after the sleeping comes the waking up.

Studying the solar system in grade school

Posted by c. wagner on November 18, 2009

Everybody reading this remember memorizing the names of the planets (nine for me, probably eight now)? Maybe building a model solar system out of painted styrofoam balls and straightened coat hangers? Maybe some mentions of asteroids and comets, yeah? Neil deGrasse Tyson has some words for you and your teachers.

Because of exercises such as this, elementary school curricula have unwittingly stunted an entire generation of children by teaching them that a memorized sequence of planet names is the path to understand the solar system. … But today, the rote exercise of planet counting rings hollow and impedes the inquiry of a vastly richer landscape of science drawn from all that populates our cosmic environment. [page 153]

As I wander through more reading on life, the universe, and everything (in this case, mostly the stuff about the universe), I’m coming to agree with him. There’s a lot of stuff out there a lot cooler than what was covered in that chapter in my grade school science book. Weirder, too.

And encouraging kids to explore that, rather than teaching them fill-in-the-blank answers, can only make their worlds–and ours–a little bit brighter.

(Quote from The Pluto Files.)

2 Responses to “Studying the solar system in grade school”

  1. I agree that memorization is not the best way to teach kids about the solar system. However, that doesn’t mean we need to artificially keep the number of planets small. Nobody should be learning or memorizing only eight objects. Dwarf planets are planets too, and even spherical moons of planets are secondary planets.

    • Any categories are going to be arbitrary. It’s part of being categories. There’s still some controversy floating around astronomers in this area, so we’ll have to wait and see how it shakes out.

      Maybe what we call them is less important than how we teach them. I’m intrigued by Tyson’s approach of teaching solar system bodies by structure: rocky bodies (the four inner planets, many moons, some asteroids, etc.); gaseous bodies (the outer planets); icy bodies (Kuiper belt objects, comets, other moons, etc.).

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