If it's dodgy, don't teach it

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
hristmas approaches and, once again, the Steele household rings to the sound of me trying to rewrite primary school musicals to make them less scientifically inaccurate.

To put you in the picture, Mrs Steele is a primary music specialist and this is the time of year some of her charges put on a show. She read me the opening lines of the one she had chosen. They ran something like: "As the stars spun in the heavens around the Earth".

"Stop! Stop!" Yelling and arm-waving, although she is only on the other side of the room. "The stars don't spin around the Earth!"

I accept most of you think that I'm totally sad for making that point, and that those of you who don't are physics teachers. Sorry, but we're right and you're wrong on this one. They put Galileo in the slammer for saying that the Earth was not at the centre of the universe. We have known that he was right for a long time.

Mr Gradgrind from Hard Times was wrong too, not just in his over-reliance on passive, fact-based learning, but in his assumption that children are empty vessels. They come to science overflowing with misconceptions, thanks to television, film, friends, family and, er, teachers.

Any of you out there who were pupils of mine in the early Nineties should be aware that sodium and chlorine atoms do not bond together to make salt molecules. Sorry about that one. And, if my analogy between electric current and the current in a river caused you to believe that electricity drips out of a socket with nothing connected to it, I apologise for that too.

A fellow secondee from another part of the galaxy recently told me of the website www.intuitor.com moviephysics. It rates Hollywood blockbusters according to how good the underlying science is. Far from being a petty-minded demolition of cinematic fun, it is itself a thoughtful and entertaining look at a serious issue.

How often in these days of formative assessment and thinking classrooms have we been told to find out what the learner knows and teach accordingly? What if the learner "knows" a load of mince? With older pupils, playing "spot the misconception" with films and the like can be useful and engaging. With younger ones, it is perhaps better to avoid planting dodgy ideas wherever possible.

Meanwhile, in the Steele household, we have done some joint editing and feel that the musical playlet is none the worse aesthetically for being more scientifically accurate. Peace and goodwill reign. And if you're buying your child a Star Wars video for Christmas, gonnae tell them you can't really hear explosions in space?

Gregor Steele helped write a seasonal version of Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport.

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