Thursday, June 6, 2013

Dive-into-Deep-Water Learning

"Can you make matter out of energy?"

I was sitting with a small group of middle-school kids celebrating the end of the school year when one of them asked that.

"I mean, you can make energy out of matter, but can you reverse it?"

I had no idea, and neither did anyone else, but the question was tossed around awhile. The subject moved to E=mc2. What did that mean? An attempt was made to explain it. I didn't jump in because as an adult, I know quite well that I can't possibly understand General Relativity. But nobody told these kids that.

This morning I saw one of those animated videos where a hand with a marker illustrates what a voice-over is talking about. This one was about the Common Core Standards. It explained how learning is step-by-step, and kids have to learn the bottom step before going up to the more complicated steps in a discipline.

But what these kids really want to know is...why does E=mc2?

Sure, lots of people will roll their eyes and say I'm off on a tangent again. What we really need to do is make sure those kids take those steps and get to the top effectively. Then they'll be ready for Einstein. Maybe.

But what bad things can possibly happen if we let kids pursue the understanding of General Relativity? I'm not saying, pursue it in the spare time you can carve out of the important business of "learning the basics"; I'm saying, let them learn General Relativity.

Drop kids into the deep water of concepts that seem to be too big for them and will they sink? Maybe they won't get every bit of it. But they will love that they are swimming into areas of advanced learning; and maybe they will learn that advanced topics aren't so advanced that they can't grapple with them, take what they get, and leave the rest for later.

And maybe they'll come to understand that, in this case, physics is a fantastic world of natural laws and weird, inexplicable things that happen. And maybe they'll say, "I want to understand that stuff, and I want to be able to explain it to other people."

And maybe they won't grow up like me: a person who understands perfectly well that there's no way she will ever understand General Relativity.

What's better -- instructing people to start with what they can accomplish to mastery? Or telling them, "You have an extraordinary brain. Use it and be amazed?"


  1. What's better? Your second answer. There really is no other way to learn. Everything else is dark ages.

  2. Wiki- Whenever energy is added to a system, the system gains mass.

    For example:

    Raising the temperature of an object (increasing its heat energy) increases its mass. Consider the world's primary mass standard for the kilogram, made of platinum/iridium. If its temperature is allowed to change by 1°C, its mass will change by 1.5 picograms (1 pg = 1 × 10−12 g).