What if Questions Arethe Answer?


Sarah Shaffer

I run science and nature camps and after-school science programs for kids. With their innate curiosity, children are natural-born scientists and love being engaged in discovery. But for many young people, there is a seismic shift when they hit school. What’s going on? What is it about labeling science a formal subject that robs the endeavor of fun and drains kids of their passion? Might there be some connection between your child’s grade on a report card and his sudden “I-hate-science” statements? Parents are stunned. What has happened to their junior Einstein or Marie Curie?


Not to worry. Your kids are all right. It’s not little Albert or Marie who needs to change. It’s the way schools teach science. I recently tuned in via livestream to a wonderful seminar, The Undiscovered, sponsored by the Radcliffe Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. What I heard reinforces everything I believe about teaching science. It’s not what we know that makes science fun; it’s what we don’t know. Unfortunately, textbooks are loaded with facts. Goggle searches are loaded with answers. And tests that are scored either “right” or “wrong” can mislead young people—and their teachers—into believing that developing minds are empty voids, simply waiting to be filled with what everybody else already knows. And where is the fun in that? The kids in my programs think of science as just another playful part of the day’s games.


The best science, as one of the speakers at the symposium pointed out, often begins not with a celebratory Eureka, but instead with a hmmm-that’s-interesting moment that turns the unexpected into a point of departure leading to a more profound understanding. One of the exciting things about science is that every new thing we learn takes us to a deeper level in which we see how much is yet to be discovered. Think of it as a scavenger hunt where every hidden object we find points the way to a path filled with previously unimagined treasure. How can parents help their children keep this natural curiosity alive and hold onto the joy found in learning? Stuart Firestein, author of Ignorance: How It Drives Scienceand keynote speaker at the Radcliffe symposium, suggests following the lead of Isidore I. Rabi’s mother. When her son came home from school, she never asked, “What did you learn?” Instead, she welcomed him at the door with this inquiry. “Izzy, did you ask a good question today?” And how did that turn out for little Izzy? You’ll have to ask those who awarded him the 1944 Nobel Prize in Physics.


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