest. Young people should learn science by actively exploring, by doing things, and by building a feeling that they are part of it.

But this is not to say that everyone must discover for himself everything he needs to know, because that would be nonsense. Certainly one of the greatest inventions of all time is our ability to build an external memory and to share all of our knowledge, through books, libraries, and other stores of recorded information. And books, of course, are essential to science, which is just the kind of social and historical enterprise that most requires the sharing of knowledge. Everything, from the accumulation of tiny bits of data to the most encompassing grand theories, must be shared among the communities of science.

There are many ways of storing memory. One of the most modern ways is electromagnetic storage, and for some purposes it is a very powerful way. I would argue that it will never really replace printed books, for both physical and psychological reasons. But regardless of the technology, reference books in some form are essential to science; and science also depends on books that stimulate thought or reconsideration, since science is constantly improving on accepted ideas.

Books are absolutely essential to science learning as well. How, then, can I suggest that textbooks are more of a hindrance than a help to elementary science education?

The textbook is not just a book; it is an invention, a specific kind of book. Thomas S. Kuhn discussed this point in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2d ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970). A textbook codifies knowledge at various levels within a given domain, organizing it in ways intended to make information accessible to the learner. Information is not actually discovered the way a textbook presents it, because a textbook changes the order, emphasizing not discovery but presentation.

A textbook does more than just reorganize the available information. It actually directs the process of learning, step by step. That of course is a strength, but in science it is also a weakness. That very direction makes it impossible for children to be introduced to science through their personal experience and questioning, through experimenting and supposing.

I would say that the elementary school classroom, in the earliest grades, should not have science textbooks. They are too ordered, too assertive by their nature, too given to explanations. They tell you how things work, but I believe that you have got to get out there first, and be wrong, and do things, and fuss around before you try to get too orderly about it. Textbooks put order into the world too soon.

Furthermore, textbooks are rarely very relevant to the real neighborhoods where the children go to school. They do not usually deal with the things children encounter every day, or the observations they make on their own, or the questions that naturally pop into their minds. The ordered textbook, written for a nationwide audience, is too general. The experience of young children is specific.

Nevertheless, despite this ban on textbooks in the early grades, books should be an essential part of science learning. What that means is that once we rule out the conventional textbook, we have to think very carefully and more creatively about the role that books really should play.

I am not so naive as to think that most elementary school teachers, even with the best intentions, can manage without help or guidance to keep their young students actively exploring and learning independently about the world in their own backyards. Children should not have their curiosity forced into a textbook’s well-worn grooves, but when they follow some trackless path of their own, they should be able to find what they are looking for. Reference books can help them satisfy their curiosity, and the classroom should be full of those. Not densely worded encyclopedias, not at that early stage of learning, but how about field guides?

Isn’t that how most of us find out all sorts of things when we want to know them? We go off on vacation to the country or the seashore, and spot some interesting bird we’ve never seen before. How do we identify it? We do not sign up for a four-year degree in ornithology and begin a research thesis on this unfamiliar species. Instead, we flip open a field guide, compare the bird’s markings with the illustrations, perhaps debate the uncertain identification points, figure out what kind of bird it is, and feel satisfied very quickly.

We do the same with interesting rocks or shells. When we head for an encyclopedia, it is not to read and learn the whole thing but to lookup limited information that was not more easily found in a simpler reference.

Every school, from first grade up, should have field guide-type reference books, appropriate to each grade level and, if possible, relevant to the school’s real surroundings. In such guides, students could find many of the answers to the questions that occur to them most naturally about their own immediate neighborhoods. The birds, animals, plants and rocks, the architecture, the vehicles, industries, and activities that are part of their own experience should be in those field guides.

For many—probably most—areas such localized guides simply do not exist, and certainly not in the simplified form suitable for the first few grades, and it may not be worth a publisher’s investment to create them. But that does not mean they can’t be created. Junior and senior high school students could put their more sophisticated researching skills to work preparing localized field guides for the lower grades, under professional teacher supervision. They would learn a lot doing it, too.

The early grades should also have how-to books that encourage children to find their own way: how to investigate, how to make things. There are many resources. To cite only a few of them, consider: Science Books & Films, a magazine issued by the American Association for the Advancement of Science that reviews all children’s books in science; the annual list of outstanding science trade books for children published each year in Science and Children, the National Science Teachers Association journal for elementary school teachers; and Adventures with Books, an excellent reference source prepared by the National Councils of Teachers of English.

The early grade classrooms should have storybooks too, and at this level I am not distinguishing between fiction and nonfiction, There are excellent books at all levels. The kind I am recommending are those which are adventurous, in which the story is built around finding things out, and which emphasize the excitement of discovery.

The stories could deal with the natural world, or with the technical world, or with the adventure of exploration, but there should be lots of them in the classroom and in the library. There should be, as well, storybooks that motivate the student to put down the book and investigate something for himself. The book should not be the end of curiosity but its starting point, leading the young reader into a personal interaction with nature.

In this context, what is a "science" storybook as opposed to any other? There is no need to be too limited about it: any storybook for children that promotes imagination, wonder, and curiosity contributes to science education in the long run, whether or not it is specifically about science.

The scientific enterprise is not limited to handling, organizing, measuring, and naming things. Its biggest advances always depend on a leap of the imagination. Almost all of the great scientific ideas that have turned culture around have seemed at first anti-intuitive, even preposterous, and apparently contrary to observation. But they turned out to be right in the scientific sense: they explained the world better and more usefully than earlier ideas,

A classic example comes from the everyday sight of the sun, moon, and stars, some fixed in place and some wandering, in a sky that clearly revolved over and under a flat earth. You could see all that for yourself. It was obvious. The idea that the earth itself, not the sky, rotated was a great leap of imagination which seemed, to most people for many years, a ridiculous fantasy. If they had heard the whole story all at once, they would have found it even more incredible. That the world, a globe, not only rotates but is one of many such globes racing at unthinkable speed around the sun, while the whole solar system careens through space as part of a galaxy of unimaginable dimensions containing billions of other suns, is a very sophisticated story that took hundreds of years to develop and accept. It is a marvelous and exciting story. And it represents an enormous leap of imagination from the "obvious." So is relativity theory, and evolution, and the genetic double-helix.

So elementary classroom books should promote the legitimacy of imaginative thinking, just as much as they promote activity. It is just this combination of action, thought, and imagination that makes science so powerful.

Here, then, is the classroom that promotes real science education for young children, as I envisage it: children with the guidance of their teachers are collecting things; asking questions about those things; discussing them; learning how to count, measure, and organize them; and making up stories about them, They are learning to go to field guides and other reference books to settle their disagreements over the facts or to carry out their own modest experiments. They are learning that they can organize information usefully about their own place in the world.

They are reading books about young people doing adventurous things in learning about the natural world, They are learning that there are adults who do those exciting things for a living because it is so enjoyable. They are learning that science can offer them two kinds of fun: the Tinker-toy type of fun, collecting and examining things, putting them together and taking them apart; but also the great fun that takes place inside the mind as it imagines how things might be, or were, or will or could be.

With that kind of approach, education can do something much better than stuffing young minds with undigested facts. It can welcome young minds into the neighborhood of science and make them at home there. Turn a child’s imagination loose on the world, and he or she is bound to enjoy learning. If children enjoy science as they learn, it will stay with them for a lifetime.

Rutherford, F. James, "Vital Connections: Children, Books, and Science." In Vital Connections: Children, Science, and Books. W. Saul and S. A. Jagusch, eds. Library of Congress, Washington (1991). p. 21-30.