Monday, 8 October 2012
On encouraging children to question what they hear and read
One of the great things about home education is that one is able to teach children that they should not rely too much upon what other people say, even if it is being said in newspapers or books. In other words, you can get them to start thinking for themselves. Schools are not very good at this, because of course it would be impossible to have a class of thirty children, all questioning everything that is said. School tends to deal in certainties, which is why for primary school pupils, ‘Sir said’ is much the same as being told, ‘Thus saith the Lord of Hosts’; in other words, the teacher’s word carries divine authority.
There are a number of good reasons to get children to challenge what other people take for granted and I shall be looking at one or two of these this week. Perhaps the most important is that many people lie and even more are grossly mistaken. This is the case with children’s non-fiction books as much as anywhere else and so these provide an excellent starting point in the teaching of scepticism and doubt in the word of others.
I have mentioned before here about our experiment in proving Galileo’s supposed ideas about two weights falling at the same speed, but it is worth repeating. Everybody knows that at the time of Galileo, people thought that heavier objects fell faster than light ones. He was an independent thinker and so did not take people’s word for this but carried out an experiment. He dropped a very heavy cannon ball and a tiny musket ball from a height, some say the leaning tower of Pisa, and saw that they both hit the ground simultaneously. This was a triumph of empirical science. This story is still repeated in children’s schoolbooks and is believed by almost everybody in the western world.
When my daughter was very small, we read about this and I decided to demonstrate the experiment for her, as she seemed dubious. To her too, it seemed clear that a heavy weight would hit the ground before a light one. We set up the experiment and I dropped a large rock and a small pebble from an upper story window, while my daughter observed from the ground. (I was careful to avoid dashing out her brains with a rock, you understand. There had at that time been some marital unpleasantness with my wife which centred around some of my zoo-related activities with the kid. I did not think that she would take kindly to hearing that I had been lobbing heavy rocks out of a first floor window at our daughter.)
Of course, the heavy rock hit the ground first every time. We varied the conditions and it made no difference at all. The accounts of the experiment that Galileo carried out were all wrong. This was quite staggering, since every book in the country says otherwise and took a bit of figuring out. In fact, Galileo said himself that this would happen and that the cannon ball would reach the ground first. His writing on this may be found in Two New Sciences, 1638.
Here was a case where every book in the library which mentions the subject is wrong. It was a revelation to my daughter. A little while later, we visited a museum with a beehive. She had been reading that bees build their hives with hexagonal cells, because this is the best way to cram as many into a given space. Amazing! How they know that? At the beehive, my daughter pointed out that the little cells were not hexagons at all; they were round. This was quite true and we found that by cramming together lots of little circles, you create the illusion of hexagons. Try it with coins. Each coin will end up surrounded by six others. It is just how circles behave; nothing at all to do with hexagons.
These are just two examples, but there were countless others. By the age of ten, my daughter had already become pretty sharp at spotting this sort of thing, not only by her own powers of observation, but by looking closely at how people were making claims and what evidence they were putting forward. There’s a trick you don’t often learn at school!