(Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

The square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle equals the sum of the squares of the other two sides. How many of you remember learning the Pythagorean theorem? But did you also learn that Pythagoras organized his followers into a secret society of vegetarians and was worshiped as if he were a god?

That is part of the story of Pythagoras and his famous theorem as told in the “The Story of Science: Aristotle Leads the Way,” the first of a three-volume collection by Joy Hakim, who engages readers through good old-fashioned storytelling, a method of teaching and learning that has been drowned out in an era of data and standardized tests. It’s no wonder that students, year after year, complain about being bored in school.

In this post, Hakim uses a simple story to explain what is wrong with the way science — and other subjects — are taught and how it could be remedied. I am publishing it as a reminder that while the education reform debate is now focused on the Trump administration’s school choice agenda to expand alternatives to traditional public schools, the issue of what and how students are taught continues to get the short shrift by policymakers.

Hakim is also the author of an 10-volume series on U.S. history, “A History of US,” which won a James A. Michener Award for Writing and formed the basis of a PBS miniseries. She is working on an update of that series.


By Joy Hakim

You’re a science teacher so of course you teach about heat. There’s a whole section in your textbook titled “Heat.” Does the concept excite your students?

Could heat have a story? Yes, there almost always is an underlying story that accompanies any achievement. Those stories not only help explain ideas, they cement them into your head. Traditionally stories have been a tool great teachers cherish.

But in the 20th Century we mostly gave up storytelling for an assortment of teaching methodologies (most developed by commercial entities). When one didn’t work, we tried another. Test scores began a downward trajectory. History and science — both rich with adventures, challenges, triumphs and goofs — turned into fact-driven litanies.  Science became a “hands on” subject that focused on doing, not on thinking. Before long most Americans, including those who considered themselves “educated,” were scientific illiterates.

So that today, in this, the greatest scientific era ever, the scientific story is little known.

Back to heat. Do you know the story of the New England fellow who figured out that heat is not a tangible substance, as everyone in his time believed?

He’s not exactly an American hero. During the Revolutionary War, he chose to be a Loyalist and went off to England where King George III was awed by his mind and by his inventiveness. The colonists, in the process of becoming Americans, called him a traitor. George III sent him to Bavaria with a letter of introduction to royals there. He reorganized Munich, rounding up the homeless and providing them with housing and jobs (solving a problem we could use some help with today).

In his spare time, this American Tory invented a stove that was better than Ben Franklin’s; it made him rich. It was while he was in Munich that he figured out that heat is not a thing — an understanding that changed the trajectory of science. The British made him a lord.

He had left a wife and baby in what was now a new nation. No matter, he found another wife: her first husband, Anton Lavoisier (the father of chemistry) had lost his head during the French Revolution.

Who was this chap and how did he figure out that heat is motion?

We don’t answer that question in science classes because it is history. We don’t teach it in social studies classes because it is science. Educators talk a lot about interdisciplinary, but mostly it is just talk.

Can you imagine a science teacher asking science students to research and write true stories? Which is too bad, because it is the reading/writing process that leads to what schools talk of as “higher order thinking.”

P.S. The New Englander who figured out the heat story was Benjamin Thompson, who went to Europe, became Count Rumford and founded Great Britain’s Royal Institution.