Nature Study and Science

nature study quoteDeductive Reasoning, an example in action:

‘When Captain Head was travelling across the Pampas of South America, his guide one day suddenly stopped him, and, pointing high into the air, cried out, “A lion!” Surprised at such an exclamation, accompanied with such an act, he turned up his eyes,

vol 2 pg 240

and with difficulty perceived, at an immeasurable height, a flight of condors soaring in circles in a particular spot. Beneath this spot, far out of sight of himself or guide, lay the carcass of a horse, and over this carcass stood, as the guide well knew, a lion, whom the condors were eyeing with envy from their airy height. The sight of the birds was to him what the sight of the lion alone would have been to the traveller, a full assurance of its existence. Here was an act of thought which cost the thinker no trouble, which was as easy to him as to cast his eyes upward, yet which from us, unaccustomed to the subject, would require many steps and some labour.’ (vol.2, 139)

This is a sort of reasoning from assumption to conclusion that comes naturally to most human beings, although many of us get out of practice over time. However, it is not an infallible guide, this reasoning power, because we can develop convincing proofs of almost anything we wish to believe.

“Here was an act of thought which cost the thinker no trouble, which was easy to him as to cast his eyes upward, yet which from us, unaccustomed to the subject, would require many steps and some labour. The sight of the condors convinced him that there was some carcass or other; but as they kept wheeling far above it, instead of swooping down to their feast, he guessed that some beast had anticipated them. Was it a dog, or a jackal? No; the condors would not fear to drive away, or share with, either: it must be some large beast, and as there were lions in the neighbourhood, he concluded that one was here.” And all these steps of thought are summed in the words ‘A lion.’

This is the sort of thing that the children should go through, more or less, in every lesson––a tracing of effect from cause, or of cause from effect; a comparing of things to find out wherein they are alike, and wherein they differ; a conclusion as to causes or consequences from certain premisses.” Volume 1 page 151

Science done well helps children learn to think. But we miss the point and think science is basically a series of magic tricks- and so you find students and homeschooling parents complaining that an experiment ‘failed.’ But a failed experiment is not a failure of science. It’s an opportunity to ask some questions, to think, to examine and trace cause and effect and cause from effect and ask what happened and what didn’t happen, and why or why not.

IN this PR article about a pioneer of science teaching, we find this:

Mr. Dawes’ experience emphasizes… that not only is nature study that to which children are more instinctively more inclined than any other school subject, but also it is that which is the most suitable and valuable for their mental training. Two of the most vitally important faculties for the mental equipment of both young and old are intelligent observation and correct reasoning. The study of natural science furnishes the widest field and most efficient instruments for the exercise and development of these faculties.

Through nature study, children should be learning to observe carefully, to wonder about what they are observing and ask questions about it and then attempt to figure out the answers. Later they will build on these first hand experiences and practice with observations and recording those observations. But nature study is the building block stage for the more abstract sciences that will come later.

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