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"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!"

Scientific Thinking?

Posted on 18th February 2017

Alive?  Dead?  Never been alive?

Children aged 5 -7 need to be able to wrestle confidently with this topic, in the new curriculum.   And very interesting it is too.

E.g. ‘Dead’ – A chair is made out of wood from a tree which is no longer alive.  We know that it is no longer alive because it is not re-producing, breathing, eating, excreting etc.  ‘Excreting’ is always a popular discussion topic with 5 year olds.

We moved onto thinking about ‘a book’.  ‘Never been alive’ was the general consensus.  I was just wondering about how to introduce the origin of paper without losing half the class when one girl said – “A book is alive because as soon as you start to read, the story comes alive in your mind.”


Figurative thinking?  Or is it scientific thinking?  The science of how the mind works is arguably one of the most exciting areas of current scientific exploration.

Arbitrary distinctions are so hard to work with.  As any parent whose children have gradually studied science at a higher and higher level knows, they come home every year and say “Well, apparently all that ‘stuff’ I learnt for SATs / GCSE / A level is actually wrong – the real truth is…”  Arbitrary agreements are made by assessing / examining bodies about how much, conceptually, children are able to understand at different ages.  Then they unpick it all at the next stage, and re-learn the new, more complex, ‘truth’.

This is, of course, convenient for assessment, but unfortunately out of kilter with children’s rather random development.

On the morning on which I was discussing whether a book was alive, I was also surprised to realize that one child didn’t know that wood (the chair) had come from a tree.  And yet another child was pondering about oil (great excitement – dead things from millions of years ago come through the diesel pump at the garage and swill about in our cars).  She thought that as coal is also a ‘fuel’, it may be made of dead things too.  Hoorah!  I do hope that she does a PhD in something fascinating…  Perhaps she will invent wind-powered cars (Two current fixations in Class 4: 1. Cars with wind turbines – once they start they will never stop, because they’ll self-generate the necessary wind.  2. Cars with sails – how could we lay out motorways for tacking?).

These are the days when I’m glad that I don’t have a head-cold.  Or a different job!  There is nothing more interesting than being with a group of children who are curious about the universe and happily burbling their theories.  But in science I find that it never develops as I thought it might.   It is so easy to tell children that they are wrong, when what we actually mean is “That is not the answer I was expecting, or one which will get you the mark in the SAT test”.  Think deeper, think wider…

How early do we close down this wide-ranging curiosity?  How quickly do we want to explain to them that there are required answers?  Not wise, complex, deep answers – just required ones.

You may be aware of the discussion about England’s rating as measured by PISA scores.  It may be right to be worried, and I agree with the emphasis on high level literacy and maths skills.  Certainly we need to ensure that our education system is excellent, given the current world climate.  But I do also worry that we may be losing confidence in our country’s admittedly unusual education system.  Creativity and innovation have been a strength of our education system.  Stifle the originality and expression too early, and we may well find that we have lost a lot more than we’ve gained. Of course children need to be able to articulate their originality.  Of course they need to be able to measure and manipulate data dexterously.  But they must also be taught to think, and encouraged to develop creative, original responses.

How would you answer the 6 year old child who says “A book is alive because as soon as you start to read, the story comes alive in your mind”?

Answers on an email, please.  I’d love your help!

Scientific Thinking?