How to Teach Homeschool Science: Put Your Textbook Away

how to teach homeschool science

We have freedom as homeschoolers, to tailor our instruction to our kids’ needs, to experiment with different methods of teaching, and to allow our kids to study their interests.

I know there’s not one best way to teach any subject, but I taught high school science for 10 years. I have an undergraduate degree in science education and a master’s degree in teaching. I know a little bit about how kids learn science concepts.

To help your kids learn science, I suggest you put your science textbook away.

Textbooks can be nice references, so stick them on a shelf somewhere if you want to, but science is an active subject. It’s a way of thinking, not a set of facts to be read and memorized.

Get your kids doing science instead of reading about science.

Before you get bristly, I will admit that we should study the work of great scientists. That should come after kids have drawn their own conclusions by studying the natural world on their own.

Keep reading.

Traditional teaching explains concepts and then explains examples of the concept. If we were studying plants, we would probably read a textbook that would say something like this:

Plants are living things that do not move from place to place. They have 3 parts – roots, stems, and leaves. Most plants produce a flower and seeds, and some plants produce fruit.

The roots of a plant have two main functions. Roots anchor the plant in the soil, preventing it from toppling over or blowing away. They also deliver water and nutrients from the soil to the stem and leaves.

Then it might have photos or diagrams of several different kinds of plants that show their roots, stems, and leaves or diagrams of different root systems.

The type of learning I’m suggesting is exactly the opposite. It shows kids real examples or real problems, and helps them to take them apart, gather the information they need, and then understand the overall concept.

Mom asks the kids what they know about plants. Mom helps kids to come up with a few questions about plants, questions that they want to answer (probably not “what are the parts of a plant?” unless they’re really little; something like “why do plants have roots?” or “why do some plants have many leaves and others have only a couple of leaves?”).  The questions should be interesting and inspire kids to find out answers.

“Why do plants have flowers?” and “How do plants grow?” and “Why don’t plants move around?” would also be good for bigger kids, but the key is to let them come up with their own questions.

Let’s say they’re trying to figure out why plants have roots.

Kids go outside and dig up a plant. (I would personally make them dig up a weed, not my rose bush.) Their mom guides them to recognize the different parts of their plant – the roots, stem, and leaves – not by telling them the answers but by asking questions.

“How are the roots different from the stem?”

“What is the main part of the plant?”

“How does the stem stay upright?”

“Are all the roots the same?”

It’s not necessary for Mom to know the answers; it’s only necessary for her to ask the questions. Once the kids have been at this kind of learning for a while, they’ll begin asking their own questions.

Mom might take them outside to pull weeds in the garden or a nearby park, experimenting with a hoe, trowel, or 3-prong thing (Does that thing have a name? It looks like a claw.) to try to dig them up.

They might move on to looking at different kinds of plants (online or in person), growing their own plant from a seed in one of those root viewers or an AeroGarden (okay, a stretch but if you’re looking for a reason to splurge), or doing experiments with where they water the plant by misting versus by watering the soil (or whatever else they dream up).

Obviously, there’s a huge difference in the approach. Which kids will learn more, the ones who read the paragraph or the ones who investigate their own questions and draw their own conclusions?

I don’t have to answer that, do I?

The kids who explored their own questions will have learned so much more about plants than the kids who read a couple of paragraphs in a textbook.

There’s a big difference between doing science and reading about the science someone else has done. Real learning, the kind that becomes part of you, only happens when you make discoveries for yourself. It happens when you ask questions, gather information, and draw your own conclusions.

Here’s another example:

You could read a website about elephants to your kids, explaining the primary features of all elephants and the differences between Asian and African elephants.

or

You most likely can’t observe live African and Asian elephants, so you would have to rely on the observations that others have made, videos and photos they’ve taken, and their drawings or field notes. (These are called primary sources because they are first-hand observations.) You would still talk to your kids about the topic, help them to come up with interesting questions, and then guide them to figure out the answers.

If this method of teaching is best, why isn’t everyone doing it?

You can probably answer this question with no further assistance from me, right? This way of teaching is hard. It’s complicated. It requires a lot of planning, a lot of flexibility, a lot of hands-on teaching, a lot of materials, and a lot of work. You can’t cover as much material this way.

Kids who learn science the traditional way accumulate a lot more factual knowledge.

It’s a whole lot easier to hand them a textbook or read them a website. (And, to be honest, I do that once in a while, too.)

 

I’m going to make this into a series with advice and suggestions for teaching homeschool science. Share your questions below, and I’ll answer them in future posts.

© 2013, Tara Ziegmont. All rights reserved.

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Comments

  1. says

    Wonderful post – thank you!

    I let go of science textbooks and curriculum a while ago and we are thoroughly enjoying our hands-on investigations, conversations and experiments.

    We are almost-unschoolers so I don’t spend a huge amount of time planning. Instead, I listen for what the children express interest and curiosity in, and set up an “invitation to experiment” to allow them to explore.

    As you say, we don’t “cover” a lot of material, but my children love science and are always eager to take up my science invitations. They also often choose scientific topics for their own projects.

  2. Heather says

    If this is a better way to do science (and I’m not saying it isn’t), but kids accumulate more factual knowledge the other way, how does a parent prepare older kids for taking the ACT/SAT exams for college?

    • says

      Neither the ACT nor the SAT tests science content knowledge. The ACT “measures the interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem-solving skills required in the natural sciences” according to their website; these skills are exactly what is taught using this method of instruction. The SAT does not have a science section at all.

      I think this way of teaching does prepare older kids for taking standardized tests because it teaches them how to draw conclusions, evaluate information, essentially how to think. Having said that, I think there is a place for reading about science, but it should happen only as kids explore concepts on their own. At the uppermost level, logistics preclude a lot of experimentation, but kids can still explore concepts by reading about the experiments others have done and drawing their own conclusions.

      I suppose you could say the difference between reading a textbook and exploring a concept is semantic, but I really don’t think it is. A textbook spoon feeds ideas. It tells you what you’re supposed to learn, explains the concept, and gives examples. It’s like assembly line learning; there is no room for kids to make their own connections or draw their own conclusions. Kids learning by exploring ideas generally start with questions and figure out the concept by doing or by reading about what others have done.

      If you’re interested in reading more about it from people who are smarter than me, this method of teaching is often called a constructivist model. :)

      • Jill says

        I’m homeschooling our two youngest children, but the two middle ones are in a private (Catholic) high school that uses modeling for their science classes. I’ll admit I didn’t quite get it when they first explained it at a parents’ night, but the more I heard the more it made sense — and is definitely effective for the students. The two oldest, who already graduated from the same high school, developed very good analytical and reasoning (aka thinking) skills even though science was not a particular strength for either of them.

  3. Catherine says

    Love this idea and would love some guidance about steps to take in implementing this. Do you have some more examples of how I as the homeschool parent can do the planning and material gathering ahead of time? Just some kind of structure or step-by-step to get me started.

  4. says

    Tara,
    Thanks sooooo much for ‘giving us the permission’ to teach science the natural way. I just started homeschooling my daughter two years ago. I’ve added some science in her schedule when I could but needed to focus on the Math and Language Arts. My daughter is ADD and has numerous allergies and asthma. I had tried to get the school to keep her behind since grade K but she kept getting passed to the next grade level. After 3rd grade, I simply had to start teaching her at home. I was shocked that she was two years behind! Even her IQ and other formal assessments placed her functioning two grade levels below where the public school had her. Because there was so much catch-up to do, and because science is one area she seems to have really internalized from her public school days, and because I’ve been a bit unsure of my own capabilities of teaching science, I’ve put it on the back burner. I think I mostly worried I wasn’t going to teach it “right” if I didn’t teach it like I was taught, via textbook style. I took Biology, Chemistry, and Physics in hs and college level Biology and Biology Lab, making good to excellent grades in all. However, it’s been awhile and I’ve pretty much forgotten most of the technical stuff I learned. I knew that my daughter functions better with hands on learning but thought I was expected to teach via the good ole text book style. I’ve had such a hard time getting all that information formally added into her schedule. Instinctively, I wanted to use the text book as a guide but thought I needed to teach it verbatim, like I was taught. Now, I think, we’ll be able to relax more and enjoy giving her the EXPERIENCE rather than teaching only the (boring) facts. I agree, that kind of learning and deciphering information will last her longer and carry over to other aspects of her life. It’s all about the “How?” instead of ONLY the “What?”. Thanks for writing this post. I think I’ll be, happily, cutting myself a break. :)

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