What is "science," and why do we teach it?

What do you think of when you say "science," or when you plan something for "science" that is not exactly "nature study?" (Nature study, or "natural history," is a very important part of our curriculum, and we have a separate page about it here.)

When you think of it in connection with a Charlotte Mason, liberal-arts-heavy education, do you feel some disconnect? Especially in a Christian context? That perception has been widespread, and it's unfortunate.

The top definition for science on Wikipedia is "a systematic endeavor that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe." What was it Miss Mason said about the discipline of education?

The teacher's part is, in the first place, to see what is to be done, to look over the work of the day in advance and see what mental discipline, as well as what vital knowledge, this and that lesson afford; and then to set such questions and such tasks as shall give full scope to his pupils' mental activity. (School Education, pp. 178-179)

The knowledge of children so taught is consecutive, intelligent and complete as far as it goes, in however many directions. (Philosophy of Education, p. 158)

Botany may be taught in a way to train the mind to accuracy of observation, a power the value of which, for the wise person, it is difficult to over-estimate. (Mrs. Dowson in The Parents' Review)

There is nothing unscientific about that approach.

But (you may say), we are speaking here of the school subjects commonly grouped as "science." Most government schools today strongly emphasize and encourage STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), and much of that science teaching concentrates on physics, chemistry, and biology. Public schools (and the media) fuss over whether children are getting enough science, the right kind of science, the most up-to-date science. Tiny little children have as many science objectives as the older ones. In the same way that the massive world of mathematics devolves into something with which to torture children for twelve years and then never use again, the fascinating universe and earth around us, the mysteries of space, time, and life, the attempts to organize knowledge through botanical names and the periodic table, are turned into a worksheet to fill out or a lapbook to paste together, and, eventually, an examination to pass so that one may say one has been taught "science."

The brute scientific fact is of little more educational value than the equally brute historic date, or king, or battle, in which our grandmothers took pride. Botany, for example, is usually taught in schools just as the lists of kings and queens and wars were taught to our grandmothers: it is taught as a more or less cooked-up arrangement of brute facts about plants, their characters, their structure and their functions, served with a sauce of scientific moralizing about heredity and environment and the like. (Mrs. Dowson in The Parents' Review)

Take heart: although Charlotte Mason did not consider herself a scientist, her principles apply as well to science teaching as they do to history and picture study. On this page we will attempt to give a brief "how," along with a "why" and also some "when."

The days have gone by when the education befitting either a gentleman or an artisan was our aim. Now we must deal with a child of man, who [is]… a person of many relationships,––to family, city, church, state, neighbouring states, the world at large: as the inhabitant of a world full of beauty and interest, the features of which he must recognise and know how to name, and a world too, and a universe, whose every function of every part is ordered by laws which he must begin to know. (Philosophy of Education, p. 157)

Is there a "correct Charlotte Mason approach" to science teaching?

Let's begin with a thought from Philosophy of Education:

"Books dealing with science as with history, say, should be of a literary character, and we should probably be more scientific as a people if we scrapped all the text-books which swell publishers' lists and nearly all the chalk expended so freely on our blackboards." (p. 218)

From the same book:

"The only sound method of teaching science is to afford a due combination of field or laboratory work, with such literary comments and amplifications as the subject affords. For example, from Ethics of the Dust the children derive a certain enthusiasm for crystals as such that their own unaided observation would be slow to afford. As a matter of fact the teaching of science in our schools has lost much of its educative value through a fatal and quite unnecessary divorce between science and the 'humanities.'" (p. 223)

We, the teachers, are responsible for making sure that students have lots of opportunity to engage (that favourite word of educationalists) with the lesson material--that they have to think. Some of the Parents' Union School lesson plans from a hundred years ago demonstrate this admirably. In a science lesson that compares starfish and sea-urchins (or sand dollars), we find this little etymological puzzle:

Step V.--Let the girls compare the outer covering of the two creatures . . . Tell the girls that it is from this peculiar skin that this family is named (for by this time they will see that they are related), and that you want them to try to find out the name of the family for themselves. Tell them that the meaning of the word "sea-urchin" is derived from the French word oursin--hedgehog, also that the Greek word for hedgehog is echinos. Ask them the meaning of the word "epidermis," epi = upon, derma = skins, and from this perhaps they will be able to come to something like the name "Echinodermata." ("Notes of Lessons" in The Parents' Review, 1904)

Would it not have been quicker to simply tell the children the name of the family? Of course. Would they have remembered it? Probably not. Dr. Ruth Beechick (a well-known author of books on homeschooling) said the same thing:

Research into the causes [of apathy towards science] has shown that students, especially in high school, perceive books and teachers as 'knowing' science and as 'answer givers.' This progressively turns off students' own curiosity, motivation, and interest in the subject . . . So as teacher, you do not have to be an 'answer giver.' That should take pressure off practically all of us, since only a few science professionals probably feel qualified to take that role. (Dr. Ruth Beechick, You CAN Teach Your Child Successfully)

So there is our syllabus: a balance of "field or laboratory work" with "such literary comments as the subject affords." As Miss Mason has said elsewhere, we use both Things and Books, and we emphasize the building of relationships between them all, with much opportunity for students to ask questions and reason out the answers.

Miss Mason approached science, as she approached all other knowledge, in the widest possible way. Everything connected with nature, birds, beasts, flowers, weather, stars, rocks, geography itself, and even architecture, all meant science to her mind. She interpreted it to mean, in its broadest aspect, what our immediate forefathers so finely called "Natural Philosophy." (Telford Petrie in The Parents' Review)

The Early Years

In the Victorian era, the "object lesson" became popular in many schools. The teacher would bring a single object into the classroom, and would lead the children in a scripted discussion about the attributes, parts and qualities of the birds' nest, wooden cube, or whatever it was. However, as in the passage from Hard Times which Mason herself quoted, knowing how many teeth a horse has does not create a relationship with a real horse, does not teach respect, stimulate wonder, incite curiosity; does not teach a child to observe carefully or to care. Although we are often limited to looking at pictures or samples out of context (since most of us cannot visit a volcano or a coral reef, or see polar bears in their natural habitat), the things that we see up close and in context are those which we will understand the best. That knowledge (especially that which we have gained for ourselves) allows us, in turn, to understand those things which are much bigger (or smaller), further away, or more complicated.

With that in mind, the first years of this curriculum include only nature study, taught through books such as the Burgess Bird Book, and through hands-on experiences (including the keeping of notebooks), without a separate science component. As much as possible, we encourage that this study take place in the context of place and seasons, so that students begin to know which birds come to the feeder in winter, which trees grow near the creek, and which garden flowers attract butterflies. But this is well covered on our Nature Study page, so we will leave that aside for now.

The Mid-Elementary Years

In Year Three, science studies are expanded with the addition of A Drop of Water, along with studies of woodland animals and ocean life. Year Four includes biographies of Isaac Newton and Gregor Mendel, along with two classic books covering a variety of science topics (the sort which Miss Mason called "of very great value in linking universal principles with common incidents of every day life in such a way that interest never palls…"). Experiments in physical science are optional at this level.

Science topics for Year Five focus on inventions and wild animals; Year Six introduces the periodic table and a book comparing the theories of evolution and creationism. A study of human anatomy is begun in Year Five and continues in Year Six. Biographies, including books about George Washington Carver, Galileo, Albert Einstein, and Archimedes are also included.

The Analytical Middle Years

The curriculum for Years Seven and Eight is based on a carefully chosen series of "living books" which cover a number of topics from weather, neural science, and the lives of spiders to the principles of matter and energy. A study of the elements of classical astronomy is also included.

The Varying Needs of High School Students

We recognize that older students will have a wide range of interests and needs in science study, and that this will also be determined partly by their plans for post-secondary education. Many students will be following a textbook or other commercial curriculum at this level. (Parents and students should follow the suggestions and footnotes given on each year's Booklist.) However, we do include suggestions for biographies and other supplementary reading, especially for those students who are less likely to follow career paths requiring credits in physics.

It is a wide programme founded on the educational rights of man; wide, but we may not say it is impossible nor may we pick and choose and educate him in this direction but not in that. We may not even make choice between science and the 'humanities.' Our part it seems to me is to give a child a vital hold upon as many as possible of those wide relationships proper to him. Shelley offers us the key to education when he speaks of "understanding that grows bright gazing on many truths." (Philosophy of Education, p. 157)

For Those Who Aren't Scientists

In Ruth Beechick's book You CAN Teach Your Child Successfully, she says that

"The textbook style of science learning is traditional in our schools, [but] research is showing that as students progress through the grades they like science less and less, until after grade 12 only 10 percent still give 'attention' to science. The other 90 percent are considered scientifically illiterate."

She also makes this important point:

"Is it science that will improve the lot of mankind? Will science literacy for all citizens lead to better decisions? . . . The world may need better scientists and a nation may need citizens who are scientifically literate, but far more do we need leaders and citizens in the moral and religious realms. With that we would make better use of our science knowledge."

We do not all have to be scientists. We do not all have to pass senior chemistry. But we all need to grow in our awareness of Creation, and, like the watchmaker father of Corrie ten Boom, to pray with a simple delight to its Creator:

"Lord, You turn the wheels of the galaxies. You know what makes the planets spin. And You know what makes this watch run…" Through the years he took his stopped watches to "the One who set the atoms dancing," or "who keeps the great currents circling through the sea." (Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place)

Suggested Resources

You will find much ease in your labors from carefully reading and pondering Charlotte Mason's insights for teaching science in Volume 3, pages 156, 236-238, and Volume 6, pages 218-230, 256-257, 275.

We encourage you to initiate discussion of these passages with the friendly and experienced members of our forum, among whom there is an astonishing wealth of wisdom and experience in teaching with CM methods.

"The Discipline and Organization of the Mind," by Mrs. Dowson, L.R.C.P & S.,I. (Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Ireland), in The Parents' Review, Volume 11, 1900, pgs. 83-92

"Cultural Value of Science," by D. Avery, in The Parents' Review, Volume 31, 1920, p. 651

"A Note on the Teaching of School Science," by Telford Petrie, D.Sc., in The Parents' Review, Volume 39, 1928

"Knowledge of the Universe," by G.L. Davies, B.Sc., in The Parents' Review, Volume 75, 1964

Anne White, April 2, 2023

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