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Last month’s edition of Educational Leadership was all about creativity. The article that struck me the most described how Einstein cited his secondary school training in using his senses during observations, practicing visualization, and exploring the construction of devices as a patent examiner fueled his abilities as a scientist. He also directly attributed his breakthrough on the theory of relativity to his ability to think musically, nurtured by his study of violin since the age of six.
What’s the so what? These are all skills. Einstein is talking about physical and mental skills and habits of mind. He didn’t cite memorizing theorems or formulas, but skills he mastered through purposeful practice. Take a look at the schools around you. Are students getting a chance to develop in nonbook-learning ways that scientists and other problem-solvers need? Ask yourself
- How are fine motor skills nurtured? If handwriting has been cut from your curriculum, how are students developing fine hand-eye coordination? You can’t master titration experiments, take intricate measurements, or calibrate equipment without fine motor skills. Play with Legos and other building toys, or use of many art materials, can develop these skills, but these are more likely to happen in affluent environments than in many homes and schools where more students reside in poverty. I’ve worked with sixth grade boys who didn’t have the fine motor skills to work with manipulatives in mathematics classrooms–they couldn’t line up paper fraction strips or work a compass. Lack of fine motor skills inhibits their learning.
- How is observation nurtured? Students all used to practice drawing, a wonderful way to learn to pay attention to detail. Everyone can learn to draw, with good instruction–check Betty Edwards’ site for examples and information. Think of the usefulness of drawing for accurate scientific observation and recording.
- Is visualization encouraged? Often, students who enjoy reading automatically create a running movie in their heads of the events they are reading about. Struggling readers often do not. Are teachers taking the time to engage students in the kinds of rich visualization exercises that not only enrich reading but lead to better understanding of scientific ideas. “Picture yourself in a space lab with zero gravity. You have a glass of water in your hand. What is happening to the water? Why?” “You’re in New Zealand in July. Where is the sun at noon in the sky?”
- Is there access to music education? If Einstein credited violin playing for relativity, can we not see how central music education is to providing a true “college and career ready” school experience?
- Is there room for inquiry? Curiosity is, of course, a key catalyst for scientific discovery, yet we’re seeing a decrease of space for students to generate their own questions. Are your first graders inventing things to solve problems? Are your fourth graders encouraged to wander outdoors until they discover something they’re curious about? Are your seventh graders devising their own experiments? Are your ninth graders somehow engaged in the work of real scientists? My classmates in 9th grade
- Determined which highway sound barriers–earth, wood or concrete–were most effective, research utilized by my state’s department of transportation
- Explored the use of extreme cold in equipment sterilization
- Synthesized a substance that kept yarn from breaking
- Discovered heretofore unknown steroids in tears
- And much more. There were 350 of us, all investigating our own questions
Cultivating the habits of a scientist involve a rich, integrated, imaginative, engaging, rigorous curriculum.
These skills may be hard to test
They may be time-consuming
They may call for greater breadth and depth in how teachers are trained
They may take time away from memorizing scientific knowledge
But if we really want scientists, we need to a) make science as fascinating as it was for Einstein and b) give students a chance to develop ALL the skills science involves.