Knowledge is Important

I teach a Year 8 interdisciplinary subject called F1 in Schools. Over the length of a semester, students have the opportunity to design a Formula 1 racing vehicle using Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software, engage in mathematical modelling, analyze computational fluid dynamics by using a virtual wind tunnel and then construct their design using both additive and subtractive manufacturing technologies. The program inspires students to learn about engineering, physics, aerodynamics, design, manufacturing, leadership, teamwork, media skills and project management, and then apply them in practical, creative and exciting ways.

I have written about this program before here.

Last Thursday I had the best class of the year and funnily enough, it had very little to do with F1. The students came into class talking about the movie Interstellar. I decided to gently engage the twenty-five boys in some questioning. This led to a discussion about philosophy and science and the difference between classical and modern physics. I introduced them to Newton’s main ideas and how we believed these to be universally true until Einstein came along. We spoke about Einstein’s theory of special relativity. I asked them to research the Twin Paradox. We discussed gravity, the law of addition of velocities, the speed of light, wave/particle duality, the difference between a scalar and a vector, and the nature of time and space. The students discussed the consequences of space travel, colonization of planets and the implications for our current notions of family.

Engagement was off the charts. I am talking about palpable energy as students furiously engaged in conversation and debate with each other, only pausing momentarily to ask me another question before having their minds blown as they discussed possibilities, scenarios and consequences with each other. We probably covered a semesters worth of university-level physics in fifty minutes. These are not your typical boys who are interested in science either. One boy asked if we could continue this conversation for the last few weeks instead of F1 in Schools. Three boys I walked past on my way to the common room were explaining special relativity to other students in the yard in a passionate and animated way. A group of five boys came back to me at the end of the day excitedly explaining to me that because it takes eight minutes for light to travel from the sun to the earth, that in fact, we were living in the past.

I could deviate in this way and engage students in this conversation because I had the pre-requisite knowledge and expertise to do so. But I also did this because I know the value of responding to student interest. A curriculum can never be something that you just pick up off the shelf and rigidly enforce or impose on kids. You need to be fluid and responsive, not set and rigid.

Knowledge is important. I believe in teachers having expertise. I believe in purposeful periods of direct instruction. I also believe in inquiry. Theories of learning should inform our pedagogy and a constructivist perspective most certainly develops a disposition of active inquiry through both a learning and teaching lens. Guiding students in developing a deep understanding through inquiry is an incredibly sophisticated and nuanced approach to teaching and one that can only be achieved by having access to stores of knowledge in specific domains.

Off to talk more Physics with the eager and inquiring young minds of tomorrow.

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