Bah Humbug

18Dec11

Even in my secret identity as mild-mannered reporter teacher I’m not a huge Christmas fan. I mean, I understand the ideas and all, both those based around the solstice and the way the traditions have been pinched more recently by the Christians, but I just don’t like it much. (For those of a Christian tradition, how about an assignment: compare and contrast 1 and 2.) Blame whatever you like, I just try not to get too grumpy as I’ve two kids of my own and around 250 by proxy. And as my similarly-atheist spouse has taken the seven year old out to a carol service, it seems appropriate to share a few festive thoughts and links. It’s that or get depressed about the loss of Christopher Hitchens.

Tim Minchin’s White Wine In The Sun is a good place to start. I’ve put the link to open in a new window/tab so you can play it while you read the rest of the post. Or instead of reading my wittering, you could check out @alomshaha‘s Cif article last year in the Guardian about enjoying Christmas as an atheist. Better written than I’d manage, but pretty close to my own views.

As a parent I’ve struggled with the ideas of Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy (and yes, I’m also familiar with the idea that all teachers are de-facto ‘liars-to-children’). One of my proudest moments this year was when a car journey with my son turned into an impromptu philosophical discussion. In the summer he wasn’t quite seven and was newly gappy, for the third time. He asked, hesitantly, if he’d still get money under his pillow if he didn’t believe in a fairy that took his tooth away. Fifteen minutes and paraphrased explanations of Pascal’s Wager and Occam’s Razor later, I knew we were doing something right. I’m now wondering if he’ll ask about Santa before or after the 25th. Whatever happens, I’m glad I read this piece by Myra Zepf in New Humanist about why atheists should let kids believe in Santa.

Okay, if you need something to do in school, I will make a token link to last year’s Adaptations of Santa and Rudolf activity.

Finally, it’s probably too late to buy it for this year unless you read as fast as I do, but I strongly recommend Roger Highfield’s The Science of Christmas. This is usually on loan to one or other of my students. Personally, I tend to reread Hogfather each December, as it’s the closest I get to feeling seasonal. And let’s face it, who can go wrong with Terry Pratchett?

Whatever you do, and whatever your religious faith or lack of it, I hope you enjoy some time with your family (or possibly away from them) this winter.

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3 Responses to “Bah Humbug”

  1. 1 Declan

    Nice post mate. Been so busy I hadn’t even noticed hitchens had died :p

    I have to take issue with the lies to children thing. As a teacher I don’t lie to kids (except very occasionally for the craic)

    The idea of an electron orbiting like a solar system is called a model and it’s no more a lie than the tube map. I think we’re good at getting kids to evaluate models in ks3 but so little time in ks4 it just gets left by the side.

    Any teacher who starts an A level lesson by saying. “ok we lied to you in ks4, this is how it REALLY is” doesn’t belong in the profession, for a number of reasons.

    As for Santa, if I had kids, I think I’d toe the line :)

    • I like the analogy of the tube map as a model – and yes, i completely agree with the idea of using models, clearly labelled with their limitations, to lead kids towards better understanding. But it should always be a deliberate choice, not an accident, which makes up less than honest. I think Pratchett etc explained this nicely.

  2. I’m a fan of the “I think you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than that” way of bridging the gap between GCSE and A-level – everything they’ve learnt is “right” in that it is, as Declan says, a model. Dot and cross diagrams work perfectly. Lines to indicate bonds are standard nomenclature. Atomic structure is perhaps one of the best examples of “lies-to-children”, and it is a simplified model. But at KS3 and for all but the most able KS4 students, I think orbitals as an electron density map is a bit too advanced (probability of finding electrons in that location is as far as I got with 1st year undergrad chemistry and now it’s taught at AS – I shudder to think what the undergrads are learning!).

    In my subject, the equation for respiration is a massive oversimplification. But it works. And without that simple equation, the students wouldn’t be able to build on that when they look at the numerous reactions that take place during respiration.

    I’m not entirely sure what my point was now, but the phrase “lies-to-children” does not mean we’re lying to them, just that we’re only explaining things at the level they are able to understand with models and analogies that they can deal with.


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