A basic function of human cognition is to understand why. Why does the sun trace an arc across the sky? How come pine cones fall off trees? Why do I get sweaty when I run? Curiosity about the world around us is at the very heart of human invention and creativity.
The sciences are the disciplines that enable a student to simultaneously sate and fuel that curiosity. For everything from the weather to furniture, from plants to stars, from wheels to light bulbs, students can ask what things are made of, how all their parts work together, what makes them move and how. Our approach to science education enables students to ask and answer questions in a way that is empowering. It instills a sense of intrigue and enables students to develop understanding and then form further questions based both on the knowledge they already have and the insight they wish to gain in the future.
The core goal of science education is to allow students to tap into science, both its content and its methods, in a deep way. Elementary students can and should:
- Learn the basic scientific knowledge that provides a framework for understanding their world. Students should master the foundational content of biology, physics, chemistry—including its most relevant aspects, such as astronomy and geology, human anatomy, and electromagnetism.
- Engage in focused practice with evidential, causal thinking. Students begin with observation and then go on a journey of scientific discovery—from the process of asking scientific questions, to observing and gathering information, to refining questions and hypotheses, to experiment and explanation. Children come to understand that the scientific method is an organized system that helps scientists, indeed anyone, answer a question or solve a problem.
The natural sciences are tangible, major drivers of human knowledge and progress because they successfully use the former to generate the latter: they allow us uptake evidence and use it to gain causal knowledge of the world around us.
All academic content areas involve learning about a domain via evidential thinking—even literature. But science is uniquely formalized and powerful in a way that lays that basic pattern of thinking bare. In a similar way as to how math strengthens the foundations of mental functioning in all areas, so does science with a particular eye towards inference from observational evidence. The scientific method is invaluable, even to non-scientists. Students also need to learn the content of key areas in science, the areas that offer a basic understanding of the experienced natural world. Besides the fact that they are tightly coupled—there is no real way to master the scientific method without learning a range of scientific content—there is also the fact that it’s important for everyone to feel at home in the natural world.
Our Science Pedogogy
At La Bella Vita Montessori, our approach to science reflects the above priorities: to give students a framework of scientific understanding, and to do so in a way that fosters their internalizing the powerful cognitive tool that is the scientific method. The child’s direct experience of the natural world, namely, observation and hands-on exploration, forms the basis of the elementary science program. Teachers look for authentic opportunities to draw children’s awareness to natural phenomena – gardening and other outdoor work is the perfect time to highlight simple classification of leaf shapes; a classroom weather station is the perfect motivation to chart changes in temperature and precipitation; a recently reported earthquake may drive research into plate tectonics.
Our students practice:
Careful observation of the world around them, using all of their senses;
The ability to record their observations, often over long periods of time: sketching with detail, writing precise and detailed descriptions, keeping charts or graphs and so on;
The ability to distinguish between what they observe with their sense, and what they think or infer from those observations.
Terms, definitions, and explanations are also critically important; our students also learn how to conceptualize data, make logical inferences, interpret experiments, and codify their understanding with technical vocabulary. But come at the end of a long process of empirical engagement—not at the beginning. For these things crystallize answers to mysteries, the mysteries must first be discovered and the questions first asked. The content areas are chosen to be amenable to learning the above method, and to really make comprehensible a major swath of the child’s experience of the world.
Science in Our Classrooms
Science is the classroom is activity- and experience-based, driving students to learn to ask and answer questions in a scientific way. Science presentations and activities are pursued by each student least once a week, with ample opportunities for extensions. Teachers use many demonstrations to appeal to children’s natural curiosity and imagination. These exciting demonstrations invariably precipitate the question, “How did you do that?,” challenging children to repeat the demonstrations themselves to discover the how and why. Children go on to independently perform many more experiments across all branches of science.
A meticulously prepared science area with an extensive supply of scientific equipment and materials, allows children to explore any topic of high interest to them (for example, the density of various liquids) and to experiment with variables (e.g. does applying more heat to a liquid alter its viscosity?), thus becoming young scientists. Content is taught through demonstrations, experiments, stories, charts, and books. The curriculum moves through content units in a specific sequence (with lots of variations and offshoots provided for individual interest), providing a targeted foundation of scientific knowledge.
Students thus enter middle school with a solid understanding of content that is highly relevant to both their future academic needs and to understanding the world in which they live. They have real knowledge of their own body (via a sequence of biology that culminates with human anatomy and cell biology), knowledge of electricity and the ubiquitous technology that enables it to power our lives, and knowledge of the basic mechanics that drive our planet’s dynamics (weather, geological change).
More importantly, they know how to think about these diverse domains. They know how the scientific method is similar and different across biology, astronomy, and energy physics. When one day they want or need to understand more about how a computer works, about climate controversies, or about a family member’s illness, they’ll be able to learn to do so—with curiosity and rigor.