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We get a lot of questions about science, and what should you teach in science through all the grades? What should be your focus? When do you start using textbooks? Do you start using textbooks? All of those questions we want to answer today in this post. And joining me is my friend and coworker, Karen Smith.
Sonya: Karen, good to have you with us.
Karen: Good to be back.
Sonya: Walk us through science through the grades. Let’s just take a big overview, all right? We don’t need to drill down into the little details right now, but let’s just back up and look at the big picture for a little while. Will that work?
Karen: That’ll work.
Sonya: All right, so let’s start with elementary years. What’s our focus there?
Karen: Our focus in the elementary years is laying a foundation or the groundwork for upper-level sciences, when your child will be studying a particular branch of science. So in these early grades, give your children a chance to explore and experiment and observe, and read good books about different topics in science. Expose them to as many as you can, because you want to pique those interests. Science is not just science. There are different branches of it. There’s biology, there’s chemistry, there’s physics, there’s geology, there’s meteorology, there’s entomology, the list goes on. Expose your children to those different topics in science, if you will. So you can get books on rocks or different mammals or birds or plants, and then take your children outside to observe those firsthand through their nature study as much as possible. For instance, there are mammals that you are not going to see. It’s better to read about those.
Sonya: True, yes.
Karen: Even in your location, you might see a deer while you are out walking, but it’s not going to stand there long enough for you to do much observation. So reading about things like that is a good way to fill in those gaps that you can’t observe. But observe what you can. Plants usually stay still.
Sonya: Which is very helpful. (laughs)
Karen: Insects usually stay around the plants, which is helpful. Rocks don’t generally move. So there are different things that you can observe a lot and other things you’re going to need to read more about.
Sonya: It sounds like in those early elementary years, then, it is more feeding their natural curiosity, because most young children want to learn about all these things around them.
Karen: Yes, very much so. You can encourage him, if your child has an interest. Your child wants to bring some rocks in because he wants a special collection. Or my daughter really likes insects, and for several summers in a row, she raised crickets and learned all about crickets. You can bring in caterpillars and feed them the proper food so that they go through their whole life cycle from caterpillar to moth or butterfly, and your children can watch that happening in their own home. You don’t have to go out and try and find a chrysalis or a cocoon, which can be difficult. So if you find a caterpillar, you can bring him in. You can bring leaves in, look at the different ones with that. You can grow different houseplants. You can do experiments. Also don’t overlook those, they are still part of nature study. You can see how different things react together. Baking soda and vinegar is a marvelous reaction for children, and there are others too that you can find in experiment books and things. But that is all about feeding that curiosity.
Sonya: So our goal in the early elementary years is exposing them to as many of these things as we can, and as many as they are interested in. Though I assume we should not let their interest always dictate, because they don’t know what they don’t know.
Karen: Exactly. You’re going to have to do some directing. Some children might be drawn to dinosaurs or rocks or insects, like my daughter, but you still need to expose them to the other topics in science too. Let them learn all they can about what they’re interested in. You can get them books or let them observe in their own time for those things. They can read those books in free time. But for your school time, you’ll want to have more focus on what books you’re choosing. Choose a broad range over the years.
Sonya: All right, so in those early elementary years we’re laying the foundation by doing a broad range of topics that they can physically see and observe either through a book or through experiments. Okay. Now let’s move to the middle school years. How is that different?
Karen: Middle school is a great place to transition to those conversational textbooks. And by “conversational” I mean that it’s written to the student and is not your traditional fact-dump-type textbook. It’s very conversational in its style of writing.
Sonya: I always think of it like you’re sitting across the table from the author.
Karen: That’s a good way to put it and very much so in that way. And it’s enjoyable to read, at least to me.
Sonya: Well, they’ll throw in little comments, little asides, to the reader as they go along.
Karen: Right, but middle school is a great time to introduce that because you have a couple of years to play with then before you have to start keeping records for high school. And it gives the child a chance to get used to a different way of learning and focusing on more detail in the information given to them. It’s just a great way to do that. In those middle school years, if the textbook you’ve chosen, let’s say, seventh grade, is a little bit more than what your child can handle to begin with, spread it out, take it at a slower pace. You have the freedom to do that in those middle school years.
Sonya: So you don’t have to finish the whole thing in one year.
Karen: No, make it a year and a half, make it two years if that’s what fits your child. You have a little bit of wiggle room in those years. Your goal besides educating your child on science is to get your child used to that higher workload that comes with those high school years. So you’re stepping up what they’re going to be doing.
Sonya: You’re also getting them used to taking in and forming relations with deeper information, deeper data, if you will, than they can observe on their own in a short amount of time. Yes, they can sit and stare at an ant when they’re little and learn a lot about an ant, but there are scientists who have studied this.
Karen: For years. Your child is not going to learn all there is to know about ants in the little bit of time that they have when it’s taken other scientists years to learn what we know. And that’s just one example. So yes, it’s true when you get to those more focused on a certain topic in science, there are sometimes thousands of years of experiments and observations that scientists have made in what we know today. That’s all based on that. And your child doesn’t have that much time to personally observe all of that happening. So a textbook fills that need, giving them what they need to know about that.
Sonya: As long as it is conversational, not just dry facts. Do you still do nature study then?
Karen: Yes, still do nature study. Let the child go out, and encourage that curiosity in nature. There’s so much we can observe in nature, and nature is filled with opportunities.
Sonya: So what I’m hearing then is the nature study might not be directly correlated to the science lessons in those grades?
Karen: Let’s say in the high school years, your child is studying chemistry. She’s probably not going to observe chemistry the way we think of it, test tubes and that sort of a thing, in nature.
Sonya: Yes, but you do want to continue to develop love for nature and those observation skills as, not a supplement necessarily, but as a complement.
Karen: A complement. Think of it this way: Nature study allows us to see God’s handiwork. And that’s really one of the big things that nature study is about, learning about God’s world. Don’t abandon that because your child is now a teenager and older. Let him continue that, because none of us are too old to observe God’s handiwork.
Sonya: Then along with the conversational textbooks that you’re introducing in middle school and continuing through high school, what about living books like biographies of scientists and those types of living books?
Karen: I would recommend to give that balance, and to maybe bring in some more interest and connections for your child with the science topic that they are studying, bring in biographies or even just one for the year, spread it out. Let them read that alongside of what they are studying. Choose biographies of scientists who have something to do with that branch of science. So if they’re studying biology, you’d want to choose something that’s connected to biology in some way.
Sonya: So that you can coordinate with their science studies.
Karen: An alternative to biographies, or just reading about that person, is if you can find personal accounts by a scientist on his work or his own observations in nature; that can be another good go-along with a science course.
Sonya: All right, so that’s middle school. We’ve introduced the conversational textbooks and we’re taking a longer time if we need to. Now, how does that change as they move into the high school years?
Karen: In the high school years, now you’re talking transcripts for college, if your children are going to college. But even if your children aren’t going to college, I encourage you to have them do those higher level courses, whether it’s science or math or even language arts, because those will serve them well as they move into adulthood and they have to discern what is right and what is not according to what we know as they read news articles or magazines or even books. There are skills that are being learned that are outside of, “I learned how a plant works.” So that’s a good thing to do. By the high school level, you want your child to be able to finish a course in a year’s time, particularly if she’s going to college. It shows the college that your child is disciplined enough to be able to finish a course and finish what she’s working on, and that the college knows that she’s had material that is going to be similar to what students in other school situations have covered also. So it’s all going to be a similar study.
Sonya: For example, “My child took chemistry.” Colleges can make some assumptions about what was covered in that course and that it’s pretty much what everyone else is covering. Maybe not exactly every detail, but the majority of it’s going to be standardized.
Karen: Yes. So you want to make sure your kids are doing that. And when you use a textbook, a conversational textbook, like we recommend . . .
Sonya: Still in high school.
Karen: That gives you the assurance that your child is covering that material, that it would be considered the standard for what should be learned in that course, and that it’s at a level that’s appropriate for that age. This is because chemistry, physics, biology, and others all have different levels. Chemistry at the high school level is different than chemistry at the college level or beyond. So you have to lay that groundwork, especially if your children are going on to college. Even if they’re not going into branches of science, there’s a level of science that is expected that your children will have before they graduate college. Setting them up for success is a good thing.
Sonya: Now, let me ask you this. We know that Charlotte used some textbooks in science. Seeing her book lists and looking at those books, we can see that those were textbooks, but then she also talks about living books. What is the advantage? Why would we not include only living books in those upper grades for science?
Karen: It’s very difficult to cover science branches like chemistry or physics, in particular, with living books. Both of those are very math-oriented sciences. So you’re not going to just read about them, you need to do them. Even for biology, it would be very difficult to find living books on the cell and all the parts of a cell, for instance, without it being so hokey for a high schooler. The textbook is going to cover that material. It’s going to make sure that what we know currently about those is up-to-date. The material is going to cover what the student needs to know at that level. So you have that assurance with that with textbooks, but it would very difficult to do with only living books.
Sonya: We still want to make sure that that textbook is not just a fact dump, that it is a conversational textbook. And there’s a huge difference.
Karen: There is.
Sonya: I know your son noticed that difference between his science courses in high school, when you used a conversational textbook, and when he had to do college science textbooks. Talk about that for a minute.
Karen: He complained about using a textbook for high school. I would tell him that he didn’t know what he was talking about because that textbook he was using was not like other textbooks. And when he had to use a textbook for a college course, he came back to me and he said, “Mom, you were right. This is different than what I had to use in high school.”
Sonya: The college one was just a dry fact dump, like so many of us had in school, as opposed to the conversational tone that we are advocating for high school and middle school as well.
Sonya: Great. Anything else you want to say about science? I’m assuming you’re still doing nature study in high school too.
Karen: Yes, still do nature study. I think we mentioned to make sure you’re doing, or if your child is interested you can do, biographies of scientists or personal accounts that scientists have written. And I find them very interesting, but that’s my interest. The personal accounts—hearing what somebody else has observed and his descriptions of it and how he gets excited about it—can help your child greatly in reading about biology or chemistry and whatever, in doing those more textbook assignment-type things.
Sonya: Great. Thanks so much for taking us through that overview. I think it’s very helpful as we navigate those years, all the way up through high school graduation.