Physics the Charlotte Mason Way

Physics the Charlotte Mason Way

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series on the teaching of physics by Richele Baburina, author of Mathematics: An Instrument for Living Teaching, published by Simply Charlotte Mason.

Imagine that you are inside a space capsule—a spherical capsule with no front or back end. Its engines are off, so you are not accelerating. You’re far from Earth, so far that you cannot see any planets, stars, or galaxies. Forget how you got there, just imagine that you are there. Now ask yourself: Are you moving? If so, how could you tell?

Now imagine that you look out the window and see another spherical capsule fly past you. Can you now say that you are moving? Or is it the other spacecraft that is moving? Maybe you’re both moving. How do you know? (Pohlen, 2012, p. 36)

As you just imagined, it is impossible to describe motion without using two frames of reference. The best we can say is that the capsules are moving relative to each other.

What you have just performed is a thought experiment. Albert Einstein was famous for working out his theories and subsequently helping others understand them through the use of these thought experiments, called by him gedanken.

The beauty of thought experiments is that they are easy on the budget, don’t take an hour to set up, leave the kitchen in disarray, or take up valuable closet space once you have finished. And, if your kids are anything like mine, they love experiments.

You may have noticed what happens when you allow the loveliness of an education that is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life to unfold and you don’t stop up the innate curiosity of your children: their appetites remain insatiable. This is why—with each term of sciences under our belt and appetites seeming to be only more whetted and each book serving as a log on the flame of the imagination—when my 11-year-old wondered aloud when we were going to get to relativity and quantum mechanics, I turned back to Charlotte Mason to answer my questions about the study of physics in her classrooms. I began to send out what Rudyard Kipling calls the “six honest serving-men,” in the poem from “The Elephant’s Child” that reminds me so much of a child raised on wonder:

I keep six honest serving-men;

(They taught me all I knew)

Their names are What and Where and When

And How and Why and Who. (Kipling, 1909, p. 5)

This series on the study of physics in the Mason classroom will be divided into three separate posts. We begin with What and Why and When before going in-depth on the How, and then we will turn our attention to the Where and Who.

What

So, let’s begin with the first question: What is physics? Don’t laugh. For me Physics was the class I didn’t take because it got in the way of English Lit and Art. John Hudson Tiner, in Exploring the World of Physics, describes physics as “the science that explores how energy acts on matter.” That’s pretty loaded since about everything we can experience with our senses is made of matter and energy. In fact, Tiner tells us, the relationship can be found in the first chapter of Genesis: “After God created the earth (matter), He said, ‘Let there be light [energy]’” (2006, p. 4).

What about some working definitions for relativity and quantum physics? And were they even a part of the scope of study in the Parents’ Union Schools?

It turns out that relativity and quantum physics formed what is thought of as the Second Scientific Revolution. There have been many great scientific discoveries, but they tend to fit within the framework of the prevailing scientific thought. The term “revolution” is usually reserved for a radical change in our mode of thinking about the world, and so I will use it here to describe the happenings in natural philosophy or physics. Now this Scientific Revolution happened at the turn of the twentieth century, when Charlotte Mason and her Parents’ Union Schools and work were flourishing.

Let’s quickly take a historical look back at the First Scientific Revolution because we couldn’t have a second without having the first and it is tied up to Physics as well. For the sake of time, this will be somewhat of a simplistic explanation.

The First Scientific Revolution roughly unfolded from 1550 to 1700 in the period between Copernicus and Newton. It may be more appropriate to say we had a scientific explosion rather than an unfolding, with everything from Copernicus declaring a sun-centered or heliocentric cosmos, to Sir Isaac Newton joining heaven and earth through universal laws and what he called a Mechanical Universe. During this time we also have Tycho Brahe’s astronomical observations, Johannes Kepler working out planetary movement as well as the working of the human eye and optics, and then there is the great experimentalist Galileo Galilei presenting incredibly new theories of motion (Hatch, n.d.).

Before Copernicus and Galileo, not many questioned the Ancient Greeks’ description of the world. These men did though, and this period saw a transformation in belief from the closed, finite, and qualitative cosmos (that is, what can be observed), to this infinite, harmonious, and quantitative universe of numbers and that which can be measured. Think of the difference between saying, “This book has a dark blue linen cover and discusses physics,” and saying, “This book is 8 1/2”x6” and has 365 pages”–that’s the difference between qualitative and quantitative.

There was a paradigm shift from the Greek observationists’—notably Aristotle’s—organic worldview of the Cosmos to Newton’s mechanical picture of the world, with one set of laws and absolutes in which matter, cause, space, and time are the same always and everywhere.

It may not seem so now, but what took place in the mid-sixteenth through eighteenth century in the sciences revolutionized the way we think about our world. At the time, these were extremely controversial theories, yet they are largely how we see our world today. Newton’s natural law, developed in Principia, provided a pattern to which all subsequent patterns were expected to follow. There were many great discoveries made following Principia but they could all fit neatly within Newton’s comprehensive worldview—that is, until the beginning of the twentieth century. The developments of Einstein’s theories of relativity and quantum theory meant new concepts—not even dreamt of in what is now called classical physics—needed to be grappled with, and it led to thinking about our universe in a way quite different from what had been accepted for the previous couple hundred years (Tiner, 2006, p. 130).

So, what is relativity? Well, Einstein’s theories taught us that we need to consider not only motion through space, but also motion through time. He proposed that time and space are not absolute, as Newton had proclaimed and as we perceive them in everyday life, but rather that time and space are actually changeable and are based on the observer’s state of motion compared to that of another observer moving at a different speed. Indeed, if time and space weren’t changeable, the speed of light could not be constant.

And what about quantum physics? What is it? Most simply put, it’s the branch of physics that relates to the very small, or the behavior of matter and energy at the atomic and subatomic level. You see, the laws of Newtonian physics work pretty well in our day-to day-life. I cannot walk through a wall. If I sit under an apple tree and an apple drops, it falls to the ground. I can push my pencil across the table or pull a load of wood in a wagon. At the turn of the twentieth century though, physicists began studying the world of the very small. What they found was that atoms, electrons, and light waves do not follow the normal rules and, in fact, things look very, very strange at the small scale of atoms and electrons (Tiner, 2006, pp. 149-150).

Newton’s laws, and all the wonderful laws of what is now termed “classical physics,” which describe how things move at everyday sizes and speeds, are not useful at the quantum level. Einstein proposed that light, which was understood to behave as waves, was now shown to behave as particles as well. And matter, considered to behave as particles, was now shown to behave as waves.

In the year 1905 alone, Albert Einstein would also propose that we live in a quantum universe built out of tiny packets of energy and matter; he would prove that atoms existed and give us a method for counting and determining their size in a given space; and he would finish the year by extending his special theory of relativity to prove that energy and matter are linked in what would become the most famous relationship: E=mc². From his ideas comes a radically different worldview than was held for the previous couple hundred years (Pohlen, 2012, pp. 22-33).

We’ve addressed the What of physics, but now how about the Why?

Why

Why did and why should physics have their rightful place in the Charlotte Mason classroom?

Of course physics is useful. Newton’s laws can relate generally to forces, but they are also necessary for answering specific questions. If we want to build bridges and buildings that don’t collapse, design cars that move, or land spaceships on Mars, Newton’s laws will need to be applied. And lasers, digital cameras, night vision goggles, and your GPS all work because of quantum theory. That’s all rather useful, but remember, Charlotte Mason was not interested in educating children merely to earn a living, but in order to really live. She says of the advent of telegraphy in her sixth volume:

We had the grace to value the discovery for something more than its utility; we were awed in the presence of a law which had always been there but was only now perceived. (Mason, 1989f, p. 68)

Miss Mason worked in the light of principles, and so to answer Why teach physics we need not look further than the twenty principles set forth in the same volume. For example:

11. … give him a full and generous curriculum…

13. In devising a Syllabus…

(a) He requires much knowledge, for the mind needs sufficient food as much as does the body.

(b) The knowledge should be various, for sameness in mental diet does not create appetite (i.e., curiosity)…

15. … the educability of children is enormously greater than has hitherto been supposed… (Mason, 1989f, pp. xxx-xxxi)

Her approach to science and knowledge of the universe was not divorced from—nor at odds with—the knowledge of God. Rather, it was locked in an embrace that would lead to the “culmination of all education” which is the “personal knowledge of and intimacy with God in which our being finds its fullest perfection” (Mason, 1989c, p. 95).

Telford Petrie held a doctorate in science, was lecturer of Engineering at Victoria University, and invented the underwater steam whistle. In 1928, he said of Charlotte Mason in “A Note on the Teaching of School Science” in The Parents’ Review:

Miss Mason approached science, as she approached all other knowledge, in the widest possible way. Everything connected with nature, birds, beasts, flowers, weather, stars, rocks, geography itself, and even architecture, all meant science to her mind. She interpreted it to mean, in its broadest aspect, what our immediate forefathers so finely called “Natural Philosophy.”

But she was very insistent in demanding that science should not be divorced from the humanities, that, because a subject was scientific, it should not therefore be presented to the child in the dry and precise manner so frequently found in school scientific text-books. She went so far as to decry the detailed experimental methods of the school laboratory. These she considered as tending to confuse the issue, rather on the lines of the old saying that “you could not see the wood for the trees.” Her whole attitude towards it went even further. You should also be made to realise that the wood was part of the swelling countryside, was, in fact, at one with God’s universe (1928, pp. 56-57).

This is Why physics is a part of the Charlotte Mason classroom. Now we get to the next honest serving man of When.

When

When was Physics studied in a Charlotte Mason classroom? It may surprise you that the formal study of physics began as early as age 9 in Form II, which is approximately Years 4 through 6, or ages 9-12, and continued on throughout the remaining Forms III, IV, V, and VI.

Shall we look at the “when” on Charlotte’s timetables? How many of you, like me, love looking at the PUS timetables? They are telling, they are interesting, and they give such a beautiful picture of that “full and generous curriculum” we just talked about.

Before we look at some specifics regarding her timetable, please remember that Miss Mason recommended keeping our educational principles in view when we have questions. I like to keep in mind the fifth principle when looking at the timetable or schedule:

5. Therefore, we are limited to three educational instruments–the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas. The P.N.E.U. Motto is: “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.” (Mason, 1989f, p. xxix)

It’s also wise to remember that the timetables or schedules are a tool and not the master. A good schedule is an extremely fine instrument for setting a peaceful atmosphere, but it may need to be recalibrated from time to time. Adhering to one helps educators greatly in the discipline of habit both for themselves and their students–that means no checking your social network accounts during this time.

Just as rushing meals is not good for the digestion, a schedule is going to aid in the digestion of living ideas by changing up the part of the brain which is being exercised, while making sure your child gets all their recommended daily servings found in that generous curriculum. It’s going to give shape to your day so children also get their needed time in the outdoors as well.

Looking at specifics, though, according to the 1908 timetables and available programmes from Mason’s lifetime and shortly thereafter, we can build the following table:

PUS Approx. US Grade Approx. US Age Frequency of Science Lessons Duration of Science Lessons Total School Time
Form II IIB 4 9-10  3 x per week
(2 Natural History, 1 Nature Lore)
20-30 min. lessons
(70 min. total)
18 hours
(9 AM – 12 PM,
6 days per week)
IIA 5 10-11
6 11-12
Forms III & IV IIIB 7 12-13 5 x per week (subjects alternating by day and by term) 30-45 min. lessons
(2:50 total)
24 hours
(9 AM – 1 PM,
6 days per week)
IIIA 8 13-14
IV 9 14-15
Forms V & VI VB 10 15-16 25-45 min. lessons
VA 11 16-17
VI 12 17-18

 

Now, not all schools in England were on a six-day school week, and not all were on the same number of daily hours. Remember when I talked about recalibrating the fine instrument of a schedule? Elsie Kitching told teachers in the ex-student journal L’Umile Piante:

That the P.U.S. time-table is intended to serve simply as a guide to the teacher in making her own, for it stands to reason that no two schoolrooms are identical as regards the work done, or the time allotted it. (Kitching, 1914, p. 58)

Also, remember, these were various branches of science which included the subject of Physics. So, for example, Form II might have two terms of Astronomy, then two terms of Physics, first looking at the forms of matter on both a large and small scale, then on to sound, electricity, and magnetism, before heading into two terms of Chemistry. To give you a fuller picture, this would have also taken place alongside the lower and upper classes’ respective studies of invertebrates in this form. Students also maintained their nature notebooks and had special studies of the seasons during this time.

Now before you sigh and think I’m painting an impossible picture for your own homeschool, please realize that an entire term of Physics might only entail 26 pages of reading with some simple observational and experimental work. We’ll take a closer look at that when we look at our serving-man How.

Mason felt that the “study of science should be pursued in an ordered sequence” (1989c, p. 237), so a term in this type of physics was not and should not just be plopped in at random. One of the wonderful things about Albert Einstein was that, through the habit of imagination, he reinterpreted already known scientific results to change the way we think about things like space and time, energy, and matter; so, if your child or student has already explored motion and its laws, gravity, simple machines, heat, energy, and light, then Einstein’s theories and some of their effects are a natural and exhilarating next step.

Don’t be afraid to take that step, as we are told in a hallmark of a Mason education that, “Teaching is not a technique exercised by the skilled on behalf of the unskilled. It is a sharing of the effort to know…” (Cholmondeley, 2000, p. 157). In the second part of this series, we will take a look at How to share in the effort to know.

References

Cholmondely, E. (2000). The Story of Charlotte Mason. Petersfield: Child Light Ltd.

Hatch, R. A. (n.d.). The scientific revolution. Retrieved from users.clas.ufl.edu.

Kipling, R. (1909). Stories and poems. New York: A. L. Burt Company.

Kitching, E. (1914). What subjects to leave out of class II when time is limited. In L’Umile Pianta, May, 1914 (pp. 58-59). London: Parents’ National Education Union.

Mason, C. (1989c). School Education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.

Mason, C. (1989f). A Philosophy of Education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.

Petrie, T. (1928). A note on the teaching of school science. In The Parents’ Review, volume 39 (pp. 56-58). London: Parents’ National Education Union.

Pohlen, J. (2012). Albert Einstein and relativity for kids. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

Tiner, J. H. (2006). The world of physics. Green Forest: Master Books.

©2017 Richele Baburina

2 Replies to “Physics the Charlotte Mason Way”

  1. Hi Richele,
    I saved this to read, and am so glad I came back to it! This is really a wonderful post, I enjoyed your Kipling poem, and your way of connecting it to your whole topic. Thank you for taking the time to write these posts!
    Mary

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