Teaching Science: An Introduction

by Steve Sherwood

Perhaps we don't need convincing that teaching science to our children is of major importance. We marvel at the world that God has made, and want to impart that sense of awe and praise to our children, as well as instilling in them practical skills. But where do we start? This article by Steve Sherwood, based on a talk given at a Home Time conference, lays the foundation and gives some practical hints.

One thing I am conscious of, being a schoolteacher as well as a home-teacher, and having had to think of teaching science myself to my own children, is that science teaching strikes fear into the hearts not simply of parents, but of teachers as well. One of my aims in this article is to get rid of some of these feelings of alarm when we think of science, and to try to reassure you that things are not as difficult and daunting as perhaps we are led to believe by publications such as the National Curriculum in Science. That has struck fear into many teachers who have had to put it into practice. I do not want to give the impression that this is what has to happen at home. My aim is to be as practical as possible but to note some of the basic principles of teaching science.

Why Teach Science?

Briefly, science is the study of God's creation. Of course, humanism does not agree with that definition! Why teach science? To answer any fundamental question concerning teaching our children from a Christian perspective, we have to ask the Bible, Why teach science? Psalm 19:1-4 tells us immediately about God's creation. "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world." That tells us that creation, which we study in science, is in fact our teacher, the teacher that has already gone to all the continents of the world. From that Psalm alone we see that creation tells us of the glory of God and the great skill with which God has made the world. Romans 1 tells us much the same thing. Verse 20 tells us, "Since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without any excuse." Again, the creation reveals God's character, his qualities, his power, his divine nature, to men and women, boys and girls.

That is the first reason for teaching science. We want our children to appreciate what God is like, and they cannot do that without looking at the world. We see immediately that teaching science is not an option for our homeschooling curriculum; it is absolutely essential! To put it negatively, Romans 1 tells us what happens when men observe the creation, but forget about the Creator. This terrible evil is taking place in our country at the present time. One of the evils is shown in Romans 1:24; "Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator - who is forever praised." As Christian parents, we are to ensure that our children are not adopting this Godless view of the creation. Hebrews 11:3 tells us "By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command." Faith must be applied in our teaching.

Subduing the Earth

The second reason is that God has told us to study science in order to fulfil the job that he has given us to do as men and women in this world. We find this in Genesis 1:28; "God blessed Adam and Eve and said to them, `Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.'" The first man and the first woman were given a job to do, and it is this task that has been given to all mankind through Adam and Eve. In order to fill the earth and bring it under control, we need to learn how the earth is made and the laws that God has ordained to govern it, and so on. We need to get a practical knowledge of the world in which we live, the living creatures and their habits, to rule over them in the way that God has commanded. That means that in our Christian education we have no option. We are not simply to teach children that the world is wonderful; we ought also to be equipping children to take their place in the world so that they can be useful in bringing the world under control in obedience to God's command, for his glory and for the benefit of mankind.

Of course, humanism does not believe in teaching science for these reasons at all. The unbeliever cuts out God from his thinking; when he does realise that there is something wonderful about the creation, he writes poetry about it, rather than worshipping God! Humanism does believe in bringing the world under control, but the vital missing ingredient is dependence on God, obedience to God and a desire to glorify God. The motive for the unbeliever to study science is simply to equip man to be more and more the centre of his own world. The civil engineers of Genesis 11 had as their whole aim to make a name for themselves using their advanced skills. We are to stand against this.

A dislike of science during our own schooldays is no excuse for teaching history instead! We must teach science; indeed, perhaps we do so even without realising it during day-long informal teaching. Whatever the age of a child, we are teaching him about the world that God has made. This is a great privilege. As soon as our child is born, he starts to explore that world, and as soon as we can communicate with him, we are able to introduce our young children to the created world of God. If we do this in faith and prayer, we can be sure that God will in turn reveal himself to that child through the creation.

From the Earliest Years

I remember taking my children to Hampstead Heath on a family outing; the oldest was seven. I told them about the different trees that we might find and we began to learn some of their names. We were looking for conkers, beech nuts, chestnuts, the various fruits of autumn time. Not only were the children excited to find these things, but I remember thinking to myself, "My heavenly Father made those trees" and feeling a sense of grandeur. There is a great tendency nowadays to concentrate children's minds on fantasy; we are told that children live in a fantasy world. God's Word does not tell us so. My duty as a parent is not to introduce them to a fantasy world, but to use the valuable early years to introduce them to the wonderful world that God has made, so that their young minds are absorbing the real world, the wonder and magnificence of the creation. It is important to engage in this from the earliest age.

Deut. 6:6-9 tells parents to remember the Lord, to teach our children of the Lord when we wake, when we sit down, when we walk. Matt. 6:26 tells us to consider the birds. We are to consider the lilies of the field and look at them with our children. We have so many resources directly to hand; the child's own body, the air, the house, the garden, the street, wasteground, the sky, weather, the park, the countryside, the railway station, the farm, the woods, the hills and mountains, the seas, zoos and museums. On Sunday afternoons, we are tempted to sit in our armchairs after our large lunch and drop off to sleep. Rather, we should get out into the park and look at God's creation. One of the reasons we are to rest every seventh day is because in six days, God created the heavens and the earth (Ex. 20:11). Surely it is appropriate that on the seventh day we look at God's creation. Deut. 5:15 tells us to consider God's works of redemption on the Sabbath. Our children will not be enthused about God's redemptive work if we are slack in meeting with God's people and hearing His word preached every week. To be enthused about God's creative work, they need the impetus and example of our own interest in creation.

We cannot supervise our children all the time, but we can make sure that their activities and playtime are geared to real, useful topics in terms of science, especially physical science, which is a very important aspect of God's creation. And of course technology and applied science is all about bringing the world under control. When a child is learning to use Lego or make Meccano models, he is learning to bring the creation under control by gaining skills. Instead of giving them useless, time-filling games, we should give them those that are profitable. Computers can be very profitable if used properly. Reading is very important - they may not be able to visit the Grand Canyon but they can see marvellous pictures and sense the wonder of creation. Our children receive an American magazine all about wildlife; they have learned much, on their own, of the wonderful behaviour of some animals and insects. Pictures from the National Geographic magazine can introduce them to the real world beyond their immediate environment. Creation magazine, published in Australia by the Creation Science Foundation, is worth mentioning; our family have enjoyed this.

All these things are very well, of course, and we can introduce our children to all sorts of experience and knowledge, but if we miss out on the vital teaching that our Lord has created all things for His own glory, we have failed. This involves more than just stating a formula: "God made this". However, with very young children, this is a good thing to do; when visiting a zoo, looking at a kangaroo or giraffe, with a two-year-old in your arms looking wide-eyed at the animal, this is just the right time to tell him that God made the giraffe. I think of a child, after he observed that a cut had healed, whose father then told him that God has made our bodies so that they heal themselves. The child was so amazed that he decided there and then to thank God in prayer. This is the most important aim; to have our children appreciate for themselves that God created this world. If our response is one of praise to God, our children will respond in the same way, naturally and unforced. This means that we have to be spiritually alert ourselves so that we can effectively and spontaneously apply God's word to our children.

How to Teach Science

Although much learning is informal, there is a place for structured or formal teaching, and the older the children are, the more this will be appropriate. It is at this point that we can start to feel very inadequate; what shall I teach, how shall I teach? In moving to a more formal approach, we are trying to bring in more of the skills aspect; recognizing the laws of science, recognizing how to look after animals, how to handle substances, and how to put these things to use.

In considering how to teach science, we must have certain priorities. The all-important starting point is to study the Bible's teaching on creation. We are conditioned by our own humanistic background; this has blurred our view of what the creation is. This is not easy; we have to be like Ezra (Ezra 7:10), who "devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord." We are promised success (Prov. 2:3-6). "If you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom, and from His mouth come knowledge and understanding." This is a great encouragement to us when we find it difficult to apply the Bible to our teaching of science.

We should consider some practical points. Firstly, we have to be realistic and to have a general idea of the range of subject matter that is suitable. One way of doing this is by obtaining the National Curriculum. Other people have taken the first chapter of Genesis and have divided it up into the six days of creation, using that as the basis of their science course. There are several other published science schemes; for example, Science from the Beginning (published by Olivery and Boyd, Edinburgh). A more recent publication is Young Scientist Investigates (published by Oxford University Press). This is in the form of two course books and twenty background books. Yet another publication is the Exploring Science series (published by Wayland), which claims to meet all the attainment targets in the National Science Curriculum for levels three to six.

Secondly, we must decide how much material from the course to cover each term or specific time period. Plan ahead and select topics from the scheme that you have chosen. Before the lesson, read the relevant chapter; this will give you some ideas on how to teach the topic to your children, and may mean that you have to collect some apparatus or materials. Prayerfully consider the lesson material in the light of God's word. This is hard work! Make use of a concordance or topical Bible; for example, look up all the references to water, copy them down and bring the material into your teaching.

To illustrate, the simplest science lesson in our own home could look something like this. First of all, start the lesson with prayer, asking for the Lord's help. Sit next to the child or children with the material that you are using. Make use of pictures and photographs from different books. Try to apply God's word in a practical way. All schemes have suggestions for backing up the lesson and for training the children in observation. Carry out the experiment or practical activity which you have selected. Finish off with some written work if appropriate, or leave it until the next day. The children could spend time writing notes on the topic, answering questions, writing a description, reading or writing relevant poetry, singing in praise, drawing, painting, further experiments and observations, making models, tabulating results, doing calculations, copying Bible verses, looking up information in other books. We see that science teaching can spin off into other areas of the curriculum, because God has not made a world that is compartmentalized.

Since the structured lessons form part of a planned scheme, it is useful that the child keeps some form of written record of each formal science lesson, however brief. Children also find real satisfaction in rewriting some of their work for a special "best work" topic folder or for display on the dining-room wall. It is unsatisfactory to do some good science work and then leave it in a haphazard form. Good work is worth careful reporting.

May God bless and help us as we embark on a study of his glorious creation and as we teach of His "wondrous works" to our children.

Appendix: Ten Questions for Young Scientists (and also for Older Ones)

Questions we can ask about a particular thing. (Note that we may not be able to find answers to all these, but because God is the creator we know that there are answers.)
  1. What is it like? Can we describe its nature, structure, behaviour, mechanism? In answering this question we shall find that God has made it just right for the place he wants it to have in creation.

  2. What are its functions in creation? To ask this question means that we remember that this is part of God's whole creation, and that He has particular purposes for it.

  3. What does it teach us about the Lord and goodness? The whole creation teaches us about God's character (Rom. 1:29-20; Isa. 6:3). It teaches us what we should be like as well, e.g. we should be hard-working like ants (Prov. 6:6-11).

  4. How has sin affected it? Sin has affected the whole creation, and the creation is looking forward to the coming again of the Lord Jesus, when it will be set free (Rom. 8:18-23).

  5. Does it teach us anything about the devil and sin? Since the fall God has caused His creation to teach us many things about the devil and sin. For example, roaring lions teach about Satan (1 Peter 5:9). Dogs and pigs teach about sin (2 Peter 2:22).

  6. Are there benefits for man from this? Here we are considering the beautiful, delightful richness of creation (1 Tim. 4:4; James 1:17; Acts 14:17). We are also thinking about how we can bring the world under control (God's mandate, Gen. 1:28) and also of course the Great Commission (Mat. 28:19-20).

  7. Are there dangers for man from this? We live in a sinful world. Since the Fall there is always the danger of illness and death. Sin and ignorance lead men to misuse the creation. This often brings accidents with harmful results. Man can easily spoil the part of the world in which he is living, e.g. by pollution.

  8. Are there benefits or dangers for the earth and its creatures? God cares for man most of all, but He delights in all His creatures. He has created everything for Himself and He rejoices in the parts of His creation which no man has ever seen. (Ps. 65:5-13; Ps. 104:10-30; Job 38:25-27, 39-40; Job 39:1-41:34; Matt. 6:26-30; Luke 12:23-38.)

  9. Are there counterparts of this in other realms? God is the God of heaven and earth and everything in them. Everything in all creation belongs to Him, and He is working out His purpose in every part of it (Col. 1:16-17). Because the Lord Jesus Christ is the one in whom all things hold together, there is a unity of all things. This is sometimes seen in words. The same word can be used to mean something in the physical realm and another non-physical part of creation. For example, "force" has a meaning in physics and in human government as well. The heavenly realm is all-important, and we should remember that the physical realm teaches us about it.

  10. Praise the Lord for creation and redemption. Remember that everything in creation is for the Lord Jesus (Col. 1:16). By His redemption (His death and resurrection) He will bring the whole creation back to himself, setting it free from sin (Col. 1:20; Eph. 1:7-12; Rom. 8:18-23). At present we are waiting for that to happen. It will all be completed when He returns. While He is still away, we are to fulfil the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20). This means teaching everyone to realize that the Lord Jesus is King over every single person and thing in this world. We must use the physical world only according to His word, and use it to help us get the world ready for His return. Then there will not just be the song of creation (Rev. 4:11); there will be a new song, the song of redemption (Rev. 5:9-14)!

Copyright © Family Matters 1996

Steve Sherwood is a home-educator and a teacher at the Cedar School, which also produces material to support home-education. For a catalogue, write to Cedar Education Centre, 5-7 Stafford Road, Forest Gate, London E7 8NL, or call 0181 472 5723. Creation magazine is available from Creation Science Foundation (UK), PO Box 1427, Sevenhampton, Swindon, Wilts. SN6 7UF, UK.