Catapulting to the Head of the Class


Who is Bobby and how does something he said a decade ago reinforce a recent news release from the California State Education Board? Bobby was a nine-year-old whirlwind of a child, but so enthusiastic about the activities in my science and nature programs for kids that it was impossible not to be infected by his joy. One day, he showed up uncharacteristically glum. When I asked what was wrong, he confessed that his parents were mad at him because he’d gotten a lousy grade in science.

“But, Bobby, how is that possible? You love science.”

He looked at me dumbfounded. “This isn’t science. This is fun!”

In my first years in college, a professor asked me to list two beliefs that informed my approach to education. Since my own primary school years had been characterized by a fear of failure, the first one was easy. “Children learn best when they’re having fun.” A kid who is laughing forgets to be afraid. Fear shuts down the creative capacity.

I hesitated a bit before coming up with the second. But then I remembered my bewilderment in sixth grade when the description of simple machines in our science textbook left me scratching my head. I recalled the gratitude I’d felt when an older friend demonstrated what a lever was by showing me a catapult he’d built. Rule number two was born. “Children learn best by doing.” This playful, hands-on approach to teaching science has been a guiding principle ever since I launched my first after-school program.

Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) had all this figured out long before Bobby, the California Science Curriculum, and I did. “Children are born true scientists. They spontaneously experiment and experience and reexperience again. They select, combine, and test, seeking to find order in their experiences – ‘which is the mostest? which is the leastest?’ They smell, taste, bite, and touch-test for hardness, softness, springiness, roughness, smoothness, coldness, warmness: they heft, shake, punch, squeeze, push, crush, rub, and try to pull things apart.”

On November 5, 2016, the Los Angeles Timesreported that California’s Education Board has approved a curriculum framework that acknowledges the limitations of simple memorization and regurgitation and calls for regular engagement in hands-on science investigations. Although the formal testing of the effectiveness of this approach won’t be complete until next year, Bobby and I feel comfortable predicting the results. It doesn’t take a meteorologist’s skill with forecasts; all one has to do is listen to the squeals of joy as the children in my programs build their own catapults.

Sarah Shaffer, award-winning educator, has been offering unique science and nature programs for children, parents, and teachers for over twenty-five years.More information about Sarah’s Science can be found at www.sarahscience.com

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17 Nov 2016


By Sarah Shaffer
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