Cheap tools for kindergarten (Part 5a)

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
Exodus 20:4-6

Whatever one's view of the Hebrew Bible may be, the words that survived countless generations of people who carried them likely reflects a sort of cultural wisdom. Just like the Bill of Rights, many people vehemently defend the Ten (or so) Commandments without having a clear understanding of what they are defending and in many cases, without having ever actually read them.)

Words and ideas, concepts that separate us from most of the other beasts, have both honed our views of the universe while separating us from the natural world. Sin is defined as turning away from God. We need a word for turning away from our natural history.

Notebooks, done right, make the visible world more so.

"Done right" does not mean a table of contents, or neat (and colorful) drawings, or proper tabs, or 1" margins, or a whole lot of other things you'll find on rubrics. If the point is clarifying the world to the very young journalist, then the rest is piffle. (Yes, there is a point to organizing "thoughts" and there is a point to legibility and there is a point to following directions--but that's not the point of an observer's notebook....)

Piffle kills learning, and has no place in public education. Before diving into the power and simplicity of having children create notebooks detailing their personal excursions into the natural world, I want to lay out their dangers.

Notebooks change a child's perception of the world, as they do ours. Language both describes and defines what we perceive. We ignore this, of course, most of the time, and most of the time, this is fine. (Well, maybe not so fine given our cultural madness where we pay more attention to imaginary stock indices than the natural world.)

Some powerful things happen when we scribble:
Our words and our pictures create models of what's "out there," but can never (with the exception of mathematical models of natural laws) truly convey what we see. The first couple billion years (or so) of our ancestors had no reason to doubt what they perceived, they did not play the role of Creator. We now define our worlds. Our words, our images, have become our universe.

Our words and our pictures assume an immediacy and power that beguile us; we mistake the words for what they represent. In schools we pledge allegiances to flags, "study" polar bears in magazines, pretend that concepts like "global community" exist.

The physical manifestations of our words--textbooks, worksheets, notebooks--become identified with learning. We grade notebooks, judge their worth by their heft, and ritually toss them out when the school year ends.

Just as teachers who have little grasp of what "matter" or "energy" mean should not teach science, teachers who have little grasp of how language influences our perceptions should not use science journals.

I'd rather teach adolescents who have never been exposed to any formal science training at all than teach those who carry deep misconceptions sown through years of schooling.


The National Science Teachers Association promotes the use of notebooks in the early grades, and they should be an integral part of any science education, even before a child can write, if we insist on teaching the young science.

I hope to develop a series of posts that encourage rabid debate on what it means to teach science, what it means to learn science, in the early grades, focusing on how we encourage children to learn about the natural world, through their eyes and ears, their Pacinian corpuscles, their taste buds, their noses.

I think it requires keeping journals, as I will share, but I also think much of what passes for journals needs to be tossed into the heap of inkwells and filmstrips littering our public school junkyards. I hope you join the discussion.

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