“Knowledge is an unending journey on the edge of uncertainty” (Bronowski)
We’ve been looking at scientists this week. Not really learning science, but learning about the people behind the science and how their ideas come to life and are expressed. The idea is to try to identify what they have in common, whether there are concepts and ideas that connect, and how we can represent these through theatre. We start off with Copernicus and end in the quantum world of Feynman. The children are fascinated by the words and actions of these men. For Copernicus, the long wait to publish his findings on the movements of planets; for Feynman, the fascination with doubt and uncertainty as he worked with the unpredictable nature of quantum worlds. It made me think.
How does a scientist differ from a teacher of science? Can you be a scientist or an artist if you don’t practice at the edges of what you teach? Reading Newton, Copernicus, Hawking, Feynman, Bronowski, in preparation for this teaching, I was struck by something in particular. Their comfort with uncertainty and doubt; their curiosity; their commitment to pushing beyond the limits of what is known; their humanity. Does a teacher of science get to do this? Is the curriculum designed to teach children that science is certain; that facts are facts? Does it deaden the very curiosity that great scientists seem to insist is a prerequisite for scientific progress? I ask not to upset anyone, but to genuinely inquire – does the teaching of science have a responsibility to engender wonder in children that takes them beyond the known into the not-yet known? How recent is our teaching? What do children know of discoveries made in the 21st century – of those theories being tested right now? How real do they feel science is to them? How connected to philosophy and to art? Every scientist who discovers something new, or who turns something old around, has to find the language and metaphors to make the discovery explainable. Images, representations, words have to be created and invented. What opportunities are children given to think about how they might represent the abstract, the conceptual, the unfathomable?
Every now and then, you tell children a little known fact that really captures their imagination. In his brilliant book “The Ascent of Man” (thanks to Mike Cameron for recommending it to me), Bronowski writes that the second meaning of the word “revolution” – the one related to uprisings and turning orthodoxy on its head – came from the title of Copernicus’ book “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”. His theory, a truth so radically opposed to what was believed to be true at the time, began a reaction that set science and religion apart in a battle for supremacy for centuries. Judging from the assertion of Richard Feynman, some 500 years later that “Religion is a culture of faith; Science is a culture of doubt,” the chasm remains. Anyway…
The 110 chidren we recounted this fact of etymology to in Warsaw last week – children drawn from international schools in Poland, Romania, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Holland – were fascinated by this information. They were fascinated by the interactive discoveries they saw in the Science museum. They were interested in how understanding gravity helped them to carry and rotate each another way above their heads in a theatrical lift. They were interested in all the quotes and pieces of information they found out about Copernicus and others. They discussed it in their groups (yes, groups) and came up with comments and questions that drove the learning for the whole weekend.
“One person can change the meaning of a word with an idea that spreads!”
“Is the truth a good thing?” another ponders
“It depends on how it affects us,” says another. She writes a poem containing the line:-
“The beautiful truth of life; the terrible truth of death.”
We turn the poem into theatre.
She brought her thoughts on her learning about Copernicus to a philosophical and artistic realm. They all did. Those words will needle traditionalists, I know. But what are we as teachers if not sculptors of future thinkers, doers and changers?
Others spoke of what it must be like to see something that rocks what you thought to be true; to see it and to know that it is important information and yet to be afraid of the consequences of sharing it. They spoke of power and control, of freedom and defiance, of beauty and terror. They spoke of life. Then they wrote of life and performed it.
For them, science was no longer a subject in school – a set of facts and tests (though they carry on) – it was now part of their world; their language, histories, sense of self.
Children are commonly told to “think like a scientist” but what does this mean? It means taking knowledge and testing it. Accepting as Feynman said that “we can only ever know when we are wrong; we can never be certain that we are right.” It requires a capacity to be curious – to look at everything with a questioning eye. It demands persistence in the pursuit of an idea and humility to accept when you are wrong. It demands a capacity to explain, to clarify, to represent and depict – an ability to draw together the factual and the metaphorical; to invent, create, test, dispel and try again. When science ceases to be a culture of doubt, it becomes a religion. How would our teaching of science – indeed our teaching of everything – have to change if we attempted to not simply make children understand what was, but what might yet be?