Saturday, February 18, 2006

Curiosity: The Scientific Process at Work in the Child

I have had homeschooling friends who argue against a formal study of science at the grammar stage. These friends believe that children are not developmentally ready to think like scientists at such a young age. Others say in condescending tones that it is a very American thing to teach science at the elementary level. There is too much of a push for kids to learn advanced science in high school, they argue.

On the contrary, I think that science is one of the most natural disciplines for children. Think of an infant exploring his world. We know that much of the information he gathers is through his sense of taste. So what does he do? He puts everything he can reach to his mouth, discerning its taste, texture, temperature. Watch. He will pull the object out, look at it, then taste it again. As soon as possible, the baby will propel himself toward new objects and continue this process of discovery.

The scientific process is a careful approach to the unknown. It requires that one look, really look, and that looking is called Observation. It requires that one continue looking, with fingers, nose, and questions, and it calls this prodding Gathering Data. Finally, the scientific process asks for participation: what do you think? It asks that you become a giddy partner in a game of Imagination. Unlike experts and books that only publish the findings of elite academians with expensive tools, the scientific process befriends all who are willing to play its game. Like Jesus sitting on a hillside and welcoming the twangy tongues of toddlers when other teachers would have only heard the Pharisees, the scientific process is equally available to all.

One’s ideas about the data form his or her Hypothesis, even when that hypothesis is that the noise in my closet must be coming from yellow-eyed monsters. The difference between a scared child and a scientist is that the scientist then tests the hypothesis. Really, though, the child often does the same--he just calls in a bigger scientist to hold his hand. Together, then, you turn on the lights, open the closet door, and look into the Dark Unknown to test the monsters and form a Conclusion. Like Edison testing the filament for the electric light bulb, you may have to look and look again, lighting closets and lifting bed skirts before arriving at that blessed Conclusion that…perhaps…just maybe…there are no monsters. Any more.

A good scientist then goes back to the drawing board, to observe again, to ask again. If not monsters, then what makes those curious noises in my closet at night? A good scientist will not accept that tree branches are scratching the roof of the house unless you show him. An imaginative one may begin to worry about aliens, however.

When does this curiosity fade? Perhaps when information is harder to access; perhaps when the call of commercial entertainment becomes too loud. Sating curiosity is a process that requires energy and patience that one must cultivate to maintain. Experts themselves are tempted to say, “There are no monsters in your closet. Now go back to bed!” But testing hypotheses, sating curiosity, and slaying monsters are worthwhile endeavors because it is this curiosity that is the root of scientific discovery.

Children are natural scientists. When my oldest children were small, I overheard them talking about some hand soap that had been spilled on the kitchen counter. Naturally, I hid behind a counter to record their conversation:

John, six at the time, cried, “Eeew!”

“What is it, John?” three-year-old Grace asked.

“There was something on the counter,” he replied. Observation.

“I thought it was water,” he said. Hypothesis.

“So I put my finger in it.” Experiment.

“How did it taste?” Grace asked. Gathering data.

“I don’t know,” John said. Thank goodness.

“Does it come off?” she asked. Gathering data.

He wiped it on his pants. “Yes.” Experiment.

Then they both stuck their fingers in it. Experiment.

“I think it’s glue,” Grace said. Hypothesis.

They decided to wash their hands. John pumped the soap dispenser into his hand and noticed that it looked and felt the same as the mystery substance. Observation.

“Grace, look! It’s soap!” Conclusion.

They continued washing their hands and making messes. Being kids.

My conclusion? The scientific process is profound because it is so natural. Curiosity propels children toward discovery, and if we as parents and educators offer our shoulders for a better view, they will be delighted. They will grow.

Science may not rank with reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, but it is a key component of a well-trained mind. Perhaps it is more naturally dubbed, ‘curiosity.’