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Testing the theory: taking Einstein to primary schools

School students today are taught physics based on obsolete theories and outmoded ways of thinking. Instead of the truth, most learn a naive simplification - the 300 year-old Newtonian physics, itself based…

We’re underestimating what primary school students can understand in science. Formula image from www.shutterstock.com

School students today are taught physics based on obsolete theories and outmoded ways of thinking. Instead of the truth, most learn a naive simplification - the 300 year-old Newtonian physics, itself based on disproved 2,300 year-old Euclidean geometry.

But why?

Simply put, the thinking has long been that one can’t learn the truth without first learning the old theories as a foundation. Only a select few go on and learn the correct theories at university.

But physicists and educators in Western Australia have been putting this theory of science education to the test: they have been bringing the concepts of Einsteinian physics to primary schools.

Naive understanding

Our modern understanding of the universe is based on two theories of physics developed by Einstein – the theory of gravity, called General Relativity and the theory of particle interactions called Quantum Mechanics.

Einsteinian physics is the culmination of centuries of debate. Even though most of us still hold on to Newton’s idea that space, time and matter are independent and separable entities, today physicists know that space, time and matter are all interconnected.

We know, too, that Euclidean geometry is wrong, or at least is only an approximation.

A science experiment

A colleague and I set out to discover whether 11 to 12 year-olds could understand these Einsteinian ideas.

We explored the history of ideas about space from Pythagoras to Newton to Einstein. We discussed the meaning of a straight line and learnt that the path of a light beam is the only arbiter we have for straightness.

The students drew triangles and traced the paths of parallel lines on balloons. They saw that some of the Euclidean concepts that they had already learnt were only true if space was flat.

For example, they found out that the sum of the angles of a triangle is variable depending on its size, and that parallel lines can intersect.

Then we went on to study Carl Friedrich Gauss’s unsuccessful experiment to measure the shape of space in Bavaria 200 years ago, the the great Australian eclipse expedition to Wallal Downs Station south of Broome in 1922, where the curved space around the sun was confirmed.

A few sessions later, using simple graphs and Einstein’s assertion that freely falling trajectories are always the shortest paths in spacetime, the children discovered the key Einsteinian prediction that time depends on your height above the ground.

They learnt that their GPS navigators only work because the satellites are corrected for this time warp created by Earth.

This work culminated in a play performed by the Year Six students for the School of Physics at the University of Western Australia. The play, called Free Float, was a lighthearted exploration of the ideas of space, time and gravity where the students clearly demonstrated their understanding of Einstein’s concepts.

Too much too young

One of the curious things about our experiment was that, unlike many adult audiences, the students showed no sign of bewilderment or surprise.

They learnt to think about spacetime. They learnt to appreciate that falling from a tower and floating in the space station are really the same thing. They easily grasped the reality that parallel lines can cross and that the perimeter of a circle is not exactly Pi times diameter.

Most importantly, they thought that it was really interesting and didn’t think they were too young to learn these concepts.

Currently our team, which has been joined by Professor Mario Zadnik and Professor Bernard Carr, is extending the program and moving into the teaching of quantum mechanics as well.

Not good enough

Some science teachers say there’s no reason to teach Einsteinian physics: Newtonian physics is good enough.

But should Creationism replace Darwinian evolution just because it’s good enough? In both cases, the truth is important.

We owe it to our children to teach our best understanding of reality instead of false ideas. It’s 90 years since we knew definitively that space is curved: surely this is long enough for schools to catch up.

Scientific adventure

Modern physics includes the spooky weirdness of quantum mechanics and mysteries that we don’t understand. It challenges the professionals; there are open questions; there’s much more to discover in this adventure.

How much more exciting is it to learn about an adventure and new discoveries than to learn old stuff?

No wonder our kids are turning off science. They learn more modern physics from The Big Bang Theory sitcom than they do in the classroom.

Our experiment shows that 11-year-old brains can easily assimilate these new ideas, and often better than old brains can. And already we are finding the same is true with our program on quantum mechanics.

But we are not setting a high bar here – we are not trying to turn pupils into young physics geniuses. The curriculum material and videos in our programs show that you don’t have to be a physics boffin to understand the world.

Later they can learn that the classical ways are useful approximations. But for now, we are simply taking the trouble to find appropriate and fun ways to introduce students to the real world of physics.

You can read more about the Science Education Enrichment Project here.

Join the conversation

43 Comments sorted by

  1. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Farmer

    This is a really excellent initiative and gives us an insight into the flexibility and adaptability of young minds unencumbered by our learned "common sense" view of the world. Fairy stories, myths and "approximations" are not a basis for learning about the world as it is.

    That said, I can see a future where not only must I call my son to untangle the programming of my electronic gadgetry, but will also be relying on him for insights into the nature of spacetime or entanglement.

    It's an enfeebling business this isn't it? That's the reality of it.

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  2. John Troughton

    ANU Alumni

    Great results. How the young are capable of more than we comprehend. Thanks

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  3. terry lockwood

    maths/media/music/drama teacher

    Please assure me that the kids you worked with were just an average selection of kids and not the self-selected sons and daughters of brainiac parents.

    I attended an in-service recently and was astounded at the following. Two pairs of open scissors, one with short arms and one with long arms, were placed so the tips of their arms touched (thus the arms formed a diamond shape). Most of the primary school teachers who attended this session said they thought the scissors were open by the same angle…

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  4. Chris Booker

    Research scientist

    Sounds fantastic. Can I join in on your class? Are 30 yrs olds allowed?

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  5. Alice Gorman

    Lecturer at Flinders University

    How wonderful, and what lucky kids! Perhaps maths teaching needs a shake-up too - it wasn't until I was an adult that I learnt how fascinating maths really was, and some of the very excellent popular writers on this topic have provided insights that would have made so much difference when struggling with calculus as a high school student.

    World-famous Australian science fiction writer, Greg Egan, wrote a novel about how an (alien) culture might figure out relativity from scratch by experiment. It's not an easy read, but an interesting exploration of learning without established historical trajectories to build on.

    The 1908 Melbourne Observatory solar expedition to Goondiwindi also confirmed something Einsteinian, I forget what.

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    1. Rob Crowther

      Architectural Draftsman

      In reply to Alice Gorman

      Maths shake up - me too.

      For me, school maths and elementary calculus was ok but higher maths was a problem. I had several false starts in my autodidactic efforts and it wasn’t until I hit on mathematical physics texts that calculus and linear algebra started to take on meaning ( to only pick two facets).

      Whilst this approach is good for me, it may not be good for others. I think this reflects to broader aspect.

      For example, I learn better standing up and occasionally pacing, with book in hand, when a difficult point is being presented. Pacing helps me think. I find it meditative.

      Now, I can’t do that in a classroom so if I were to attend class, my primary method of learning is taken from me since I would be required to sit in a chair. As you may guess, you will not find me dead in classroom.

      So, I believe there are endemic problems and they stem from making the student fit the material and the method when it should be the other way around.

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  6. Dave Smith

    Energy Consultant

    David,

    You say:

    "Some science teachers say there’s no reason to teach Einsteinian physics: Newtonian physics is good enough. But should Creationism replace Darwinian evolution just because it’s good enough? In both cases, the truth is important."

    I hope these are not the sorts of parallels that you draw in your classes. Newtonian physics is an extremely good approximation to the world we perceive with our senses. Creationism is archaic nonsense that explains nothing. I would be very concerned if you genuinely believed that teaching of Newtonian and Creationist theories in the classroom were somehow equivalent.

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    1. Ronald Rubendra

      Physicist / Manager

      In reply to Dave Smith

      Dave,

      Agree - I've always considered that Newtonian mechanics is the subset where velocity approximates near zero (as a fraction of relativistic motion).

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    2. Ger Groeneveld

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Ronald Rubendra

      That is for special relativity. In general relativity the bending of light due to a heavy mass can not be explained by Newton. Newton was still convinced that there was something of an absolute time and space.

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    3. Ger Groeneveld

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Ger Groeneveld

      Again the second sentence. General relativity explains bending of light due to a mass, can not be done by Newton.

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  7. Kenneth Mazzarol
    Kenneth Mazzarol is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired Auto Engineer and teacher

    What ever happened to Prof Julius Sumner Miller?? He used to introduce a few basics then challenge kids to find out for themselves. I liked his approach.

    But in all that we do I hope we are telling kids that while we are investigating seemingly impossible dreams we hope the results will eventually assist those in most need around us on Earth so that the money is not wasted by dreamers attacking windmills.

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  8. Mark Amey

    logged in via Facebook

    What a fascinating insight into the way young people think and learn. Yes, we've got to stop assuming that they aren't capable of absorbing the real guts of a subject until they are in their teens, or even twenties. I seem to remember a music teacher discussing similar research, where year five and six children were (successfully) taught year twelve music. I believe there has been similar research done on language learning.

    Now, I'm 52, can I come to your classes??

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  9. Ryan Farquharson

    Research Officer

    The issue clearly isn't the student's capacity to learn. Perhaps it's the teacher's capacity to teach...

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    1. Kenneth Mazzarol
      Kenneth Mazzarol is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Retired Auto Engineer and teacher

      In reply to Ryan Farquharson

      Good point Ryan but I like to think of 'teachers' leading through interesting fields, capturing the young mind with intriguing sights and sounds to be interpreted in their own way. Who knows what young mind might be there waiting to emerge to astound us all with a new approach.

      Right or wrong, I have always believed that a formal Education can be a handicap.

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    2. Rob Crowther

      Architectural Draftsman

      In reply to Kenneth Mazzarol

      Over on the Drum they are getting anal about pundits.

      They are talking about political pundits predicting election results with breathtaking inaccuracy. Equally we have science pundits who make stuff up on a gut feel and seem to equally have a knack for getting it wrong.

      I agree that formal education can get in the way but if the result is people avoid punditry then it’s not all bad.

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  10. Robert Maillardet

    Lecturer, Department of Mathematics and Statistics at University of Melbourne

    Yes I love these fundamental ideas about space and time and it is important that we help children learn the truth. Such initiatives might even help us to develop intuitions in the young that lead to new theories and deeper understanding in the future.

    But knowledge and models also serve to guide everyday behaviour and decision-making - and Newtonian concepts have real utility here, like understanding the kinetic energy of your car and how a pulley works. They also provide important context for…

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    1. Jerry Vanclay

      Dean of Science at Southern Cross University

      In reply to Robert Maillardet

      I'm with Robert - these ideas should complement Newtonian ones. One of the key outcomes of learning science is that of scientific method and evidence-based decision making, and understanding how (and where it if useful for) Einstein's ideas replace Newtonian ones.
      I also wonder where this team was during the negotiation of the National Curriculum, where (from my perspective) it seems that there was much debate about the content, but not about the method. A wonderful part of this item is the way in which the physics was taught....

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  11. Charles Driver

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    Excellent - I think it's great to confront kids with these ideas. However, did they then go on to calculate the force on a beam, or the length of time taken to hit the ground, based on relativistic physics? Maybe teaching a little instrumentalism is also important...

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    1. Kenneth Mazzarol
      Kenneth Mazzarol is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Retired Auto Engineer and teacher

      In reply to Charles Driver

      I remember as a 'teacher' showing my kids why a bicycle would steer 'hands off' because of the slight Caster built into the steering geometry. I used a shopping trolley to illustrate the point, pointing out why shopping trolley's had a mind of their own because of damaged caused by hitting kerbs and other obstacles, wrecking the Caster, usually of the front wheels. I also used a plank, showing that by moving the fulcrum, the weight of a piece of chalk could lift house brick. Simple stuff but it grabbed their attention.

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  12. Ngoc Luan Ho Trieu

    logged in via Facebook

    Straight line and linearity are only products of human imagination. Nothing is straight in nature, even light. Euclidean geometry is good for the "world" created by human labour and imagination eg. buildings, land division, bridges, coffins, crux, guns, arrows...The round thing man created is the wheel which is forever useful. Newtonian physics can lead to Einstein's E=mC^2 with additional mathematics. So, why not make this millenium the one of the curvy natural universe we live in. Let's liberate our children's from the conventional ways of thinking: let them go backward from curves to straight lines, from round wheels to polygonal wheels and how they interact with straight shafts, from Einstein's universe back to Newtonian and then to Euclidean ones. I will be your student if you grant me age exemption.

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    1. Ngoc Luan Ho Trieu

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Kenneth Mazzarol

      Yes, it's a real joke that man always endeavours to explain and imitate nature is is never completely satisfied. Einstein wrote: "But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man." So, what should we learn: the physical world we must learn fully or its commanding manifesting spirit? This is the next big question for teachers of future children.

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  13. Roger Cogswell

    Retired

    I am a 67yesr old gent.

    I want to miss quote Galilio Galilei......"and yet the apple falls"

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  14. Thomas O'Brien

    Physics Student

    I think saying 'Newtonian physics is outmoded and obsolete' is pushing it a bit too far. These methods are still widely used throughout engineering and the sciences (including physics), and for good reason too - correcting for general relativity on Earth in these areas introduces complex maths to obtain a term that is a small fraction of a percent. The same goes for any interactions in our day-to-day lives.

    This is not to say that I disagree with the idea of teaching it to children, because the…

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    1. Ger Groeneveld

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Thomas O'Brien

      An intellectual person can add 'corrections' and extensions to a theory, making it more complex. It takes a genius to replace the model and make it simpler. Simple concepts are easier to understand and when there is -not yet- something called as 'common sense' stuck in to the brain, it is a great way of getting young people on the right -as far as we know- track.

      By the way, Geometric Algebra is enough to calculate with GR, no tensor calculus is needed.

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    2. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer

      In reply to Ger Groeneveld

      Spot on Ger.

      It's all about scale and function isn't it ... the scale on which we see ourselves and the universe?

      I can build a wagon, or a house or a dam without the slightest knowledge or understanding of Einstein or Quantum physics. Obviously. But if we are looking at space - at big stuff - like GPS systems, satellites and the like we need to understand how gravity, light, time and space operate at this scale.

      If we want to look at nanotechnology and particle physics then we must have…

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    3. Thomas O'Brien

      Physics Student

      In reply to Ger Groeneveld

      Not sure I get you - are you implying that general relativity is a more intuitive theory then classical mechanics? And unless you're meaning geometric algebra in a different way to the usual definition, I don't think you're making it significantly easier.

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    4. Ger Groeneveld

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Thomas O'Brien

      GR is more an intuitive theory to me: classical mechanics follows with the proper simplifications, you can not get to GR by extending classical mechanics by having the rigid Euclidean space.
      Geometric Algebra in the way Grassman and Clifford proposed. One can show that Linear algebra and Matrix algebra follows quite natural. See for example http://ocw.mit.edu/resources/res-8-001-applied-geometric-algebra-spring-2009/

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    5. Ger Groeneveld

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      With general relativity you do not need gravity. We are all in free fall. You need mass, blocking/diverting/radiating massless radiation, to observe that space.
      The whole mysterious thing of a force acting over large and short distances can be dropped and translated into interactions of (very visible) masses.

      Breaks down below the Planck length, but well, with a new concept of space-time some bright one can come up with a description we, old fossils, can imagine to be a workable explanation.

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  15. Rob Crowther

    Architectural Draftsman

    This is of interest to me as I am self learning physics as a hobby.

    I think that had someone done this when I was at school then I would not have had to wait 30 years to work out that physics is fun.

    That said I think the whole physics thing has lost the plot.

    For young kids there are not nearly enough toys to play with and physics has a zillion toys if the curriculum writer could be bothered.

    For adolescents, they get lost because mathematicians and physicists refuse to get together…

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  16. David Blair

    Director, Australian International Gravitational Research Centre at University of Western Australia

    Very pleased to see the response to my article. They give me a chance to clarify a few points that have been raised, ones that I would have made clearer if I had not had a really tight word limit.
    First about Creationism. This was meant to be shorthand for the idea that species are static and unchanging. In the time frame of a human lifetime non-evolution is a good approximation - after all biologists have had to struggle to find examples of evolution in laboratory experiments. In that sense non-evolution…

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    1. Glenn Tamblyn

      Mechanical Engineer, Director

      In reply to David Blair

      David

      Small caveat I would make with your piece - this coming from a background 'debating' Climate Change Skeptics where the name of the game is slicing and dicing degrees and nuances of meaning- Euclidean Geometry hasn't been 'disproven'. Rather we have discovered that Euclidean Geometry is valid in some contexts but not in others.

      In your example, the surface of a sphere in 3 dimensions that is only considered as a 2 dimensional space is obviously non-Euclidean. That does not extend…

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  17. Chris Borthwick

    logged in via Facebook

    Hear bloody hear. I've been grumbling for years that I was deceived by my teachers. They knew quantum, and they didn't tell us. Just little round balls.

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  18. Chris Aitchison

    logged in via Twitter

    Terry Pratchett called these 'lies-to-children', lol.

    "A lie-to-children is a statement that is false, but which nevertheless leads the child's mind towards a more accurate explanation, one that the child will only be able to appreciate if it has been primed with the lie."

    http://books.google.com.au/books?id=BvLVyxCfDi8C&pg=PT36&lpg=PT36&dq=lies+to+children&source=bl&ots=83ylsh2Lg2&sig=5Q5ag4QjMklrQNZ_Lb6TeqCy6zs&hl=en&sa=X&ei=HWqcUJH6IueAiQeq_4DwCw&ved=0CF0Q6AEwCQ

    What's next, we stop telling kids that an atom looks like a miniature solar system? ;P

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  19. Michael Zyphur

    Associate Professor of Management at University of Melbourne

    What a great initiative. It has an important symbolic value: we are the kind of people, populating the kind of society that takes science seriously and believes that children are capable of learning complicated things. This is all very good. Go Team Humans!

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  20. Yoron Hamber

    Thinking

    parallel lines crossing each other? Are you thinking of a globe?

    The idea of parallel lines is that they won't cross or intersect each other at any point, so that statement becomes a contradiction in terms if I'm to understand it as two lines meeting and crossing in the same plane.

    For the rest of it I agree totally with replacing the better description, relativity, for the lesser, being Newtonian physics. 'Greater' just meaning that relativity do encompass Newtonian physics, whereas Newtonian…

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    1. Yoron Hamber

      Thinking

      In reply to Yoron Hamber

      I do not agree on that if the universe is 'closed on itself' it also must imply a globe geometrically. What we might call a closed system is something defined by our measurements, or theoretical ideas, It does not need to restrict SpaceTime to any defined shape, unless we presume that what we can measure defines it all. Think of a square, assume that you by walking out it at the left side find yourself walking in at the right. Is that a globe, or a ellipse?

      SpaceTime gets its definitions from our experiments and imagination, but I doubt gravity allowing for parallel lines crossing each other in a same plane, me imagining it from a two dimensional description here. If it would I expect you to need to introduce either more dimensions to our four dimensional SpaceTime, or less.

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    2. Olesya Dolmatova

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Yoron Hamber

      Sorry for the off :)
      you said "a same plane", would you please comment why? "a" is very unusual before "same", why not standart "the"? may be "same" here is a more expressive substitute for "one", or this phrase "a same plane" is a kind of cliche in the field, or other? I work on English determiners and it's an interesting and unusual example. Thank you

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    3. Yoron Hamber

      Thinking

      In reply to Olesya Dolmatova

      To many old books in my youth I suspect :) I read English, before talking it. The same happened in India actually, someone pointing out that I used a 'outmoded speech'. All languages has a rhythm to them, and what you read will influence that rhythm as you talk too, I think. Hope this make sense?

      And looking at what I wrote above again. ". If it would I expect you to need to introduce either more dimensions to our four dimensional SpaceTime, or less." should read...

      ". If it would, I (would) expect you to need to introduce either more dimensions to our four dimensional SpaceTime, or less." to be readable I guess :)

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  21. ann moffatt
    ann moffatt is a Friend of The Conversation.

    retired

    i remember about 40 years ago, when computer science was just learning how to process databases, trying to teach maths graduates set theory. they just didn't get it.

    our local infants school was also teaching set theory to 5 yr olds. they got it!!!

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  22. Tim Allman

    Medical Software Developer

    I had to wait for university before relativity was explained but I did get the basics of quantum in high school in the late 1960s. This isn't exactly yesterday.

    I think that the author is being a bit hard on Newton's laws and Euclid's geometry. They are still very useful and very close approximations to Einstein. Remember that the Apollo missions went to the moon on the back of Newton.

    I do agree that the new concepts (holy crap, they're a century old now!) need to be taught as early as possible but it would be silly to work the speed of light into every geometrical calculation when Euclid works just fine.

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  23. George Greenwood

    Retired

    Can I give my qualified support to this conversation?

    I do think that teaching the current understanding of science is essential but...

    It is equally important to know how we got there. If we do not show how Pythagorus was modified fromplane surfaces, and how Newton's theories have been improved we miss out on how science changes, and can be changed by re-examing existing ideas and presenting improvements. These ideas become accepted until better ideas are accepted after open and critical discussion. This is the crux of the scientific method. After all Newton claimed to have stood on the shoulders of giants to gain his insights. Even if this was a disparaging reference to one of his fellow scientists, he acknowleges his work was based on that of others.

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