Guest Post: On Not Teaching High School Science, by MacBeth

I have often made the claim–or perhaps it is a confession–that I do not teach, but I do facilitate. This is not precisely the case now, as in my “retirement” from homeschool, I do “teach” classes for other homeschooled students. But my goal is to mentor more than teach, and I hope that’s how it actually turns out. I truly hope to inspire a love for science in my students through encouragement and observation as we examine the world around us through scientific eyes. School as leisure is the key, just as it was in the elementary years.

Lately, I have been asked by a few folks to outline an approach to high school science using living books, and I am glad to have a few moments to do so now. I’d like to begin with some real honesty: A living books education for a student of science is more difficult to throw together than a textbook education. But don’t panic. The difficulty sits squarely on the shoulders of the student, and rightly so. By high school, the student should have a good idea of his strengths and weaknesses, of his learning style, of what appeals to him, and of his particular areas of interest. He need not love science in order to complete his coursework, but he ought to love the books he chooses and the aspects of scientific topics he pursues. In the end, a living books science education will provide the student with a depth of understanding that a high school textbook education cannot approach.

Let us suppose your high school student wants to study biology. Biological sciences are broad and deep, but for the high school student, most of biology is a list of definitions. In anatomy, for instance, we identify body parts. In botany, we identify plants and their features. In behavior, we categorize actions. In genetics, perhaps, we must consider statistics but only on a basic level (for high school); we are still simply defining the agents of inheritance. But definitions are best learned in context, and living books are the context. Written by one author who loves his subject, living books are the author’s way of sharing the love.

So to begin, head to the local library. There on the biology (or chemistry, or physics, or geology…) shelves your student will find books written at every level on each particular subject. Browse the books, starting with the most basic (do not be embarrassed to check out books from the children’s section), and bring home a stack. It does not hurt to look at the table of contents of a biology text if you don’t want to miss any particular topic. And I do recommend the Self-Teaching Guides for an overview of a subject (Astronomy, for example). If you have a student who is preparing for SAT subject tests, a prep book is not a bad idea. Such study guides will not convey the love of science as a living book will, but they are useful to ensure that test topics are covered.

Back at home, take note of the topics which most interest you, and head back to the library with those topics in mind. Examine a few more complex texts and delve deeply into them. If the author goes too fast, find another book or take it slowly. If you need more illustrations, look for a book that suits you (oversized books may be on a different shelf). Periodicals and professional publications may be available at a local college or university. Find out how to gain access to these or subscribe yourself. Sometimes students get discounts on subscriptions; it does not hurt to ask.

The student might take notes, but one of the great features of a living book is readability. A fast reader with good comprehension skills will enjoy a living science book as he enjoys a good novel. One hardly takes notes when reading for pleasure. After reading, a homeschooler, pacing himself, has time to go back and reread a part or take notes on a section that is more difficult or complex. The student of biology might need to make vocabulary lists. The student of physics will need to keep track of formulae. In those cases, the student should read closely and take good notes. The style of note-taking will depend on the student, but systems such as Cornell Notes or SQ3R Notes are helpful for some students.

But what about labs? Laboratory demonstrations are great for hands-on experience with equipment and will give a student an opportunity to write a lab report in a formal way. For the most part, a high school student is not experimenting to make a new discovery but rather repeating tried and true procedures in order to make a concept clear and, for the sake (especially in chemistry) of learning, how to handle the equipment. In theory, a student may successfully watch virtual labs online while trying only a few demonstrations at home. The student who is very interested in a particular topic may desire the hands-on experience that labs provide. For that student I suggest living books again. A student with an interest in anatomy might want to do a cat dissection. (Cats for dissection–I know this is sad–may be purchased from companies which acquire euthanized cats from shelters.) A student of chemistry may want to set up some sophisticated equipment in a garage and try his hand—with care–at distillation or synthesis. A student of physics may wish to learn how to grind lenses and experiment with optics. I am a firm believer in hands-on science with good equipment, and there are books available for these projects. A student who saves his own money for such purchases is learning another lesson as well.

In this age of YouTube and social media, students can and should take advantage of the brains of others. College lectures through open university courses, simple how-to videos posted by enthusiastic amateurs, and everything in between are available on the internet. Your student of physics can fix your car. Your student of biology can learn bird calls. Your student of chemistry can learn how NOT to perform certain hazardous experiments. Astronomers can learn star lore, follow NASA spacecraft, and calendar celestial events. Geology students can get an app that will alert them to earthquakes as they happen. Never before has so much scientific raw data been available to students in real time. And it’s free!

Despite the ubiquity of video presentations from around the world, don’t forget the real live field trips. Go to a mine and break rocks. Go to a dark field and look at stars. Go to the sea or a pond with a net and find critters. Go to a laser light show. Visit museums and attend university lectures intended for the public. Purchase and use a good microscope.Your enthusiastic student will be welcomed by amateur and professional societies. Mineral clubs, birding clubs, astronomy clubs, ham radio clubs, etc. are always pleased to greet young people who share their passion. And unlike video resources which engage sight and hearing, a live experience engages all five senses. Smell the sea! Smell the barn! Feel the wet grass! Taste the wild edibles!

Which leads me to my last point. Talk to strangers. For instance, if you are hiking by a pond and a scientist is tagging fish, politely engage him in conversation. (Birders will expect you to be very quiet as they observe but will be willing to point out a rare sighting if your student conducts himself appropriately.) Over the years we have met some fascinating people with interests in a wide variety of topics. Real scientists working in the field are always an inspiration.

I have, in the past, provided living book lists—suggestions, really—for high school students. It is the nature of science that new books based on new discoveries and new perspectives are being published all the time. Please look to the lists, but don’t feel limited by them. Some can be found on the sidebar at MacBeth’s Opinion and on the very old and outdated site (some links might not work) http://charlottemason.tripod.com/hisci.html

A living books education is not just for those interested in humanities. A motivated student of science will enjoy the challenge of a living books education. A reluctant student of science may enjoy the engaging style of a passionate science writer. Either way, the living books approach will open the eyes of the student and inspire a new way of looking at science.

(Two days later, Macbeth was having a conversation about this post on her facebook wall, and she offered some more advice we wanted to pass on.)

“No tests. No quizzes. Conversation, always. If there were labs involved, we sometimes did them together. If anyone had a problem understanding, he would look for another resource, or ask for help. New and exciting concepts were frequently shared at the dinner table. If we visited a lab, I expected to hear (and did hear) good questions about the research. If we visited a mine, concepts and vocabulary were reinforced. And grades on transcripts are arbitrary things at best…I suspect this aspect of unschooling makes folks uncomfortable, but it worked well for us.”


MacBeth Derham is a biologist, and veteran homeschooling mom with four outstanding college graduates of her own. She taught natural history for 25 years and now mentors for Aquinas Learning.

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