From the Earth to the Moon …

earthmoon_TNOver the Easter break there was one very simple, everyday thing that I did during the holidays that got me thinking. Something that I would normally rail against, in fact – I did some junk-TV watching. Once in a while, though, I have to admit it’s nice just to switch off and catch up with something that you might not have the opportunity to see during term time, so that’s what I was doing one evening. The specific programme was one of these popular TV quizzes.  This quiz featured four celebrities answering questions, sometimes in teams of two and the particular question that has stuck in my mind was one of the latter, and the teams happened to be two women versus two men.

The question that was being asked, and that ultimately triggered all of this in my mind, was ‘How far, in miles, is it from the Earth to the Moon?’.

I have to say I wasn’t sure what I would say myself but the whole thing got increasingly more intriguing as the answers were given. (What you need to know is that the programme works on the basis that both members of each team give an answer that they first write on an iPad and then their answers are averaged, and the team with the average answer closest to the right answer wins a point).

So the team consisting of two women gave their answers first, and one of them said (approximately this anyway) that the Moon was 500,000 miles from the Earth. The other one then said 2,000 miles. Lots of laughter ensued in the studio with two really quite embarrassed celebrities realising that they didn’t have a clue and that if one of them was anywhere near right, the other was very wrong!

Then it was the turn of the men’s team to have a go. Their answers were a bit more similar – something like 120,000 and 270,000 miles. 2,000 was starting to look a bit out of the ballpark by this time, but there was still the right answer and the averaging to come…

And of course, needless to say, the women’s team won. The right answer is in fact somewhere around 238,000 miles. So the average of 2,000 and 500,000 was (a bit) closer than that of the men’s team, even though their answers were actually both a bit more informed. I think one of them mentioned thinking about how long it had taken the Apollo spacecraft to get to the Moon in the 60’s and 70’s – about four days in fact.

Anyway, what’s the point of all of this?  Well, the first thing that struck me was that, if they hadn’t been on a quiz, the contestants (like me) would probably just have Googled the answer, thought it was quite interesting, and then consigned it to be quickly forgotten alongside the many other random facts that we happen to come across.

But I then thought about this again a few days later when the first pictures were published of that most mysterious of objects, a black hole, taken by the Event Horizon network of telescopes in galaxy M87. Again, there are lots of numbers associated with that news – like how the black hole is apparently 24 billion miles in diameter, or between 3.5 and 7 times the mass of the Sun. But the one that struck me was how far away it is from the Earth, with my new-found knowledge about the Moon. And I can now confidently say that it is 55 million light-years from us, which is a lot of miles: a lot more even than the 11 billion miles that Voyager 1 is now from the Earth, for those who remember back to all the news about that at the start of the year. In fact, a completely different order of distance away, just as 11 billion miles is a completely different order of distance from that between us and the Moon.

But, quite interesting though all these random facts might be, what is the point…? Well, what all of this has reinforced for me is how important it is to have a framework of knowledge on which to build. Once we start to understand (even if it’s still hard to envisage) the relative distances involved in space travel, new discoveries become so much more meaningful.

Of course the same principle then applies in many other fields of knowledge too. Particularly in this beautiful area of Wiltshire with Avebury and all the other monuments in the landscape, history and pre-history become so much more meaningful and inspiring when we take the trouble to understand the timespans of the Palaeolithic, the Neolithic, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age.  And, similarly, just to finish with another everyday example from the Easter break to illustrate the point further…

My husband and I were going somewhere we hadn’t been before, so we set up the Sat Nav in the car with the relevant postcode and set off, quietly and confidently. And indeed everything was going along nicely for about 80 miles when – all of a sudden, just as we were thinking we were nearly there – it was no longer going quite so smoothly. The instructions from the Sat Nav voice were no longer making sense compared to the road signs or the road layout we were seeing in front of us and, for 10 stressful moments, confusion reigned as we headed off down what turned out to be a one-way street that went in completely the wrong direction.

As my husband said when we finally arrived, not as calm as we were hoping to be, in the ‘old days’ (that is, if this had been more than about five years ago in our case) we would have looked at the map beforehand and had a picture in our minds of the ‘lie of the land’, so that the chances of heading off in completely the wrong direction (even if there was a new road layout) would have been far less.

Ultimately, helpful though Sat Nav and Google and many of the other sources of information in the modern world undoubtedly are, they are so much more helpful if the person using them has a solid framework of knowledge and experience to apply them within (and test them against).

So that’s the lesson that I’ve learnt from my junk-TV watching and being over-reliant on my Sat Nav!  To put this into an educational context, whatever it is that students (of all ages) are interested in, whether it’s a school subject, a hobby, or some other interest, it’s important to try and create that basic framework of knowledge as a foundation to build on. If we do that, we’ll find that many subjects become much more meaningful and have more impact and our understanding will have greater depth.


If you are interested in reading a little more about how this blog can relate to teaching and learning in practice, please click here to see an article which Mr Cleaver kindly brought to my attention (on page 25 – ‘A Theoretical Formulation’).