Ogres Are Like Onions and Other Scientific Analogies

ShrekWhat do analogies have to do with science?

Well, to answer that we need to look at what learning is. Boiled down to its basic premise, learning is making connections between what we already know and a new experience. Our brains—and the brains of our children—are designed to make sense of new material by wiring and rewiring nerve pathways that encode memory and understanding.

With science it is often assumed that memorizing science facts is equivalent to learning science. But that is simply not true. Merely reading about new concepts is not only boring, but does very little for the neural pathway wiring process. Learning science should be an active process. Doing science is always best, but for those times when doing science is impractical or will have to wait until co-op day, employing active reading strategies will make those new neural pathways happen. This is where analogies can help, since analogies use a familiar concept to help explain a new one.

Using analogies in science is a great way to help kids make those connections between what they already know and the new material they’re reading about. It may take a little practice to find analogies you can use with your children, but it will be well worth it. You can find examples of analogies everywhere. The video snippet below shows Shrek using an analogy to describe ogres. And you can find more like this in just about every movie or TV show out there. In fact, scientists use analogies a lot to explain and describe phenomenon that are sometimes hard to understand.

Watch this short clip of a documentary about weaver ants and see how many analogies you can find in the description.

5 steps to writing analogies for science:

    1. Briefly introduce the new concept
    2. Remind students of the concept they already know  (the analog)
    3. Link the similarities: point out the parts of the two concepts that relate to each other and show how these relationships are similar
    4. Make sure to show where the analogy breaks down
    5. Draw conclusions

It really does get easier as you practice it. Remember to look for analogies where the new concept shares as many features as possible with the familiar concept. Generally, the more shared features, the better the analogy. Eventually you can involve your children in thinking of analogies for the new concepts they’re reading about.  Here are a few familiar ones to get you started:

  • Blood vessels are like highways
  • Eye is like a camera
  • Cell is like a factory

I like to have students write short, illustrated stories using the analogies above as a way to assess their understanding. It’s also a great idea to have older children explain the new concepts using their illustrated story analogies to younger siblings. These types of active learning exercises reinforce the encoding of new information into memory.

It is important, though, to point out the places where any analogy breaks down.  While analogies help students make connections, dissimilar features of an analogy will cause students to develop the wrong connections. Science learning builds on itself, so having a good foundation without misconceptions will make more advanced learning easier at a later date.

The Scientific Method Ain’t What It Used to Be

scientific methodWe all remember the 5-6 steps of the scientific method: observation, hypothesis, experiment, analysis, alter hypothesis, experiment, and on and on. And while science does involve testing hypotheses, it is so much more. The process of science is much more than just memorizing those five or six steps.

First it might help to get the bigger picture of what science is and what is is not. Science is not a collection of facts. It is not boring, nor purely analytical. Science is not done by solitary middle aged men in laboratories. It is not absolute and unchanging, nor can it prove or disprove ideas. Science does not contradict the existence of God. The goal of science is to explain the natural world around us. Every parent of a toddler or elementary school age child knows that the desire to make sense of the world around us is innate. Ever hear questions like: “what’s that?”, “why is the sky blue?”, or “what make a marshmallow so puffy?”? This is where true science begins.

Sure science involves exploration and discovery, but the process of science is nonlinear, unpredictable, and ongoing. It’s critical thinking, problem-solving at it’s best, or it should be. The study of science and the process of understanding the natural world around us known as the scientific method is better labeled as “active learning” IMHO.
Learning that does not involve thinking is nothing but the memorization of facts not understood, resulting in the formation of mere opinions, not the possession of genuine knowledge and understanding. (Adler 1987, p.11)

So what can you do? Make sure the science that you “do” with your children, their activities and assignments, are designed so that they need to think their way through them. As your child explores new topics in science make sure they have opportunities to observe, hypothesize, contemplate, generalize, create, test, and evaluate their ideas. Help them to identify and solve problems or questions they come up with as they study science. Then you’ll be using the scientific method.

So, the next time you’re asked what makes a marshmallow so puffy, go to the Popular Science website, http://www.popsci.com/diy/article/2008-11/anatomy-marshmallow and learn how to make some marshmallows with your child!

At Aim Academy, our science classes use active learning strategies designed to aid students in gaining genuine knowledge and understanding of science concepts.

Adler, M.J. 1987. “Critical thinking” programs: Why they won’t work. The Education Digest 52(7): 9-11.

God’s Math and a Picnic Lunch

picnicMarch. Time for my annual spring panic attack. The weather starts getting nicer, and my children (and I) start losing motivation to keep on keeping on with the daily lesson plans. At some point I look to see just how much is left to accomplish, and I begin to worry over those math/history/science/grammar lessons (take your pick) that we planned to start right after Christmas but haven’t yet begun. Or I see that one or more of the kids have finished only eight of twenty scheduled chapters in a course, and I quickly feel overwhelmed and totally inadequate. It’s in these moments I start second-guessing God’s very call to homeschool my children. Am I holding up my end of the bargain? How can I be sure that my children are learning everything they need to know to be successful in life? Just who do I think I am to tackle this kind of responsibility?

I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. Many homeschooling moms have told me of times when their thoughts spiraled into a terrible tailspin and they wondered, What am I even doing?

Then one day, in the midst of my own tailspin, God led me to consider chapter six of the book of John.

In this passage, 5,000 people are following Jesus to a mountainside because of the miracles He’s performed. When Jesus looks up and sees the crowd coming toward Him, He asks His disciple Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip answers pretty much like I probably would: “We don’t have the money to feed all these people! Why, eight months’ wages wouldn’t buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” Then another disciple, Andrew, speaks up. He’s not sure how it can help, but he points to a boy carrying five small barley loaves and two small fish.

Think about that young boy. He’s been called out from among the masses, and the only thing that sets him apart from the others is that he brought a picnic lunch. Who packed that lunch for him? Obviously—okay, it’s obvious to me—his mom packed this lunch before sending him out to listen to a Teacher who could explain things to him that she could not. What interests me is that this lunch really isn’t much. Barley was a poor man’s grain, and the loaves were probably about the size of biscuits or rolls. The two fishes, according to some Bible scholars, were probably like sardines. Clearly this was not an extravagant lunch, but a few loaves and fish were all this faithful mom could pack for her son. Oh, and she apparently taught him to share because we don’t read in Scripture that he makes any fuss or even protests when Andrew takes the boy to Jesus to donate his lunch! The highlight of this story occurs when Jesus takes the meager lunch, blesses it, multiplies it, and uses it to satisfy the multitude—and still has twelve baskets full of leftovers!

What can we as homeschooling moms take away from this story? Well, I see two things. First, God’s math really is a wonderful thing. And second, we just need to pack our children’s lunch. It’s as simple as that! Yes, we moms need to continue to pour into our children those things that are important for their personal and spiritual growth—character qualities like sharing, academics like math and science—but most importantly, we need to encourage them to listen to Jesus and follow His teaching. If we’re faithful to pack their lunch using the gifts He has given us, meager though they may be, then we won’t need to stress about whether we have the most expensive curriculum, if we’ve covered all the material in every subject, or how much our home school looks (or doesn’t look) like someone else’s. We can rest in the knowledge that God will take the barley loaves and fish we lovingly pack in our children’s lunches and He will bless and multiply our insufficient gifts so that those who partake of it will have more than enough.

So when those springtime seeds of doubt and discouragement begin sprouting and twisting your thinking, just pack a picnic lunch and trust in God’s math!