Yesterday we looked at the teaching of reading in an informal but very effective way. People have in the past said to me that although they can see how this might work with a small child learning basic skills like reading, they cannot believe that this method would work with formal academic subjects like physics or biology, especially if these are being studied at GCSE level. In fact it is even easier to use this technique for secondary education. The essence of the process was, as readers will remember, to prevent teaching, learning and studying being separate from everyday life and play. By doing this, no resistance to being taught would develop in a child's mind. I want to take two simple topics from the IGCSE biology specification which I used. These are mammalian dentition and the carbon cycle. It is vital to know about both in detail if one wishes to aim for A* in the examination.
The best way of learning about mammalian dentition, the type and distribution of teeth in a mammals head, is to examine a skull. When my daughter was eight, we found a dead squirrel in the road. I suggested bringing it home and cutting off it's head. This is the sort of weird, gruesome idea which appeals to young children. I will deal later with the question of what I would have done had my daughter not wished to do this. In the event, she was very keen, although chose not to decapitate the thing with the branch loppers, preferring to watch and go 'Yuk' when the bones made a satisfying crunching noise. We then buried the head in the compost heap in order to strip the flesh. This was a good opportunity to teach about the carbon cycle. We dug up the head at intervals and watched the maggots feeding on it. We could also see strands of fungus. It was plain that these organisms were eating the flesh. Once I pointed out that they gave out carbon dioxide, it was very easy for my daughter to see how the carbon in the flesh was being recycled and returned to the atmosphere.
We followed this up with a mouse's head, a hedgehog and then a crow. The great triumph was finding a fox which had been run over and bringing that home. I removed its head with the garden spade and stuck that in the compost heap as well. This led to a certain amount of coolness with my wife, as I left the headless fox at the end of the garden for months. There was even more trouble when I tried to smuggle home a dead seal which we found on the beach; it was at this point that she put her foot down!
Once the skulls were prepared, looking at the different types of teeth together and working out which was which was great fun. I have a set of the little stick and ball molecule models and we made an organic molecule and then took it apart and combined the carbon atoms with oxygen to see precisely how the chemical process of decomposition worked. We followed this up with trips to the Natural History museum in London. At no time did any of this feel like teaching, although I was working to a plan, decided what I wanted my daughter to learn and ensured that she learnt it. However, a curriculum does not have to be a dead and sterile thing. It can instead be a springboard; a way of generating ideas for exciting and pleasurable activities.
What were the advantages of doing things like this? First, it was great fun. We still talk about the head hunting days and even my wife now laughs about the headless fox which became for a while a conversation point in the garden. Secondly, it gave my daughter great kudos among her friends. They were madly jealous, because their own fathers were not bringing home dead foxes and chopping off their heads with the garden spade. My daughter was also able to show that she did not mind handling maggots, which was impressive. Another good thing was that my daughter learned first hand by watching it in action, how greenhouse gases enter the atmosphere. This is important because although everybody talks about climate change, few seem to understand the true mechanisms involved. Finally, of course, it enabled her to get a biology IGCSE at A* when she was fourteen.
What are the possible disadvantages of this scheme? Perhaps a child would not be interested in the subject? This is unlikely, as she would not be required to do anything herself. Besides, I have yet to find a child who is not fascinated and horrified by watching heads being chopped off. Suppose my daughter had been too delicate and squeamish for this? Well, one can investigate the carbon cycle in other ways. Try this. Take a transparent disposable cup and put a piece of moist bread in it with orange peel and a few other food scraps. Seal the top with cling film and put it in the airing cupboard for a a week or so. It will turn into a fungus garden. This is another way of exploring the carbon cycle as the fungus also digests the carbon-containing molecules and turns them into carbon dioxide. Even the most sensitive child could not find that too much! Suppose the child does not wish to sit an examination at the end of all this? So what? You will have had a lot of fun anyway and it won't have cost a penny.
Incredibly, it is possible to make mammalian dentition and the carbon cycle really boring and ensure that no normal child will be at all interested in them. This is done routinely at school. Get hold of a GCSE text book and you will find that studying these topics entails looking at little black and white line drawings. I can imagine nothing duller and am not at all surprised that so many children do not wish to be taught science in this way. But then again, that is why I chose to home educate, I suppose. I wanted my child to enjoy learning, not sit staring at a textbook.