Increasingly it seems to me that if, twenty years from now, we took the time to assess what the young folk of today got from their childhoods, the one thing we’ll be able to state with surety is that there was never a generation so adept at sliding their fingers along a small sheet of glass.
Thirty-five years ago I began (getting paid for) my teaching career. In those days I self-identified as a science – math teacher. I loved it, especially the lab activities. I was lucky because at the time–the early eighties–science curricula were designed to be very hands-on. It was great, but there was something else: I generally found that the activities jived very well with the students’ personal experiences. Students could, for example, relate to labs studying motion because the objects of study seemed so very familiar. For non-accelerated motion the students were used to gliding along ice, rolling along level ground on skateboards, bikes and rollerblades. For accelerated motion, they could similarly draw on tobogganing or biking downhill, playing ball and just throwing rocks in the ocean. For circular motion they had experience on playground merry-go-rounds, swings and even with twirling things on the end of string.
But then time passed. I noticed it first for circular motion, never an easy topic and one that you had to ensure that students had up-close-and-personal experience with before digging in through the lens of physics. Students could not relate anymore to any of the once-familiar events. Not even twirling stuff on strings! I just put it down to the increased time that the children were spending playing video games indoors, figured, “That’s sad, but I guess we’ll just have to redouble our efforts with the hands-on activities in school,” and thought no more of it.
…until the penny dropped.
Talking to the young people who attend the university at which I work it became increasingly obvious that, not only are the students not directly experiencing the physical world (aka playing outdoors) but neither are they doing that in school! Regardless of what happens in k-6, once they hit Intermediate and then High School, their days in science class are mostly spent with their bums in uncomfortable ancient school desks, all neatly arranged in rows, and listening to an adult talk, talk, talk about scientific knowledge or show off how well they can “solve a problem,” which, by the way, is not that at all but, rather, a boring run-through of some algorithm for dealing with some contrived situation or other.
And there’s shag all interaction with the physical world.
Once there was a thing called “core labs,” hands-on activities that HAD to be done. In the eighties they numbered 12 to 15 per course. These days the number is more like six and, guess what, less than that are actually done. Oh, they’re talked about and sometimes even simulated–you know, rubbing your fingers across the glass top of a tablet or whatever to simulate motion, or something equally banal–but rarely ever really done.
What a shame. It turns out that our remarkable, wonderful brains are ideally suited to experience the world in two different but complementary ways. One way is procedural, logical, even rules-based. It is dealt with mostly–but by NO MEANS EXCLUSIVELY–by the left side of the brain. Talking, reading and experiencing simulations feeds it nicely. The other was is more holistic, even probabilistic, and, similarly is mostly handled by the right side. It’s best fed through direct physical and / or sensory experience with the phenomenon in question. Two views, ideally nicely merged and coexisting, producing a complex and useful representation of whatever the senses encounter.
Too bad that the simulated and talked about and PowerPointed-to-death world is mainly processed procedurally. It’s not real in the experiential sense and, as such, the processing that the (mostly) right brain is so good at never gets to happen. As a result, the young people can talk and diagram about the physical world, even “solve” paper-and-pencil problems but give ‘em something real like some electrical components or mechanical parts and they have no clue whatsoever what to do with them.
Because they’ve never had the chance to. Still, they have experienced glass displays and they are no doubt adept with that.