ambleside curriculum, Ambleside Forum, living science, science/nature

Living Science, -or in pursue of science education without textbooks-.

At the Ambleside Forum, we discuss everything that pertains to a Charlotte Mason education and to the Ambleside Online choices of books and resources that support that education. Some ladies are currently working on what they call the Living Science project. They are discussing living books for teaching science in the junior high and high school years.

Those involved in the project are people of science themselves, -even if now they are not active in the field-, and they have had ample experience and studies in the medical branch or other branches of science at college level and even worked in labs on genetics.

Kathy in particular, the author of the response I am sharing, is aware of how science is been taught in public schools and has also first hand experience with homeschooling science curriculum and sources as her children are and have been in both settings. She is an invaluable reference for everybody at the forum. Her help in the science department is invaluable.

I asked her if she let me divulge her answer through my blog, and she so generously has let me do so. I let you hear her talk.

Here are some observations I’ve made in working through the idea of using living books instead of textbooks with my own daughter, and in helping Jeanne with the Living Science project.


A science textbook is designed to a progression and to cover as much material as possible in a short period of time. As such, it makes a handy reference, because a living book may give passing mention to a concept it assumes you already know, when you may never have seen it before. For example, Watson in The Double Helix refers to X-ray crystallography. It wasn’t until some time later that we learned that because molecules are smaller than the wavelengths of visible light, they can’t be seen with a regular microscope and you must use X-rays. However, in the interest of coverage, high school texts are compelled to address those topics I call “interest killers.” Nomenclature is high on my list of interest killers. Indeed, you do eventually have to learn the vocabulary of the various scientific fields, but like English vocabulary it is painful to have to learn it out of context. This kind of thing gets covered in a text, not so much in a living book. Rainbow Science has a stack of flash cards with the names of animals with their phyla, family, genus and species listed, and it’s 6 inches high. You are expected to memorize this. Uh-uh, not for us.

Most textbooks assume that you must start with the smallest unit, the cell or the atom, before you move up to that which you can observe: the organism, the body, chemical properties and reactions. Mason had the radical idea that you must go the other way: start from the largest thing and move downward to the smallest, because it is easier to connect with what you can observe than what you cannot observe. Her view of science is developmental, even in high school.

As I was doing Rainbow Science with my daughter in Year 6 & 7, I “supplemented” with living books and discovered to my surprise that nearly all the material was covered in the supplements AND it was covered in a much more interesting, living fashion than in the text – which wasn’t bad, it was written in a breezy style intended to appeal to middle schoolers -but it was boring just the same.

You’re probably going to expect me to say that living science does not use math, that it was all the math in the text that made it boring. Wrong! You cannot separate math and science. It’s the math that led to the conceptual discoveries, the math that quantifies the discoveries. You can’t make accurate predictions without math. Perhaps that’s overstating the case a bit, but if you haven’t connected math and science as early as possible, your kid is in for a surprise. I wish more math classes would do this. The best high school living physics book out there (in my humble opinion), Asimov’s Understanding Physics, is all about the math, and my daughter loves it. I think that’s the reason to do science developmentally. The more math they understand, the more complicated the science they understand. Education is the science of relations, and math is about nothing if not relationships. In physics, they will do more math than experiments.

Which leads me to “experiments.” There are about 4 kinds of lab activities you can do in science.

  • The first is the demonstration. These are fun ways to demonstrate a theory or a concept you are teaching. They provide a way for students to make an observation, but if overused, they become mere entertainment.

  • The second is the historical reenactment – can you recreate a famous scientist’s experiment? This is great for connecting with history, and can lead to a deeper understanding of the idea. Your students learn how to set up a lab. But again, they can be mere illustration, or activity for its own sake.

  • Then there’s the demonstration that includes data collection. Here’s where you start to use the math. It both makes the science more real and the math more real. You get real life experience collecting the data, developing the equations, using the equations, and setting up your lab. It’s good stuff. But if you are following a “cookbook” lab, it’s not as valuable as…

  • The inquiry based lab. This is a true experiment. This is where you ask the class “how would you set up an experiment to demonstrate this theory?” It’s not easy, it’s time consuming, but it is becoming the way to do hands-on science in the 21st century classroom because you start pushing the kids to problem solve and use engineering concepts in their work. One of my son’s science teachers had him do a lab at home and purposely wrote the lab wrong so that he could find the variable that had to be corrected to make his design work. It was brilliant.

The reason many labs become useless in high school is because if you mess one up, there’s so much ground to cover that you can get away with speculating as to how you messed up before moving on. Kids are not expected to problem solve. Useless! The Next Generation Science Standards have students apply engineering skills because, surprise!, most scientists are also engineers. They have to design their experiments and they build models. The other side of that, of course, is to overemphasize the lab. Our kids aren’t being trained to be lab techs. We need to provide the structure they need to be successful. And we can’t expect them to learn it all by discovery. That’s why we have books.

Oh, and I won’t leave out notebooking, either, because if you can diagram a process, you can understand it. It builds upon the skills you’ve learned in nature study, through observation and careful recording and accurate depiction. If you are doing a lab and can draw what you expect is happening, then you have a picture of it in your head. You don’t want them merely to copy a diagram out of a text -if they understand it they can draw it from their head. Science and art are also connected.

The other thing that has been bothering me about textbooks, overtly Christian and otherwise, is the extent to which they both will spend loads of time either “proving” or “disproving” various theories about the origin of life. To me, that’s a waste of precious time. The hot new stuff in biology is embryology and biochemistry at the cellular level. If you don’t get that, your future in biology is pretty bleak. That’s just my opinion, though.

In Years 6-8, I would not worry about “coverage.” You’ll get all the science you need with living books. It is possible that in the upper HEO years we will not cover something that would otherwise be covered. We’ll make up for that with depth, I think, and an open Year 12 that will allow interested STEM majors to prepare for science SAT’s or even AP courses in a more traditional manner. Or pursue a field of interest! I think that a living books course still will provide a better education over a text based course, a better base from which to tackle college level material, and a deeper understanding from which to start memorizing minutia.


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