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The unknown – the Royal Observatory Greenwich approach

How do the astronomers at the Royal Observatory Greenwich answer tricky questions?
A cartoon image of the Royal Observatory Greenwich.
© Royal Observatory Greenwich

Space is a beautiful subject to talk about with your students because there is so much to discover together. However, this fact can also be very intimidating if you aren’t sure exactly how to define or explain a concept, or maybe you don’t know the answers to your student’s questions.

In the next few steps we will explore a variety of approaches to take when handling tricky scientific questions. We will go into this in more detail later in the course, at this stage we would like to focus on defining scientific words or concepts to get us started.

At the Royal Observatory Greenwich we are asked some of the most profound and amazing questions by some of our youngest visitors. Here is our approach to explaining complicated concepts!

Never panic

Firstly, we don’t panic when someone asks something really complicated. If a student has plucked up the confidence to ask something really challenging then good on them – we will do our very best to answer it.

Be accurate

A key point for us is to never guess an answer or make it up just so we have something to say because the potential effect of giving out incorrect information is very damaging. We often ask the children if they know the answer to the question they are asking us. This might sound strange but sometimes they do and they are asking us to spark conversation about that topic and tell us what they have learned. If they don’t know the answer and neither do we then we both need to do a little research to find out the answer and that is exactly what we always suggest. There is nothing embarrassing about not knowing the answer to something in science – after all, science has progressed through the ages because people have asked questions about the world around them, not in spite of it.

It is OK not to know

Just like you in your science lessons we can’t know everything there is to know about the whole field of science and it is OK for students to see that. We are comfortable for them to see that learning is not something restricted to school but an enjoyable lifelong activity that we take part in as astronomers too. When students see that adults don’t have all the answers it leaves aspects of science as a tempting mystery; a mystery that could spark their interest to go on and develop a career helping to solve it if they choose to.

What do you think? Do you do things differently?

© Royal Observatory Greenwich
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Our Solar System and Beyond: Teaching Primary Science

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