How I Taught my Dog to Whistle, and Other Myths

curious-dogBeing organized and science minded I felt compelled to introduce a little science background before I began the actual lesson with Fido. So with a little showmanship I explained how whistling was a vibration of air molecules and with practice we could make different pitches and even whistle a tune! I then proceeded to demonstrate a few whistles and showed how I held my lips, formed a path with my tongue for the air and used my lungs to create the required air pressure. Fido cocked his head and appeared to understand. I suggested he give it a try. A moaning growl came out followed by three short barks. I smiled at his effort and gave him a pat on the head and suggested he try again. More of the same. After more than a dozen tries I gave up in frustration. I did my part, why couldn’t he get it?

If you really think I tried this go back to reading the comics. The point is that there is a vast difference between teaching and learning. Sadly, some teachers feel that by merely telling or showing something to a student they will immediately grasp it and be able to repeat the lesson if they paid attention. Thousands of years of humans teaching other humans how to hunt or gather, speak a language, or play musical instruments, surely should have codified a few simple rules to teach anything. And, by the way, the dog probably doesn’t have the ability to shape his lips properly anyhow!

On the other hand, teaching something like how to fold a flag is way different from, say, how to bake a cake. Folding a flag is visual, requires some precision and patience, and can be done in minutes. Watching it being done and practicing a few times will probably give most people the basics. Baking a cake requires reading a recipe, measuring ingredients, using the proper kitchen resources and takes a lot more time. Not everyone will probably have good success.

Where is this going? Learning itself is complex. Everyone has his or her own preferred learning style, and pace. From quick visual learners or auditory learners (eg. hearing a song once and being able to repeat it) to the measured thoughtful style that might typify an analytical personality a good teacher will try to “read” the technique that will work best. It can probably be safely said that long technical lectures to kids minds is a sure turn off. On the other hand, trying to be “one-of-the–gang” by using the latest teen slang is fake. Honest respect for yourself and the innocence of youthful curiosity should be genuine.

Science is not a discovery of a few principles and their application to the world. It is a way of seeing and questioning the world.

The nature of Science itself is a combination of curiosity, observation, thoughtful reasoning, experiments, discussion with other scientists, more experiments, etc. repeat. In a word, Science is not a discovery of a few principles and their application to the world. For many scientists, Science is a life-calling of patient observations, sharing results, modifying or even discarding pet theories and opening, sometimes a peephole, and maybe even a panorama of insight, into the hidden realities of the material world. If scientific ventures sound like years of boring drudgery with little hope of meaningful outcomes, watch the video of the European Space Agency’s control room when, after a ten year journey, on August 6, 2014, spacecraft Rosetta, and it’s lander Philae was, for the first time in history, successfully landed on a comet! The shouts, hugs, and bubbly must have lasted for hours. Science can be exciting and alive!

So, here is my suggestion for the 30 Fun Science Lessons. If you don’t like Science, give yourself a chance. Remember the Dr. Seuss Green Eggs and Ham tale. You might actually like it if you get the right taste. Look over the 30 lessons. Pick something that might seem interesting. Choose something that you can obtain the materials for. The Mystery Diver, Cloud in a Jar, or Zero Gravity Detector are simple and relatively short lessons. Before you meet your student(s), practice. Ham it up! A little drama, mystery and surprise always adds to the fun for you and your student(s). Pretend (if you want) that this is an unfamiliar experiment for you too. They will be more apt to pay attention to see if you are going to be successful.

Just to review, The Mystery Diver works by squeezing the bottle. For your demonstration try to obtain an actual magnet. (A refrigerator magnet will be OK) You can even prove that it is a real magnet by picking up a few paperclips. By carefully timing your hand holding the magnet with the other hand doing the squeezing you can create the illusion that the magnet is the cause of the eyedropper sinking. Be careful to explain to students that this will be a demonstration to test their ability to observe carefully and draw conclusions. This is a good time to encourage theories. Politely encourage all theories, but be a bit persistent in encouraging your students to explain how they came to their conclusion.

If you want a little more drama choose a student to step out of the room with you as you reveal the secret to them and allow them to return to the room with you and get the attention of their friends as they make the big reveal! If you wish to forgo this step it’s OK. In any event, the moment of truth arrives with interesting student reactions. From confusion to mild anger for being “tricked” students will want (and deserve) to know the truth. This is your opportunity to teach some “Real Science”. Fun is fun, but to drop the lesson now is to miss the real point for your students.

This is a lesson about the concept of density. Density, as you probably already know, is not just weight. A lead weight feels “heavy” because ours eyes see a relatively small object but our hand and brain tell us that such a small object usually does not feel that heavy. Our brain has actually made a calculation comparing size and weight. Scientists and engineers would speak in terms of volume compared to mass. A block of foam plastic would easily float in water but a block of metal will sink.

Density is an extremely important concept in understanding how many things in the world work. Oil always floats on top of water because it is less dense. A submarine is a boat that can change its density by pumping water out of certain tanks and replace it with air. Nature has created “swim bladders” in fish that assist the fish to dive and ascend more easily than using fins to propel themselves to the surface or depths. In the atmosphere air temperature directly affects the density of air masses determining whether an air mass will create a warm front by riding over another air mass or a cold front riding under and lifting another air mass. Frontal weather patterns bring their own unique kind of clouds and weather. Scientists theorize that the molten iron core of the earth exists below the molten rock layers because it is more dense!

Back to Educational Theories. Historically, “experts” have peddled, er… promoted their favorite theory. The Instructional Design website lists over 50 instructional theories from Paget’s Genetic Epistemology, B.F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning, to Dewey’s Pragmatism. Bottom line: most have some basis in research. However, the curse of many academics, if I dare say so, is to obscure the obvious. Effective Science teaching has little in common with reinforcing a monkey’s behavior with food pellets. On the other hand it is hard to dismiss the importance of a thorough knowledge of your subject (or at least a specific area), an ability to relate the subject to the real world and experiences of students, the ability to give reasonably simple explanations to technical concepts, and have some fun doing it.

Madeline C. Hunter (1916-1994) was a gifted enthusiastic teacher herself who was somewhat of a Johnny Appleseed traveling about the country giving workshops to teachers on “Mastery Teaching”. Thousands of teachers were “Hunterized” including myself. I still have notes from her presentations. Her six-step plan was simple but effective:

The Six Steps to an Effective Lesson

  1. Anticipatory Set. Let your students know what is coming and why they should learn it.
  2. Stated Objective. Clearly state the outcomes. “You will be able to correctly identify a vertebrate.”
  3. Teach or Model. Show, explain, demonstrate, or teach, the information or skill.
  4. Guided Practice. The student will, under supervision, repeat the demonstration or lesson.
  5. Independent Practice. Without assistance the student can repeat the demonstration or lesson.
  6. Closure. What did we learn? What are the implications? The student can summarize the lesson.

Steps 4 and 5 can be combined. Sometimes it’s simply called “check for understanding.” The easy and fatal mistake beginning teachers make is to ask the question: “Does anyone not understand?” Duh… who is going to admit their stupidity in front of their all-important peers? Asking if there are questions is OK but it is important to emphasize that there is no such thing as a “dumb question”. Well actually, there can be, but don’t say that to the kids! A better way to reinforce the lesson is to ask a question like: “When did you suspect there was something fishy?” Or, “How could the truth have been detected sooner?”

This last question can lead into a discussion about the Scientific Method. One of the hallmarks of the Scientific Method is measurement, or careful observation. Repeat the demonstration, but this time call your student’s attention to the hand holding the bottle. Upon close observation they should be able to detect your fingers “in action.” In effect this demonstration has a bit of “magic trick” quality to it because you want to demonstrate how easily we can fool ourselves by assuming that because two occurrences happen in rapid succession that there is a cause and effect connection.

“Stay tuned” (How’s that for a anachronistic phrase?)… More teaching tips are in the works. Lesson 31 using a pair of laptop computers to “play with the interaction between audio tones” is in the “pipeline”.

For Great Science for Kids,
Paul Lupton

Image via Flickr, A. Levine, creative commons some rights reserved.

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