A Moment of Revelation

[Long ago, in a sixth-grade science classroom]

[Young Melendwyr]: (fiddles with a model molecule made from plastic balls stuck together with metal springs) “Why are these atoms stuck together with springs?”

[Mrs. Science Teacher]: “Because they’re representing the inter-atomic forces that hold molecules together.”

[YM]: “But the atoms aren’t actually connected like this.”

[Mrs.ST]: “Just think of the forces as acting like springs: they’re flexible, can bend one way or the other if you push on them, and can store energy.” (departs)

[YM]: (muses to self) “But… springs behave the way they do because of the bonds between the atoms in the metal. How is trying to understand those bonds by referring to springs useful, when the way springs act depends on the bonds? You end up talking about them in the same way – springs act like this, bonds act like this.”

(a moment of pure illumination)

[YM]: “The comparisons don’t mean anything… it doesn’t help to say that something is like something else if you can’t describe that something else. The only thing that’s important is the description of what happens.”


2 Responses to “A Moment of Revelation”

  1. The “like” serves as short-hand for the description.

  2. The point wasn’t to get you to understand. It was to get you interested. They give you much better knowledge of what’s really going on in an advanced university class than they do in 6th grade =P.

    Nice story though. Reminds me of sitting through the early chem. courses in college, having read books about science and physics since I was a young teen, and knowing that the explanations we were being given were lies. Convenient lies, of course – for out learning. But still. I was actually speaking to the older students, and even some professors would say this, that “such and such is only true until you get to advanced organic”, or some other advanced topic. How irritating! If it’s true then say so, if not then don’t – but don’t say that this physical law is going to be true until next Spring! Pedagogy really has a long way to go…

    On a related note, analogies and metaphors are an integral part of learning. Integral to the development of language itself. And to science. You’re so sure that they have nothing to do with the “description of what happens”?

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