The Purpose of these Pages - For Parents and Teachers

These Pages began when I overheard a conversation between one of my greatgrandchildren and her friend about how you can see the Moon during the day: it made me realise how totally irrelevant the astronomy they were learning about at school was to what they actually saw in the sky. But their roots go back to some of my earliest childhood memories.

I have always considered that the Night Sky is the most wonderful sight in the whole world. I remember seeing it for the first time in all its glory when, because of the War, just before my sixth birthday I was sent away from my home and family in London to a Boarding School in Devonshire. The School was in a large Elizabethan house set in its own extensive grounds on the fringes of Dartmoor. There is a wonderful hymn about the Night Sky, here is the second verse:

Now all the heavenly splendour
breaks forth in starlight tender
From myriad Worlds unknown.
And Man, the wonder seeing,
Forgets his selfish being
For joy of beauty not his own.

But my sense of awe and wonder every time I see the Night Sky has never led to any special interest of mine in astronomy as such, certainly not in any way approaching my interest in, say, Ancient Egypt: even these Pages are written on papyrus! Many of the Ancient People, including the Egyptians, had a great interest in astronomy, but not the Jews: the Old Testament of the Bible is packed full of references to the Night Sky as God’s creation, and its splendour and its timelessness, but only the Sun and Moon, Orion, the Pleiades and the Bear are mentioned by name, and then only as examples of God’s power and Man’s powerlessness over them, and the planets are not mentioned at all!

After graduating from University I spent a number of years in industry. During this time I was a Scout Leader. I then left industry to retrain as a science teacher, and since I retired from teaching I have been doing private tutoring.

I have always believed that “A child is a fire to be lit not a vessel to be filled”, and all my work with children over more than sixty years has reflected this. I have always encouraged young people to ask questions. This quotation is normally attributed to François Rabelais (1483 - 1553) but it is now realised he was quoting from the Greek philosopher Plutarch (46  - 119 CE). If I thought that the answer to a question might interest other children I would sometimes provide an extended answer, initially on a sheet of paper but later, as the internet developed, as a Web Page. Ofsted said of my students “they all have a breadth and depth of knowledge seldom encountered.”

These Web Pages later came to cover a wide range of maths and science topics which I know that young people are finding difficult.

In my teaching I did of course teach astronomy as a part of physics, but I never regarded it as more important or interesting than any other physics topic. However in 1976 I was so concerned about the teaching of astronomy in secondary schools - for example one standard explanation of the tides would have actually given only one high tide a day - that I met with a small number of like-minded science teachers and astronomers and we founded The Association for Astronomy Education - still going strong today. I also ran the Astronomy Club at one of the schools I taught at, but only because they needed an adult to run it and no one else would: some of the older boys owned their own telescopes and knew far more about astronomy than I did, or ever shall.

At the time I retired my wife was running the Sunday School at the church which we were going to, and all the children in it went to the local Junior School, so I offered to do voluntary work at it. I had taken it for granted that they would wish me to help with maths and science but once they discovered my passion for Ancient Egypt that was what they asked me to do. So for the next two years, twice a week I sat round a big round table with eight children from Year 5 or Year 6 classes and talked about Ancient Egypt. The eight children came out of their ordinary classes and the teachers kept a rota so that I saw each of the children in Y5 and Y6 at least once a term, but not always in the same group. I taught two groups each afternoon, so thirty two different children a week, and it was wonderful.

We followed a curiosity-led approach, that is, the children asked questions and I answered them and then we talked about the answers and this lead to further questions, and so on. So every session was totally different and totally unprepared and I had to carry a huge suitcase of books and photographs and maps and things for them to handle. After some sessions I would prepare a single sheet of A4 on some of the topics we had talked about, and I sometimes put a Page about them on my web site.

We were just outside the head teacher’s office and after a few weeks he told me that if he really had to do any work on the afternoons we were there he would go to the secretary’s office: he simply could not stop listening to us and every session was totally different. For example the initial questions were often about Tutankhamen or hieroglyphs or mummification. If we started with hieroglyphics I would explain that hieroglyphic is actually an adjective, for example hieroglypic writing means writing using hieroglyphs, then that the hieroglyphs (from the Greek for sacred carvings) were not just letters of the alphabet as we know them today. After that we might end up with why the hieroglyph for sunrise is the eye of a crocodile, or Egyptian mathematics, or papyrus and Egyptian pens and inks. Starting with Tutankhamen, his tomb had been robbed at least three times very soon after he was buried but each time it was repaired and resealed. (Only the chamber actually containing the mummy itself was never robbed.) We even know what was stolen because the people who resealed it left a list of what should have been there and what was put in in its place! We do not know whether the thieves were caught but we have the transcript of the trial of someone caught stealing from another Royal tomb. This carried the death penalty and you were impaled on a spear (had a spear stuck up your bottom!) In one tomb the thieves broke a jar of honey and you can still see their sticky handmarks all over the walls. And there was lots of food leading to questions about that. And of course the mummy and the weighing of the heart and the iron dagger. And all illustrated with lots of photographs and papyri and other things to handle. The children talked among themselves afterwards of course, so sometimes the starting point for one talk arose from something I had discussed earlier with different children. The iron dagger was on tv quite recently: the Egyptians are building a new museum to house all the objects removed from Tutankhamen’s tomb in one place, including lots of objects never before exhibited, to celebrate the centenary of its discovery. At the time of Tutankhamen Man had not yet learned how to make iron from iron ore so the only source of iron was from meteorites, and it was more valuable than gold. It was an adult programme and they spoke about this knife, and how special it was, for about ten minutes - almost word for word what I had been telling ten year old children twenty years earlier!

Children, even the most unlikely children, can ask the most searching questions, and are happy exploring areas which many adults never venture into. Many educationalists ask “At what age should we introduce such and such a topic to our students?” I prefer “How do we talk about such and such a topic with ten (or eleven or twelve or fifteen) year old children when they ask questions about it?”

It was I think one of the most exciting and rewarding times of my life.

This experience, more than any other, illustrates for me the difference between lighting a fire and filling a vessel.

There are tens of thousands of web pages about astronomy for children, some very good and some very bad. But these Pages of mine are not intended to tell children what adults think they should know about astronomy, they are intended to provide answers to the sorts of questions which very ordinary children might ask about what they see in the Night Sky when they look at it, to encourage them to want to go on looking at it.

Does that make any sense?

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© Barry Gray September 2022