Thursday, October 11, 2012

oil and water do not mix

It's been Tishrei. There have been holidays up to wazoo. There has not been a lot of formal learning going on. Ok, there has not been any formal learning, nothing which produces nice neat worksheets, completed pages, checks, grades, nothing assessable with a multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank standard test. And next week my sister is getting married, in New York, so there won't be any formal schooling taking place till we come back, in the middle of the following week.

A part of me is panicking. That's the part which wants to be able to have something to show for our homeschooling: those pages covered, material taught, worksheets completed. A wiser part of me is saying that there is still tons of learning going on, of the more permanent kind. It is not easily quantifiable and assessable, but it is still there.

For example, our lunch today. We had to run a bunch of errands: fix the car's headlight, get haircuts for all the kids, buy groceries for Shabbos and snacks for the road. As a result we finally got home for lunch by 1:30. The boys asked for pizza bagels and were snacking on veggies dipped in ranch dressing while waiting for them to bake. 8 yo, dreamily: "I wonder what happens when you pour oil into the cup first, and then pour water on top." The teacher in me: "So what do you think happens?" 8 yo:" The water is denser, so it will be on top of oil."

The teacher in me thought of the mistakes in this reasoning. The teacher in me thought of the oil droplets floating on top of the chicken soup. The teacher in me thought that by the point a child reaches 8, he SHOULD know what happens when you mix oil and water. Luckily, the wiser side of me took over.

"Do you think it matters what gets poured in first: oil or water? Why?"
6 yo chimed in that he thinks that oil will float on water because water is heavier. 8 yo maintained that if oil gets poured in first, it gets pushed down by denser water. By that point, we had to try it out. 8 yo was actually surprised that oil floated on top. He was also surprised that it formed bubbles. I asked what happens when you mix juice with water (something we routinely do). There he knew that it stays mixed. I introduced terms "hydrophilic" and "hydrophobic". 8 yo was able to take them apart and figure out their meaning. I explained how oil molecules are afraid of water and try to stick together, looking for each other and holding hands.

The boys added more water to the cup, till the oil layer separated into droplets. Then they stuck their fingers through the oil layer. Then they cleaned up the mess.

Ok, nothing great and amazing here. No scientific breakthroughs, no charts, graphs, not even a short entry in a science notebook. But the difference is, the question came from within, the experiment was designed to answer the question, and 8 yo peacefully acknowledged that his younger brother was right all along. I think that the answer is more likely to linger in his mind this way.

How many times, when I taught science to middle schoolers, I was waiting for them to ask a question and then to come up with an answer! But their minds were more often on the interrupted game of kickball, or the  assigned reading of the day, than on what I wanted them to do. It is impossible to run a classroom like this, waiting for kids to formulate their own burning questions and then figure out how to get answers. Yet, somehow, by the time one reaches graduate school, one is expected to do just that: here is what we know, figure out how to ask what has not been asked yet, and then figure out how to answer that and to prove it. In short, we are doing a lousy job of producing true thinkers.

This is a graphic of the High School report card of John Gurdon, this year's recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Obviously, his teacher did not think much about his abilities. Obviously, this guy did not fit into a neat little box. Obviously this "out-of-box" thinking is what led to his Nobel Prize.

Now, I am not expecting my kids to win Nobel Prizes, but I expect them to think and work beyond what is traditionally expected. The more I think about it, the more I realize that unschooling is a fertile ground, waiting to be mined for gems, beckoning to be explored.

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