Asking together

I just used my son blowing a candle as a pretext to spend lunch talking with him and my nephews about them. Why does a candle go out when you blow it out? What is the purpose of the wick? I keep asking them questions without confirming their theories to see how far they can go.

I often do these very basic, fundamental questions with them, partially as a game but more importantly to question their most simple assumptions and develop their reasoning tools and techniques.

This is what usually happens. First, they will feel shocked about the questions themselves “What do you mean by why they blow out? That’s what candles do!” After a few “But why?” they will enter a second phase where they usually get closer to the fundamental reasons but not entirely and fail to weave a solid argument about it.

Without proposing any theory myself, I keep asking: Why do you think that is? What happens then? How is that connected to your argument? I try to carve a logical path out of their answers by following with more questions. Still, I’m cautious of not going too meta or too technical with the questions unless they request it, so “What is the function of the wick?” is ok, but I will avoid “Why is the flame hot?” or “What chemical process makes that?”

As the minutes pass, they will become more interested in the topic that once looked simple and obvious BECAUSE they can’t articulate a solid fundamental reason for an apparently uncomplicated natural phenomenon. Just by themselves (5, 11 and 14yo) will start creating theories, each according to his maturity level, from how air is pushed when you blow to how carbon dioxide extinguishes the flame.

Sometimes -like today- the attention is sustained for just 15/20 minutes; sometimes, we keep going deeper or jump to adjacent topics. Sometimes we will arrive at some great conclusion, and sometimes the questions still need to be addressed and remain inconclusive. And that IS OK! I try to summarize our findings and correct anything substantially wrong about their theories, but I mostly let it sit and go back to the topic another day.

In all the years I was schooled (catholic semi-private school), NOT ONCE did I get a professor that would engage with us students through any kind of Socratic process. They will ask questions to get us to regurgitate their expected answer. Zero interest in the mental process, zero interest in using the discovery process as a teaching method.

I understand that going through this way of teaching is more challenging than the traditional master class approach: it requires more preparation, forces the teacher to be more dynamic, and sometimes you get stuck! But I’ll be damned if this is not a better way to explore learning.

We are moving Atlas to a new place for the school year 2023-2024 because we keep searching for an institution that promotes critical thinking, debate and self-sufficiency in our kid. Let’s hope we get it right this time!

PS: Scientists have been fascinated with candles for centuries. I would recommend anyone interested in the topic (just for curiosity or to teach others) to read the great series of six lectures The Chemical History of a Candle given by no other than Faraday (it’s available in LibGen too as epub ;)