One of the little gems we stumbled on recently, when Max was trawling through iPlayer (god how i love that service) was Chemistry – A Volatile History. It has been one of the most eye opening experiences of my educational life and certainly an enormous success in terms of how HE works, not only in “the moment” ie how much we’ve all learned together but also in terms of seeing just how this process of *not-schooling works for us (* i’ve got more to say on this – remind me to come back to the asterisk!)
I hated science at school. Well, that in fact is not really true – at my junior school, a tiny Charlotte Mason PNEU school, i actually loved science. Our last year there was taught by job-sharing teachers who both enjoyed furnishing our minds with facts far beyond what we needed or wanted. We did lots of experiments and one of my particular desires was to collect the chemical symbols of each one. So my teacher made sure each week that i alone of the 9 girls in my class of 11 year olds, had the symbols written in the back of my science book and would take the time to make sure i understood what what the symbols of the compounds meant too. Good old Mrs Sears – there was no need for this, but she saw an interest and she was happy to feed it. It is on this principle that we have based the education of our children so far – not what is needed so much as what is wanted because i don’t feel it is my job to always know what is needed, beyond some bare bone basics. I had a need at that particular time to see some order and collect something and my teacher, my learning facilitator, fed that need.
I had every reason to like science, given i grew up in a house that with a parent, my mum, who was (and is) a scientist. I was in and out of laboratories in the university she taught in all the time; i played with molecule sets, i was taken into lecture theatres full of the students she taught. I smelt the smell of the chemicals she worked with on her when she came home. I was there when she got her phD and i remember the hours of work she put in to it. I looked at gamma pictures of barium meals (forgive me if that is wrong, i was very young!) taken by people who were part of her research at the time. She was looking at a delivery system for cancer treatment and she described it to me as pac-men the size of tiny cells, each holding a highly dangerous piece of drug but delivering it only to the very cell it needed to kill.
I was interested, but i never quite bit and got the bug from her. Both my siblings have ended up with science degrees but there was something slightly missing for me and until now, i have never quite seen what it was. I diverted anyway, becoming far more impassioned by history and people and how that side of life worked. I was fascinated by the stories, the people and the way one thing led to another, the way people were affected by change and ideas and need. It never occurred to me that all that was there in science too.
Of course, we are all different and i am quite sure i wasn’t destined to be a scientist but something went quite wrong when i reached my ‘very good’ senior school. Within a year i hated science, was bored by science and wanted nothing more to do with it. General Science 3 times a week was purgatory and while i tolerated the biology side of it, most of the rest quickly became caught up in my lack of skill and tolerance for maths. I was a struggler at maths long before i got there and probably only got into the school by the skin of my teeth on the maths paper. I couldn’t see the patterns in maths, i couldn’t comprehend there were stories or pictures to maths and no one thought to draw them for me or show them to me in a way i understood. So once science began to rely on maths, i was lost – and science was lost to me. Once we reached the 3rd year and had to do 3 sciences for a year, i was really in hell; i had no interest, no understanding and i really didn’t care. I couldn’t use maths to make sense of the patterns, i couldn’t predict or forecast and without some visual clues, i had absolutely no idea or interest in any of it. Very little caught my attention and i gave everything but the compulsory 1 science (biology in my case) up thankfully at the end of the year. The periodic table, hung on the wall in Science Lab 1, was consigned to the “Dull and Dusty” drawer in my head.
And then, 25 years later on, along came this programme and it has quite simply blown my understanding of what science is out of the water. The first programme discussed the individual elements, ancient understanding of them and the beginnings of scientific discovery emerging out of alchemy and into something new, controlled and methodical. Those long ago listed chemical symbols twanged in the back of my head and it began to catch my attention. I’ve used the word element often enough without really knowing what they were. I found myself drawn into this world of things that go bang and things that don’t and the people who were fascinated by them, the story, the puzzle of their discovery and the passion that they unleashed in people as they gave up their secrets and began to form patterns. We watched it with the girls and they were spellbound through out the hour long programme, asking sensible questions, asking to see bits again, inspired and elated to recognise 2 scientists and the Royal Institute auditorium.
And then we watched the second programme (twice, Max and i watched it once alone and wondered if the girls would find it too hard but they didn’t) and again i found myself thinking “THE. PERIODIC. TABLE. Called so because patterns repeat periodically. WHO KNEW!??!?!?!” And in the same programme “Atoms have different weights.. omg. That’s why some things go up and some things go down. WHO KNEW!!!” And the people… the people who were inspired by these facts and ideas and possibilities, these opportunities to experiment and who made discoveries because they just couldn’t leave it alone. People who took a bunch of ideas they couldn’t even prove and stabbed away at them until they came up with something that had to be an order.
I can’t even imagine being that clever. Or caring enough, quite honestly. Except that i live with a man who once appeared blearily in the middle of the early hours of the night having dreamt how to redesign part of an engine that was causing a project to stop; a dream which is now a patent with his name on and the piece sits inside engines. And i grew up with a woman prepared to work every hour of the day or night because science fascinated her so much that she JUST. COULDN’T. LEAVE. IT. ALONE. And now i see a little more into their heads and i see what group of people they belong to and i understand just a little more of what makes them tick. These programmes about science and scientists have done more than open my mind to science, they’ve opened my mind a little more in the way i lean naturally anyway – they’ve shown me more about people.
We watched the last episode last night, which was on the radio-active elements. It went, honestly, way above my head and should have gone way above the heads of the children too but they watched every second of it. Again i was struck by words i can say but not understand. Splitting the Atom. Oh right. They actually SPLIT it. And it does that? Energy comes out. BIG energy. Unstable elements – so called because they are… wait for it.. unstable. And dear god, they’ve made new elements – alchemy is in fact possible. I had no idea.
There is so much i didn’t know and honestly, never will. I decided science was boring based on some ropey teaching and tiresome labs and the fact that no one told me the stories. I’ve used words and read words and i haven’t listened. I thought i understood something and how it was because i made up my mind and didn’t look further than my own prejudice and lack of understanding.
There are some politicians and lords who could take that on board.
But the thing that i loved most was how much the children loved it. They loved finding out about something difficult and it held no fear for them; Maddy and Josie loved the way it fitted together, Amelie loved the drama of the experiments, Fran and i looked at each other sadly when they showed the bombs dropping on Japan and wondered if the woman who realised that 1/5 of the weight of a proton was converted into energy when the atom was split ever regretted being able to do maths and physics. And we all wondered if we felt vaguely uncomfortable at the idea of creating elements.
Max said he learned more in 3 episodes of a television programme than he did in 2 years of A Level Chemistry. I had the same eye-opening moment my mum did a couple of years ago when she opened and read a Jane Austen book (her first novel since she finished O Level) and discovered that stories are interesting and enjoyable, not the waste of time she had always assumed they were when my dad and i read them. And the children simply saw yet another amazing and astonishing part of the universe to connect to all the other things that float past them and stick in their heads in extraordinary ways that no amount of curriculum planning could ever achieve. They all, including 5 year old Josie and people focused Fran, think the periodic table is something inspiring and exciting and important and meaningful. They all know the words atom, neutron, proton. They all know about positive and negative charges. They can all relate those things to the Royal Institute, to things that go flash and bang, to an idea of pattern and conformity and complexity and using what you know to work out something you don’t. They all understood that science can be mathematics and it can be morality – and it can mean life and it can mean death. They all understood that there are things you cannot see which are still there and which can alter the world.
They all understood that there is masses to learn in our world and that is is fascinating, in different ways, to different people. And that that is good.