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In Context #3 (Spring, 2000, pp. 12-13), published by The Nature Institute

Experiential Physics

Michael D'Aleo and Stephen Edelglass, both high school teachers in Waldorf schools, have written a valuable little book called Sensible Physics Teaching. It contains day-by-day lesson plans for sixth through eighth grades, providing a curriculum thoroughly rooted in the immediate experience of the students.

One of the interesting features of Sensible Physics Teaching is that students are never asked to explain a phenomenon on their first day of encounter with it. Their initial task is to become acquainted with the phenomenon in all possible detail, making it part of their own, lucid experience. On a subsequent day they revisit the experience in memory -- serving further to enliven their inner command of the facts of the case. Then they seek to deepen their understanding by bringing the most fruitful conceptual illumination to their experience. This method has interesting consequences:

When a dispute about what happens arises between two students, or a student questions the teacher, it is settled by revisiting the phenomena. There is no dogma regarding experience. Students have their own experience that they try to understand. They usually feel that they have learned something. The student may say, "I will no longer rely on the teacher to tell me what is right or wrong. I can know that from my own experience! I can confirm the correctness of my thinking by comparing it to my own experience."
This kind of self-confidence (and competence) is hard to come by when students are surrounded by computer technology that functions like a mysterious black box, and when they are handed down abstract theoretical principles that they then must try to get an (often poorly understood) experimental apparatus to verify.

This important book does suffer one defect: it badly needed a copy editing and proofreading that it never got. This, presumably, will be mended in a second printing.

The authors' introduction sets their method in a clear light, and we offer on the next page an extract from this introduction, reprinted by kind permission of Parker Courtney Press. For ordering information, see end of the text excerpt.


From "Introduction to Sense Based Science" in Sensible Physics Teaching
Michael D'Aleo and Stephen Edelglass

Sense-based scientific methodology ... does not look behind the world of experience for an explanation. Most explanations today are in terms of mechanical models. For example, within a sense-based methodology the reason materials get hotter is understood to be that they are exposed to hotter bodies than they are themselves. This explanation consists of a description of the conditions under which to expect an experience. In contrast, an increase in hotness of a body is usually "explained" in terms of hypothetically faster-moving molecules of the hotter body colliding with the hypothetically slower-moving molecules of the colder body to increase the mean speed of the latter and decrease the mean speed of the former . . . . By using such hypothetical models scientists feel they have "explained" the conjunction of increase of hotness and expansion.

However, model-based explanations are made at the expense of reducing hotness and coldness to motion of hypothetical mechanical entities. In this way hotness and coldness as such are implied to be merely subjective human responses. Molecules are taken to be real while human experience is not.

Molecules are not imagined to be either hot or cold. They are imagined just to move and collide with each other. Actually, molecules are merely models (imaginations) that constitute an intermediate virtual concept that is constructed mentally in order to "explain," among many other phenomena, why materials expand when they get hot. An intermediate nonperceptible entity (molecule) is created mentally to link a theorized cause and effect condition. The price of such an approach, however, is the alienation of human beings from the world of experience. In contrast, sense-based science places people directly into their experience. After all, experience is the final arbiter of the validity of scientific concepts.

In no way do the authors intend to convey the idea that models are useless. In fact, scientific models can be rather helpful. Much of our modern technology was developed using them. The objection we have to them is that when these intermediate virtual concepts are taken to constitute reality, a meaningful human context is lacking. This lack is, perhaps, one of the reasons that technology has not been an unalloyed blessing to the earth.

Consider the example of strong herbicides. While the chemical has the desired initial effect of killing unwanted plant life, such as weeds in lawns, the scientific community has been slow to react to its effects on wildlife and groundwater drinking supplies. There are, of course, many reasons for this, including the economic benefit to the producer and the convenience of chemicals to the user. However, we would suggest that one reason for the slowness of response is that since science is done in a manner that is abstracted from the experience of nature human beings are simply less awake to the manifold character of that experience; they are less awake to its wholeness. By way of its emphasis on experience, the practice of sense-based science strengthens people's sense faculties. Thus people are in the world actually rather than virtually. . . .

It is impossible to look behind the phenomenal world. Expecting scientific understanding to be of the form of an underlying model that explains experience presupposes that the world is like a machine that can be taken apart. Such a methodology encourages an a priori mechanical view of the world, a mechanical view that is supposed to make sense of life. What is more, such practice encourages concern with a virtual world of models rather than with the world of actual experience. Practice of such science removes human beings from their experience. It alienates them from reality.

Sense-based science, in contrast, encourages concern with actual experience and finding relationships within that experience. It encourages connectedness with other human beings and with the environment rather than detachment, because it stays within experience of human beings and their environment rather than looking behind such encounterings. Participation in the environment -- human, natural and human made -- gives an immediate intuition for possible harmful effects of human action and, through that, self-knowledge.

Sensible Physics Teaching, a 140-page paperback, is available for $16.75 from Parker Courtney Press, 307 Hungry Hollow Road, Chestnut Ridge, NY 10977. Shipping and handling is $3.50, plus $1 for each additional copy.

Original source: In Context (Spring, 2000, pp. 12-13), published by The Nature Institute

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