27 October 2009

Subjective and Objective Realities

In UK schools, some science teachers use thunks as a pedagogic device. Where a thunk is described as,

"a beguilingly simple-looking question about everyday things that stops you in your tracks and helps you start to look at the world in a whole new light."

Throwing in a thunk as a lesson starter usually wrong foots a pupil, it shatters their expectations of the upcoming lesson and raises their critical awareness.

So consider the thunks,

do borders exist?

Or, do countries exist?

Imagine you were in a class and the teacher began the lesson by asking these questions. The pupils would say, yes, of course they exist.

But how do you know?

This is where it starts to get interesting. They exist 'cos everyone says that they exist comes the reply; or rather, the replies can be clarified and condensed to give this response.

So what, says the teacher. Just because everyone says they exist doesn't mean they really exist, does it?

This question usually doesn't tease much else from the class so more is needed.

If we say that there is a border between one side of the class and the other, does that mean that there really is a border between one side of the class and the other? What usually stops us going from one side of a border to another?

The answer to these questions is violence. The pupils get there with the usual prompting, the Elvis 'uh-uh' and the carefully guided re-expression of what they have said.

On the board is written ... "everyone says so" and "violence" make borders real.

Now that we have illustrated subjective reality (myth supported by violence), we can compare and contrast this with objective reality.

When the class is asked something like, "what force makes an apple fall from a tree?" Almost everyone in the class can give the answer, gravity. Using gravity (our objective reality), we can ask, "would gravity still work if nobody knew about it?" Or, "if we took hostages or threatened to commit terrorist atrocities, would we able to stop gravity?" Also, "when people thought that the Sun went around the Earth, did it?"

In this manner we can illustrate the difference between the two realities to the class. Once done, it is possible to capitalise on the exercise by explaining that science deals with objective reality, (avoiding using words such as objectivity and subjectivity). One can explain that science studies phenomena that are independent of us and our ideas.

Afterwards, the science lesson can begin and the pupils will have a greater appreciation of science.

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