Why Doctor Who Will Make Us Cleverer. Oh, And Is He Able To Clone Professor Brian Cox?

When I was at school, I was something of a geek.  A swot if you will.  I turned up to lessons on time, completed all my homework and actually revised for my exams.  Of my own accord.

I remember being about 13 when a member of the cool gang – you know the type; tangerine foundation, no skirt, and eyes which could barely be opened underneath layers of clogged mascara – casually informed me that although I was “like, a proper swot like,” I was still socially acceptable because I “didn’t seem like proper f***ing into Science an’ that.” Oh, and I had nice hair.

Now, I could discuss how it should be possible to be clever and cool, adamant that we shouldn’t put people into boxes.  You can highlight all your notes and still care about your appearance you know, but that would be hypocritical.  The cool kid I’ve just described is, after all, straight out of a teen soap opera.  All we need now is a few nice-but-dim athletes dancing around a basketball court whilst harbouring a burning desire to sing musical numbers and we’d have the cast of High School Musical!

The fact is, most kids (and adults) are desperate to fit in.  And, as sad as it may seem, school-goers do tend to fall into one or other category.  There are very few who have the courage to stick their head above the proverbial parapet and shout, “Hey, I’m just me!”  Let’s be honest, why should they? Being a child is hard enough today as it is.

So, in the absence of bullying, these things themselves don’t really bother me.  What does bother me, and I mean really bothers me, I’m not talking a minor irritation or a bit of a niggle, here.  I mean fists clenched, blood boiling, steam coming out of the ears kind of bothers me, is this:

Why the hell is it so bad to be bright? Why is it cool to fail all your exams and so absolutely mortifying to be even the tiniest bit academic?  And Science? Well, that’s just the geekiest of the lot, right?

Before anyone points out that not everyone is naturally academic, that kids have different strengths and we can’t and shouldn’t judge everyone in the same way, I know.  That’s not what I’m saying.  I home educate my son largely for this reason.  I’m not referring to children who struggle with academic concepts at all.

I’m talking about the fact that so many of our young people, and their parents, seem repulsed by the idea of learning, of knowledge, of a thirst for information – in particular the scientific variety.  When I was still teaching in school, I met a parent who, when told at Parents Evening that their child was excelling in Science, actually rolled their eyes and commented, in all seriousness, “Yeah, they are a bit speccy, they don’t get it from either of us!”  I almost wept into my desk.

On facebook a few weeks ago, an old school acquaintance was having a virtual conversation with their daughter. They were probably sitting next to each other on the couch.  The parent was calling the 11 year old “a geek” for choosing to go into school in the holidays for a workshop.

These are just two examples.  It’s everywhere.

Scientists are constantly portrayed in films as mad, crazy, socially inept, psychotic.  The list is endless.  On the rare occasion when there is an attractive or socially functioning Scientist, it turns out that they’re actually an undercover journalist or also into pole dancing.  It’s unbelievable.

Even the New National Curriculum contributes.  Quite aside from other criticisms I have of it (which are perhaps best left for another time), the Curriculum due to be rolled out in schools from September 2014 has, in a lot of ways, dumbed down Science even more than it was before.

Let’s take light and dark for instance.  Under the Old Curriculum (I didn’t much like that either), children were taught at age 5 that we need light to see, that darkness is the absence of light etc.  Pretty basic stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree.  Now it isn’t taught until age 7-8.  Earth and Space isn’t taught until between the ages of 9 and 10. So, potentially our children don’t even realise we’re only one planet in the solar system until then.  Or even what a Solar System is.  Or a planet for that matter.

Here’s where Doctor Who comes in. Finally, I hear you cry, she’s going to stop ranting!   Since it was relaunched in  2005 by Russell T Davies, the series has established itself as a firm family favourite.  The viewings of each episode in the 2013 series never dropped below 5 million and were usually considerably higher than this.  Last week, the marvellous Professor Brian Cox presented ‘The Science of Doctor Who’ with 2.2 million viewings (overnight).  Where else would you find people wanting to understand Science?  Hiding in laboratories with static wire hair and green potions probably!

We are desperate to find out how we too can travel through the universe.  Can time travel really be possible?  We want to know the science behind it.

Is there life on other planets?  How does a sonic screwdriver work?  How could you possibly refuel a TARDIS?  How does a TARDIS even work in the first place?

All burning scientific questions even if they have come from a fictional programme.

Even when he’s not talking about the Doctor, Brian Cox makes everything sound interesting.  His live series with Jodrell bank a few years ago and his programmes on the BBC all demonstrate how exciting and valuable scientific work is.  He makes it accessible for an everyman.  Without dumbing it down.

With such brilliant presenters and fabulous Doctors all over our screens at the moment, is this finally going to be the moment when we can finally say science is cool?  Will we be able to stop feeling odd for wanting to find things out?

I doubt it.

But at least we can all take heart from the fact that the Doctor will be igniting our scientific minds this weekend in the 50th Anniversary.  Maybe he’ll be able to clone our dear Professor Cox and send him into schools.

Are you fans of the Doctor and Professor Cox in your house?  Do you love Science? I’d love to hear about it.

Beeston Castle – our diary of learning

I was thinking of how valuable trips and visits can be at the same time as having a mini panic about how/when/why to keep a record of J’s learning; I think I’m a bit stuck in “school” thinking – Where’s the evidence?  Where’s the evidence?  I’m (really!) hoping that ultimately, I will calm down a bit and settle into just enjoying our journey, but I had a thought.  It would be nice to have a record of trips and visits, even if it’s just to remember the interesting/funny things J said when he’s older.  So I have decided that each time we go somewhere, I’ll write a diary entry of our visit with a little note about any skills J has developed that day and some questions I asked him about the day at the beginning.

Hopefully, when he’s older, he may want to keep a record himself.  If not, then I’ll just keep on with it.

So, here goes.  Our first home ed diary entry:

Beeston Castle – 20.08.13

What was your favourite bit?

The little windows.

Looking for the signs.

These were the windows in the tower around the outer wall and the clues for the nature trail.

Was there anything you didn’t like?

–          The caves were scary because they had bats and frogs in them.  Why couldn’t we go in them?

–          They were made of very soft stone called sandstone and it might have fallen on us.  It was dangerous.

–          What will happen?

–          What do you think could have happened?

–          We’d get broken

Who lived in the castle?

Knights and Kings

What were the towers and the gatehouse for?

So the baddies can’t get in.  And the drawbridge, but it had been knocked down because it was old.

-Why can’t the new one go up Mummy?

– Because no one lives in the castle anymore.  It’s just to let visitors get into the ruins.

Is there anything else you want me to write down about the castle?

No thank you.

(I wrote the diary entry with some input from J.  As I was typing, I asked him questions about what he remembered.  I did this while he was eating his tea as I had finished mine!)

When we arrived at the castle, we parked in the car park and ate our lunch.  We had sandwiches, hula hoops and a drink.  After that, we looked at the English Heritage map of the UK to see which direction we had driven in; we discovered it was South and slightly West of Manchester.  We also looked at where Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland were on the map.

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We showed the man in the ticket office our membership card and he gave J a map of the estate and some clues to help him follow the nature trail.  We stood with the gatehouse behind us and looked on the map to follow the paths.  We started walking up one path towards the castle, but J wanted to go to the caves so we turned around, again following the map.  When we got there, J wanted to know why bats always live in caves.  I explained that they like dark, damp places so caves are a good place for them to live.  I asked him if he could think of anywhere else dark that they could live – he suggested tunnels.

 

J and I used the map together as we walked around the circular woodland walk.  We talked about how we could tell where we were from the shape of the map and by keeping the wall on our left because it was on the left of the path on the map.

On the way, we saw lots of ferns, redcurrants and funghi.  We talked about why it can be dangerous to eat woodland plants even if they look like things in the kitchen at home.  We thought we saw some ivy climbing up the walls.  J also found “some oats that made porridge.” We briefly talked about how after these are picked, they need to be processed before they can be made into cereals.

 

We saw that some trees had been cut down; J thought this might have been because they were blocking the path.  I said this was a good point and also that the trees might have been rotten and needed to be cut down before they fell and hurt someone.  We looked at the clean, smooth lines made by an axe.  Later, we compared them to a fallen tree.  We could see all the roots where they had come out of the ground; we could tell that this tree had fallen because the roots were all jagged and broken. We also discussed why trees have roots and how they keep a tree anchored into the ground in addition to drawing up water from the soil.

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We counted all the steps as we climbed up the hill (there were 35 and J counted with me to 20).  J knew that castles are often at the top of hills because it gives a good vantage point to see the baddies trying to approach.  J wanted to know who lived in the castle.  We discussed the fact that the Castle was built during Henry III’s time but that Richard II must also have visited because he was supposed to have hidden some treasure in the well.  J was excited to search for the treasure and couldn’t wait to get to the castle.  He asked me why nobody lives in the castle anymore.  We talked about how castles were often built to keep “important” people safe and for protection and that England in the Middle Ages was a dangerous place to be.  After the Civil War, England became a lot safer and so people didn’t need to live in castles anymore and so lots of them are now ruins.  J thought this was sad.

As we walked, we found more clues for the nature trail (we had already found some by the caves and near the ticket office); each time we found some, we counted the dots, wings or whatever it was that we were supposed to count and filled in J’s clue sheet.

By the time we reached the outer gatehouse, we needed a rest.  Well, I needed a rest.  J didn’t although he did agree to have a drink.  While he drank, I read him the “story” of the castle.  We talked about how this castle was different to Warkworth castle which we visited last week; this one doesn’t have a keep but has 2 gatehouses.  J was excited to look inside the remains of the gatehouse “like a knight” and to peer out of all the windows in the towers along the wall.  J found lots of rabbit holes and “loads of rabbit poo” so we came to the conclusion that lots of rabbits must live in the area.  I suggested that they probably ran around at night when there were no visitors – wild rabbits tend to sleep in the day.

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J was interested in why there were so many rocks on the way up to the bridge.  We thought that there probably used to be buildings in the open space that have now been destroyed by the weather so they could be remains of those.  J also thought they could have been part of a path.

He was really excited by the time we got to the “drawbridge”.  I explained that this was a new bridge across to the castle; he noted that if it couldn’t come up, it couldn’t keep out baddies.  We looked at the drop over the side of the bridge.  “That’s the moat.” J said.  I explained that not all moats contained water.  Sometimes the drop and the steep climb up to the castle was enough to keep out enemies.  “Yes,” he replied.  “The knight would shoot their arrows and throw things at them.”

He looked through the windows again from the inner gatehouse and was really excited to be able to see “another castle.” We looked on the map again, talked about how to tell which direction we were facing and deduced that it must be Pinkerton Castle.

J ran towards the last clue for the treasure trail before I had even spotted it; he then remembered that we were near the well and charged across towards it, desperate to find the treasure.  He was a little upset that he couldn’t climb down inside it to hunt – we talked about the fact that the well is very deep and used to be used to collect water to drink.  The treasure has never been found – maybe it isn’t even there at all!

 

We got the map out again then and tried to work out what we could see in each direction.  J had been really excited to do this earlier in the day but was getting tired and wasn’t that interested by this point.  I didn’t push it and we set off down the hill again.

We explored the woodland again on the way down; J wasn’t sure what the word ‘treetops’ meant so I explained.  “Yes Mummy, you’re right!” He said.

When we returned to the ticket office, J was given a certificate to say he had completed the nature trail – he was really proud of this.  He also liked the English Heritage stamp he was given on his hand.  He asked what “heritage” was so I explained that English Heritage look after lots of old buildings like castles so that people can go to look at them to see what the country used to be like.  It’s good to know what places used to be like so we can see how they became how they are today.

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J was exhausted and slept all the way home!  He was keen for me to write his “diary” of the day and said “When I’m older, I will write it.”  I asked him if he would like me to read it as I was writing – he said “No, when you’ve finished.” So I typed it and just asked him some questions as I went along.

 

Skills/knowledge

Map reading – finding where we are on a map of the UK and following paths marked on local maps

Directional language – South/West

Counting – to 20

History – how people lived, why castles were needed, what the country used to be like

Nature – types of plants, woodland creatures, why bats live in caves

Science – why trees and plants need roots; to anchor plant/tree in ground and to draw in water

Weather – how the weather can damage/destroy buildings if they are not protected

Language and literacy – discussion of everything as we walked around, appropriate responses to questions and appropriate questions asked.

Balance – climbing onto trees, over roots, up stairs, hill walking