Atlanta Take Note: There is New Science Educator Intown!

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Ed Johnson sent an email out a few days ago in which he described the kinds of experiences that students at a local elementary school might experience if the school took advantage of its place right next to an Atlanta system of Trails and Greenways that ultimately create miles of paved trails through forests and waterways that will connect to the Atlanta Beltline, a network of public parks, multi-use trails, and transit along a “historic 22-mile railroad corridor circling downtown and connecting many neighborhood directly to teach other.

Ed Johnson provides a glimpse into how the Atlanta Beltline and it associated green spaces and trails could be used to humanize and create an experiential and sensual approach to teaching and learning.

I’m Emeritus Professor of Science Education at Georgia State University, and have lived and worked in Atlanta for more than 45 years.  I’ve met lots of incredible science educators, researchers and science teachers, especially in the Atlanta Public Schools during this time.

However, there is new science educator in town!

Experiential learning.  Inquiry.  Finding out.  Asking questions.  Wondering.  No one could explain these ideas or say it better than Ed Johnson.

Here is what he had to say about learning.

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A photo of part of the 1.15-mile long Southwest Connector Spur Trail that winds around beautiful woods and passes by Beecher Elementary School, Atlanta Public Schools

Atlanta Public Schools superintendent Meria Carstarphen has blogged good news: Let’s Play! Every APS Elementary School Gets a Playground! She recaps that, as a consequence of the school board having decided to provide for schools to be more equitable operationally, nine of ten priority elementary schools now have a playground ready for back-to-school. In addition, she reports that a playground at the tenth priority elementary school, Beecher Hills Elementary, is under construction and that the planning process there includes working with a City of Atlanta arborist. Great!

So, speaking of Beecher Hills Elementary School…

One of several points of entry onto a system of greenway trails is right next to the gated entry to Beecher Hills Elementary. It is at that entry point to the trails that I sometimes start and end a walk-run. Being out there to emerge in the surroundings and to be open to The Universe always proves a way to more fully engage the senses, and to renew. What am I seeing? Hearing? Feeling? Smelling? Tasting? One the most engaging times out on the trails occurred during a torrential downpour, and I got soaking wet. Still, the rain provided a very different learning context and experience I had not before imagined.

The greenway trails effectively extend Beecher Hills Elementary School’s backyard. And because they do, I often think it would be magical to be a kid at Beecher with freedom to play and learn in and from that extended backyard.

The point of entry to the greenway trails at Beecher Hills Elementary lies adjacent to the school’s front driveway. From that entry point the greenway meanders northward and down the westward side of the hill upon which the school sits. Then the greenway curves eastward along a fence behind the school before curving northward and connecting with an east-west trail just beyond having crossed a creek.

Environments outside the classroom for students to explore and learn.
Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 7.36.39 PM
Environments for learning along the Southwest Connector Spur Trail

Out Beecher’s back doors and down the hill, the fence encloses an expansive green field just begging to be played on. The field catches my eye, every time. It always invites me to pause and wonder what would kids do if let loose upon it? What sort of games would they innovate and play? What sort of learning would they innovate and personalize and internalize for themselves? What sort of questions would the kids ask prompted by observations they would have made? Would they even ask questions, having been trained to give only answers à la standardized teaching, learning, and testing? Would teachers run themselves ragged trying to control the kids’ play? How would teachers deal with kids’ questions, especially questions lacking answers?

And then I think, hmm, nighttime. Hardly any surrounding light! Look up, “billions and billions!” –thanks, Carol Sagan! And, of course, thanks, too, to that astrophysicist guy Neil Degree Tyson who claims “All I did was drive the getaway car” when Pluto got knocked off. So, yep, a telescope, right in the center of the field out back Beecher Hills Elementary School. Can’t you just imagine?!

Now, in addition to the field, thoughts of experiencing something new at any random point along the greenway invite imagining there could come from being a kid at Beecher Hills Elementary School a magical mix-up of unconventional play and learning from inquiry kids tend to do innately until thought to do otherwise:

What kind of tree is this? How old is this tree? That tree? Why has that tree grown so tall and skinny? How long has that big old-looking tree over there been here? How long does a tree live? Will it live longer than me? Why do these three trees share the same trunk? Why have some trees fallen? What happens to a tree after it falls? Why do some trees have different shaped leaves? Why do tree leaves change color from time to time? Why do some trees drop all their leaves and some don’t? Do trees breathe? Do trees eat? How are people like trees?

What kind of grass is this? Why are its flowers blue? And why are the flowers on this grass yellow? Why does this flower smell sweet? This one yucky? This one no smell at all? Why do some grass have flowers and some don’t? What is a flower? Why do some plants grow tall and some grow close to the ground? Why is this plant a vine? Why do some vines grow berries? Why is it safe to eat some berries and not others? Why is this plant over here growing in the wet soil but not over here in the dry soil?

Where does the water in the creek come from? Where does the water go? Why is the water level in the creek sometimes high and sometimes low? Why is there a bank of sand in the creek? Where did the sand come from? Why are fish in the creek? What do the fish eat? Why are the fish so small? Look, over here! What kind of animal is that swimming? Why does it wiggle its tail like that when swimming? Why is trash in the creek? Where did the trash come from? What harm does the trash do?

How come manholes are out here in the woods? Who made the manholes? Who made the manhole iron covers? Why do the manholes make the sound of rushing water? How are the manholes and the covers on them connected to the history of Atlanta and the area around Beecher Hills Elementary?

What kind of birds are those hopping and taking short flights along the greenway? What do the birds eat? Do the birds live in the woods or fly in? What is that circling overhead? A hawk? A vulture? Why is it circling instead of flying straight ahead? Why is it soaring higher and higher yet not flapping its wings? Why are some birds a lot bigger than other birds? How come birds can fly? How are people like birds?

What kind of spider is this? Why has it spun a web of circles high off the ground and between two trees? How did it manage to get from one tree to the other tree to anchor its web? Do all spiders spin the same kind of web? Are some spiders helpful to people? Are all spiders helpful to nature?

Look, a snail! Why does it move so slowly? Why does it have a shell? Why does it leave a trail of slime behind? Why do snails have antenna? Can snails see? Do they have eyes? How do snails eat? Do snails have a mouth? What do snails eat?

How come ants can walk so fast for their size? And carry so much for their size? Where are the ants going? Where are they coming from? Why are they trailing each other? Why do two ants stop to greet each other when passing in the opposite direction? Why do ants have antenna? What kind of eyes do ants have? Why do ants have six legs? How many parts to an ant’s leg? Why do ant bodies have three segments? Why do ants sting? What happens to me when an ant stings me? How many ants are in the world? How are ants helpful to people? How are people like ants?

Why is the dirt red? What lives in the dirt? What kind of rock is this?

And much, much and many, many more opportunities for magical play and learning in and from the extended backyard of Beecher Hills Elementary School!

So, a playground for Beecher Hills Elementary School being little more than an outdoor gym set?

Sure, but why just that? What reason could it be except adults’ deeply held need to exercise conventional command-and-control of children playing and learning what adults have been decided for the children to play and learn?

Well, the greenway trails offer a clear and present alternative, or at least a supplement, to the conventional. And the alternative is right there in Beecher Hills Elementary Schools’ extended backyard. Awesome!

Ed Johnson
Advocate for Quality in Public Education
Atlanta GA

Georgia Teachers Continue to Impress: 2014 CRCT Results in Context

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In this post I am going to show why I think Georgia teachers continue to impress, especially when we look at the 2014 CRCT results in the context of the past decade.

In the wake of the Vergara v California tentative decision in which the plaintiffs claimed that lurking in many California classrooms were “grossly ineffective teachers.,” you have to wonder what is their evidence.  They had NO facts to support this contention.  The data they did present was in the form of opinions, and discredited VAM data in which good and bad teachers are identified using student test scores.

For more than 30 years, I worked with thousands of teachers, not only here in Georgia, but in many other states, and countries.  When I first read the Vergera v California decision, and saw the phrase “grossly ineffective teachers,” I had to admit that I must have lived in another universe.  There may be ineffective teachers in our classrooms, but the court case only reinforced my view that the teaching profession is under assault, and that the assault is being led by what Diane Ravitch calls, The Billionaire’s Boys Club.  In the Vergara case, the club member was David Welch, founder of Students Matter, an organization set up just for the Vergara case.  Welsh was able to use millions of dollars to hire a legal team of who’s who in constitutional law, which was the basis for the Vergara case.

Around the country, state departments of education are releasing the results of standardized tests, many of which are mandated through the No Child Left Behind Law.

In Georgia, we give the Criterion Referenced Competency Test (CRCT) to students in grades 1 – 8 in reading, language arts, math, science, and social studies.  At the high school level End of Course Tests (EOCT) are given in math, science, social studies, and English language arts.

On June 13, the Georgia Department of Education released the 2014 CRCT scores for the state, along with scores from last year for comparison (school and district results will be released later this month).

Figure 1 shows the 8th grade CRCT test results for the past seven years in reading, language arts, math, science and social studies.  The line graph clearly shows that scores in all tested subjects have trended up.  Since 2008 (actually, we can go back to 2000, the year the CRCT’s were used) the scores have gone up.  Three linear trend lines are included in the chart for reading, math and science, and all of them show growth, not stagnation, or depreciation.

There are 8 graphs in the chart.  The blue, red, green, purple, & light blue shows the CRCT scores for the five tested subjects that are identified on the right side of the chart.  The other three graphs are straight lines, each trending up, that shows the linear trend for reading (at the top), then science and finally math.  If, like the judge in Vergara Lawsuit claims, that there is a causal link between student scores and teacher ability, then we might conclude that teachers in Georgia are doing a good job “and have caused student scores to go up.”****

Figure 1. CRCT 8th Grade  Scores with Linear Projections for Tested Subjects

Figure 1. CRCT 8th Grade Scores with Linear Projections for Tested Subjects

***However,  I don’t believe that there is a causal link between student test scores and teacher ability.  If there is, it’s very small.  There are simply too many other variables that affect student’s ability to do well on standardized tests.  Very credible research shows that at best, only 30% of student’s academic success is attributable to schools, and that teachers are only a small part of the effect of school.  As noted elsewhere, the most significant factor affecting a student’s academic success is socioeconomic status (See, Berliner and Glass, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education.)


Look at Figure 2.  In this chart, we’ve used a control chart using average scores calculated from 8th CRCT scores in reading, language arts, math, science and social studies.  We might think of this as a student’s “CRCT Average” (aka Grade Point Average).   Based on the data for the past seven years, we have calculated the upper and lower control limits for the CRCT Average, and we see a controlled increase in scores over the years.   There are no radical changes from one year to the next, and indeed, over the seven-year period, student scores fall within predicted limits.

We can say, based on this data, that Georgia teachers have done nothing but help students improve their scores on the CRCT standardized tests.  Perhaps we could add that as students work with Georgia teachers, scores go up.

Figure 2. Trend of Average Score on 8th Grade CRCT's in Tested Subjects
Figure 2. Trend of Average Score on 8th Grade CRCT’s in Tested Subjects


When we look at the average scores for Georgia on the 8th grade battery of CRCT tests in reading, language arts, math, science and social studies, we notice that the variation is within the limits we would expect, but more importantly, the variation in scores has decreased over time.

This is important.  Public school education in Georgia, based on these data show a system that is stable, not unstable, nor failing.

Figure 3. Variation of CRCT Scores
Figure 3. Variation of CRCT Scores

Improving education is clearly a goal of teachers.  By and large teachers are dedicated professionals who are interested in helping their students learn, and learn to love the subjects they teach.

Teaching is an art, not a business that some think can be regulated by an accountability system that provides little flexibility for teachers to carry out their work with students.  The so-called reform of education is based on an industrial culture that sees teaching as a mechanical system that can be measured, weighed and evaluated using spreadsheets.  This nonsense.


This is a serious problem, in Georgia and around the country.  Bureaucrats (many of them former teachers) at the Georgia Department of Education have become convinced that teachers and schools can be monitored and evaluated with big data that is pouring into their computers at an ever increasing rate.

This is not what teaching and learning are about.

As long as this blog exists, it will be based on the art of teaching and the wisdom of practice.

It appears to me that the wisdom of practice is alive and well in Georgia.  What do you think?


Science is a Way of Thinking: So, Why Do We Try and Standardize it?


Figure 1. Carl Sagan and the Universe. Copyright sillyrabbitmythsare4kids, Creative Common Figure 1. Carl Sagan and the Universe. Copyright sillyrabbitmythsare4kids, Creative Commons

Science has been prominent in the media recently.  Stories and programs including the Bill Nye-Ken Ham “debate” on origins, anti-science legislation in Wyoming banning  science standards that include climate science, a new science program on the Science Channel to be hosted by Craig Ferguson, and this weekend, the first of a 13-part series entitled Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey hosted by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Tyson’s series is based on the Carl Sagan’s 1980 13-part TV series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.   Dr. Tyson is an astrophysicist, and Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center of Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History.  Dr. Tyson has been called this generation’s “Carl Sagan” through his exuberance and public communication of science.

In this post I want to reminisce on science teaching, especially from what I learned from the work (film, print, teaching, research, and public presentations) of Dr. Carl Sagan.  Sagan was the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and Director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University.  Throughout my career I found Sagan’s philosophy important in my work as a university science educator, and want to share some of my thoughts.

51Fn+Y-IhnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Sagan was a prolific writer, and throughout his career, he not only popularized science to millions of people, he also helped us understand the nature of science, and for science teachers, how that philosophy would contribute to our professional work.  One of his books, Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (public library), became a kind of handbook on the philosophy of science teaching.  I am sure that Sagan didn’t intend it this way, but  it surely reached me in this way.

At the beginning of Broca’s Brain, Sagan says this about science:

SCIENCE IS A WAY of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge. Its goal is to find out how the world works, to seek what regularities there may be, to penetrate to the connections of things—from subnuclear particles, which may be the constituents of all matter, to living organisms, the human social community, and thence to the cosmos as a whole.  Sagan, Carl (2011-07-06). Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (Kindle Locations 344-346). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Sagan also wrote that science is “based on experiment, on a willingness to challenge old dogma, on an openness to see the universe as it really is.  To him, science sometimes requires courage to question the conventional wisdom.”  Questioning established ideas, or proposing a radically different hypothesis to explain data is a courageous act, according to Sagan.  Quite often people who propose such ideas are shunned, or rejected by the “establishment,” including governments and religious groups.

To what extent to encourage students to question ideas, and even to propose new ideas?


Many years ago Rachel Carson wrote a book entitled A Sense of Wonder. It was one of my favorites, and I remember and have used one quote from the book many times: “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.” Carson’s passionate book conveys the feelings that most science teachers have for their craft, and their goal is to instill in their students, “A Sense of Wonder.”

Enter Carl Sagan and his views on wonder.

Although Carl Sagan died in 1996, his partner in film production and writing, and his wife, Ann Druyan published a book several years ago (The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God) based on lectures he gave in Glasgow, Scotland in 1985.  Now she is the Executive Producer and writer of Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, based on her husband’s original Cosmos series.

To me Sagan was one of the most influential science educators of our time, and I am very happy that Dr. Tyson is hosting a new rendition of his television series.  By making his knowledge and personal views of science accessible to the public (through his writings, speeches, TV appearances, and film production), Sagan helped many see the beauty and wonder in the cosmos. You of course remember is famous, “billions and billions.” He encouraged us to look again at the stars, at the cosmos and to imagine other worlds, beings, if you will. He worked with NASA to make sure that the first space vehicle to leave the Solar System would contain messages that could be interpreted by intelligent life so that they might know of us—Earth beings.

In Varieties of Scientific Experience, areas are explored that we all want to know about. Areas that many have been forced to separate in their experiences—that is science and religion. Sagan, as much as anyone, was well qualified to give lectures on science and religion. He understood religion. He read and could recite scripture. He could argue religion with scholars in the field, and carried on debates on subjects that many scientists resisted.

In the introduction to the book, Druyan comments that for Sagan, Darwin’s insight that life evolved over eons through natural selection was not just better science than Genesis, it afforded us with a “deeper, more spiritual experience.” I thought it was interesting that Druyan also points out that Sagan, who always comments on the vastness and grandeur of the universe, believed we know very little of this universe, and as a result very little about the spiritual, about God. Sagan used analogies to help us understand this vastness. He was famous for this statement: the total number of stars in the universe is greater than all the grains of sand in all of the Earth’s beaches! This is where billions and billions came from.

So what is this musing about. Science teaching is about wonder. It is about bringing to wide-eyed kids the sense of wonder that Rachel Carson wrote about, and Carl Sagan expressed in all of his work.

Thinking Big

Figure 3. Carl Sagan. source:
Figure 3. Carl Sagan. source:  Creative Commons

Sagan was one scientist who was willing to think big.  Lots of science teachers that I know also think big.  They bring to their students a world that is “far out” and challenging, and in this quest, pique their student’s curiosity.

Thinking Big in science teaching means we bring students in contact with interesting questions, ones that continue to pique our curiosity, and ones that are sure to interest students.  Where did we come from?  Are we alone in the Universe?  How big is the Universe?  Are we the only planet with living things?

A really good example of “thinking big” is NASA’s Carl Sagan Exoplanet Fellowship. The Sagan program supports

outstanding recent postdoctoral scientists to conduct independent research that is broadly related to the science goals of the NASA Exoplanet Exploration area. The primary goal of missions within this program is to discover and characterize planetary systems and Earth-like planets around nearby stars. Fellowship recipients receive financial support to conduct research at a host institution in the US for a period of up to three years. See NExScI at NASA.

Risk Taking

Carl Sagan was willing to take risks. Sagan took issue with two significant developments that occurred during the Reagan administration, namely the Strategic Defense Initiative (using X-ray lasers in space to shoot down enemy missiles), and the idea that nuclear war was winnable.  In the later case, Sagan developed the concept of a “nuclear winter” arguing that fires from a nuclear holocaust would create smoke and dust that would cut out the sun’s rays leading to a global cooling—perhaps threatening agriculture and leading to global famine.  He incensed the right-wing, according to Mooney & Kirshenbaum, and in particular William F. Buckley.  But Sagan held firm on his ideas, supported by other scientists, and even resisted accepting White House invitations to dinner.  Sagan’s criticism of SDI was supported by other scientists, especially Hans Bethe who authored a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The standards-based approach to science education does not encourage risk taking.  As Grant Lichtman in his book The Falconer (public library) has said, our present approach to science only encourages kids to answer question, not to question.  There is little risk taking in our approach to science teaching.   In an earlier article, I wrote this about Grant Lichtman’s philosophy of teaching:

One of the aspects of Grant’s book that I appreciate is that the central theme of his book is the importance of asking questions.  We have established a system of education based on what we know and what we expect students to know at every grade level.  The standards-based curriculum dulls the mind by it’s over reliance on a set of expectations or performances that every child should know.  In this approach, students are not encouraged to ask questions.  But, they are expected to choose the correct answer.  In Lichtman’s view, education will only change if we overtly switch our priorities from giving answers to a process of finding new questions.  This notion sounds obvious, but we have gone off the cliff because of the dual forces of standards-based curriculum and high-stakes assessments.

Lichtman writes:

Questions are waypoints on the path of wisdom. Each question leads to one or more new questions or answers. Sometimes answers are dead ends; they don’t lead anywhere. Questions are never dead ends. Every question has the inherent potential to lead to a new level of discovery, understanding, or creation, levels that can range from the trivial to the sublime.  Lichtman, Grant (2010-05-25). The Falconer (Kindle Locations 967-971). iUniverse. Kindle Edition.

Science and Society

Carl Sagan exemplified, just as Neil deGrasse Tyson is now doing, the important of science in a democratic society.  Science education has a responsibility for considering Sagan and Tyson’s philosophy that science should be in the service of people.  People need to understand science.  In Sagan’s view:

All inquiries carry with them some element of risk. There is no guarantee that the universe will conform to our predispositions. But I do not see how we can deal with the universe—both the outside and the inside universe—without studying it. The best way to avoid abuses is for the populace in general to be scientifically literate, to understand the implications of such investigations. In exchange for freedom of inquiry, scientists are obliged to explain their work. If science is considered a closed priesthood, too difficult and arcane for the average person to understand, the dangers of abuse are greater. But if science is a topic of general interest and concern—if both its delights and its social consequences are discussed regularly and competently in the schools, the press, and at the dinner table—we have greatly improved our prospects for learning how the world really is and for improving both it and us.  Sagan, Carl (2011-07-06). Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (Kindle Locations 331-337). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Science is a Way of Thinking: So, Why Do We Try and Standardize it?  Do you think there is mismatch between Sagan’s view of science and the standards-based approach to teaching?  


Science Ideas Have a History: The Case for Interdisciplinary Thinking

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Figure 1.  How was this tool used to "discover" the background radiation made by the Big Bang?  Figure 1. How was this tool used to “discover” the background radiation made by the Big Bang?

In a piece published on the Chronicle of Higher Education, Alejandra Dubcovsky, professor of history at Yale University, says  “to understand science, study history.

Indeed, science teachers have used some stories surrounding the history of science to help students understand the context of science, science research, and the relationship between science and society.

Science taught without a context becomes rote learning.  Helping students highlight connections between themselves, science, history and society provides a context for learning.  In the end, it’s a more powerful way to learn [science].

In Professor Dubcovsky’s view, there should be a dialogue between the humanities and STEM majors.  I agree with this position, and would, however, extend this to middle and high school students curriculum studies.

Dubcovsky gives us a powerful rationale for working toward interconnections between history and science.  She says:

Second, beyond the often-missed practical gains, I was developing a historical sensitivity. I realized, quite simply, that things had a past. The things we think of as inherent are, in fact, social and historical constructions, often with complicated and unpleasant roots. That sensitivity to the past and to the structures that shape our present is essential to all students and professionals.

She goes on to say that she wants future biologists, neuroscientists, engineers, and physicists to be aware that their disciplines have a history.  And I would add, this connection is as important at the middle and high school level because it underscores the value of interdisciplinary teaching, sorely needed in times when “disciplinary” thinking rules the day, e.g. content or discipline based core standards in language arts, math, and science.

Ideas Have a History

Don’t you like that notion.  Ideas have a history, and more than that, ideas are not pulled from a vacuum, but are connected.  One book I would point us to is Stephen Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From (public library).  And in the context of this post, good ideas (bad ones, too) have a history, and that connection makes for interdisciplinary thinking.

Figure 2. Cover of Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From.

Since every idea has a history, there is a plethora of “case studies” with literature, films, plays, music that can be brought to bear on the idea, thus humanizing the study of science.  In my writing, I’ve used the history and people behind great ideas to help students understand the values, beliefs, prejudices, and all the rest that can be brought to bear to understand the history of ideas–indeed our own history.

Here are some questions I’ve used to probe the connection between history, cultural beliefs, and science.

  • Why didn’t Rosalind Franklin receive the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA?
  • Albert Einstein, the pure scientist and thinker, sent the “Uranium” letter to President Roosevelt in 1939.  What was this letter about, and why did Einstein sign the letter?
  • Who was Benjamin Banneker, and what observations did he use to publish his almanac during Colonial America?
  • How did Charles Darwin’s religious views affect his work as a naturalist and the co-discoverer of the basis for evolution of life?
  • In what ways did Rachel Carson’s research and later publication of Silent Spring (library copy) show courage?  What forces were brought to bear to try to dispose of Carson’s ideas?
  • Francis Kelsey is known to me and others as the doctor who said no.  Her work as a government pharmacologist prevented the marketing of the drug, Kevadon (known as thalidomide).  What were the implications of her saying no, and what political and corporate forces did she push back?
  • Why did Galileo come under house arrest for supporting Copernicus’ sun-centered universe?  Who would bring Galileo to trial for writing a book entitled Dialog Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (library copy).

When I arrived at undergraduate school many years ago, I was accepted into the history department.  However,  before classes began, I decided to take a math and science examination.  I passed the test, and decided then to become a science/math major.  However, the study of history has always been a part of my interest.  In fact, one of the most important courses I took in high school was a course in modern political science.  It was taught as a research-based course full of dialog and collaboration.  Each of us had to write a series of research papers which were read not only by our teacher, but by a Boston College history professor.  You can imagine how thrilled we were when we got positive feedback on our writing from a college professor.

On this blog, I’ve written a number of posts on subjects that relate to how ideas have a history, and why it is important to help students explore ideas in this way.  Here are some ideas related to the intersection of the invention of air and Early American history.

The Invention of Air and Early American History

Seems like a strange connection between how air was analyzed , and early American history.  In earlier posts I’ve written about a humanistic science paradigm to reform of science teaching—one that attempts to think in wholes, and values interdisciplinary thinking, not only among fields in science, but across disciplines to include science, history, politics and religion.

Several years ago I purchased one of Steven Johnson’s books The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America.

Screen Shot 2014-02-28 at 12.06.48 PM
Figure 3. Cover of The Invention of Air by Johnson

After reading Steven Johnson’s book about Joseph Priestley, I realized that perhaps he (Johnson) was writing a story about someone who attempted to cross disciplines in the spirit of the humanistic paradigm.  The book describes  events that involve science, faith, revolution in 18th Century England, and into the early part 19th Century America.  At the center of these events, was Joseph Priestley, a minister and a scientist (natural philosophy).

Priestley had published more than 500 books and pamphlets, had won prestigious prizes in science (he isolated oxygen, and was the first to discover that plants expire oxygen), wrote important books in science, religion and politics.  Yet, in 1794, he was “the most hated man in all of Britain” according to Johnson.  He escaped to America that year, and settled in rural Pennsylvania, where he became the most celebrated scientist in the country, and became a very close friend of Thomas Jefferson.   While in England he joined with Benjamin Franklin and other intellectuals at The London Coffee House in St. Paul’s Churchyard, and laid the plans to write one of the most important books in science: The History and Present State of Electricity with Original Experiments (1769).  The book was the result of collaboration with other experimenters of the day, among them Benjamin Franklin.  You can read the original book at the previous link, and I think you will find it interesting to the visit the site, and look the book over.

Priestley was also an educator (he collaborated with Thomas Jefferson on the curriculum of the University of Virginia), and published an important book on English grammar.  As a minister, he led a dissenting congregation in England, which led to the formation of the Unitarian church in England.  He wrote two major books on the history of Christianity, and indeed influenced Thomas Jefferson’s view of religion (see The Jefferson Bible).

During the period of Priestley life, paradigm shifts were happening in several fields, each of which involved Joseph Priestley.  For example, in science, Johnson suggests that Priestley helped bring about the organizing principle of the ecosystem through his experiments with plants, animals and air.  Today the ecosystem paradigm has been subsumed by Earth System Science, and provides a framework for work done today in various fields of science.  The American and French revolutions were underway during his lifetime, and Johnson depicts Priestley as important to America’s “founding fathers” especially John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin.   He written years before he came to America An Essay on the (). the realm of religion he led a movement in England that led to the formation of the Unitarian church there, and influenced the thinking of the “founding fathers” in this realm as well.

Priestley was a progressive of the Enlightenment Period, and like many progressives suffered the wrath of those who didn’t agree with his philosophies.  In 1791, his church and house was burned to the ground destroying all of his property, and laboratories.  He later fled to America with his family.

There is such a richness in the human side of science and I hope that this post encourages you to consider the application and value of thinking across disciplines, and helping students see how they can relate to ideas that others struggled to develop.

What are some examples of “ideas have history” that you use with your students? 

Instead of School’s Industrial Culture, Students Need the Freedom to Learn

For the past 13 years, American schools have endured a rebirth of an “industrial culture” that is the product of “mechanistic age thinking,” described in-depth by Russell L. Ackoff (public library) in his writings, speeches, interviews and courses.  This rebirth has been waved over us by reformers whose self-interests, wealth, and corporate networks have resulted in a movement to privatize, and standardize education in the context of the American democracy.

I am going to argue here that instead of this industrial culture, teachers and students need to the freedom to teach and learn.  Nothing less is acceptable.

For most of my adult life, I have been involved in humanistic psychology and education, and have promoted holistic and experiential learning, especially in science, and science education. My development in this attempt has been influenced by many people, including theorists, scientists, close colleagues and fiends, fellow teacher educators, and especially practitioners in classrooms around the U.S., Russia and Spain.

Freedom to Learn

The freedom to learn is not only a philosophy of life, but it is a theoretical idea that can be applied to professional teaching K-college.  When a child is born, her parents do what they can to offer an environment for exploration, discovery, and play.  In this context, parents are creating an environment where the child has the freedom to learn.  This idea should be at the heart of teaching at any level–from pre-school education to advanced graduate work.

Figure 1. The synonyms of the word freedom appearing from a search on Wordle, © 2013 Jonathan Feinberg
Figure 1. The synonyms of the word freedom appearing from a search on Wordle, © 2013 Jonathan Feinberg

Acting on the philosophy of freedom to learn does not lead to a classroom of disorder, chaos, abandon or laissez-faire.  Freedom to learn has many interpretations and applications.  The word cloud that is shown in Figure 1 is word cloud of a search the word “freedom” on

Many of these words characterize classrooms where teachers are working cooperatively with students to create an environment in which students are participants in some or all aspects of the course, program or grade level.  Which of these words would you select to describe your approach to teaching?  What words would you add to this cloud map?

For example, in an introductory college geology course, I worked with students individually to name the content, concepts and laboratory activities they would pursue in a one-semester geology course.  If two or more students choose similar topics, they would team up and work out a plan of investigation.  In all cases, students would be involved in teaching the rest of the class what they were studying and what they were learning.

In courses in humanistic education/psychology, several sessions were held among the instructor and students to cooperatively create the syllabus, activities, and assignments for the course.  In other courses, (actually all of my courses) no tests were given.  Students, instead either wrote a contract outlining their aims and how they would meet them.  In other cases, students would keep an elaborate portfolio of their work, which would be evaluated by a team of instructors, followed by an interview with the student and instructors.

For my professional work as a teacher, freedom to learn meant cooperation among students and instructors.  We learned together.  In most courses, students could read what ever they wanted to read, and were simply asked to comment on what they got out of the reading.  Team learning was at the heart of learning in these courses.  It didn’t matter if it was an introductory science course, a course in pedagogy, curriculum, or research.  All them were organized as team learning experiences.

I carried this model with me to the Bureau of Education and Research (BER), and from 1990 – 2003, I conducted hundreds of seminars for middle and high school science teachers (normally 50 – 150 teachers in a seminar).  At each seminar, teachers worked in teams, and explored the content of the seminar (science teaching strategies, cooperative learning, Internet-based teaching) experientially.  There was little to no lecturing, instead students engaged in professional dialogue and discussions brought about through a series of collaborative activities and investigations.

While I was a graduate student at The Ohio State University in the 1960s (yup, that’s right), my advisor, Dr. John Richardson, suggested that I read Carl Rogers’ book, On Becoming a Person (public library).  You can read between the lines, but I think he had something in mind for me.  But later in my life, when I read what others have written about this book by Rogers–that it was revolutionary thinking–did I realize how significant Richardson’s recommendation was for me.

In 1969, the year that I finished my Ph.D. at Ohio State, Rogers published Freedom to Learn (public library), the most important book published to date on humanistic education.  The book became the guide that I used as a professor of science education at Georgia State University, where I worked from 1969-2003.  It was a guide in the sense that it encouraged me to be experimental with my courses, and the programs that I developed, and working with others at GSU, had the gumption to swim upstream away from more traditional approaches to teaching and especially, teacher education.

Carl Rogers, in his book, Freedom to Learn, shifted the focus from to teaching to learning. In fact in this groundbreaking book, he confessed that anything that can be taught to another is relatively inconsequential, and has little or no significant influence on behavior. He wrote that “this sounds so ridiculous I can’t help but question it at the same time that I present it.”

Anything that can be taught to another is relatively inconsequential…Rogers, Carl, 1969, Freedom to Learn

Rogers shift in thinking was a critical transformation in his own views about teaching and learning.  To him the purpose of teaching is to facilitate the learning of students.  His view, which is quoted below, is a personal one, yet at the same time it is powerful in exposing the virtues of learning. Here is what he said:

I realize increasingly that I can only interested in learnings which significantly influence behavior. Quite possibly this is simply a personal idiosyncrasy.

I have come to feel that the only learning which significantly influences behavior is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning.

Such self-discovered learning, truth that has been personally appropriated and assimilated in experience, cannot be directly communicated to another.

The Rogerian principle, “Self-discovered learning cannot be directly communicated to another” is in direct conflict with the reform agenda that has grasped nearly every school in America.  When you really listen to these so-called reformers, especially the words of Bill Gates, they believe that students either absorb content “given out by the teacher,” or their brains are simply receptacles which are filled up (or not) by teachers.  And of course, they put the nail in coffin by narrowly defining  and measuring how much the cup is filled by giving a multiple choice test which may or may not be related to the content and curriculum the students experienced.

All Together

There are some ideas that I’d like to explore here that I hope will amplify my belief that all students, at any level, should be given the freedom to learn.  I’ll start with the writing of Fritjof Capra, a theoretical physicist who has written ground breaking books including The Tao of Physics (public library), The Turning Point (public library) , The Web of Life (public library), and The Hidden Connections (public library).

My reason for starting here is that Capra’s views are holistic and systemic which is fundamental if we are to truly reform education.  Capra’s ideas, which he developed over a period of decades using a form of research which relies on dialogs and discussions with people and small groups of colleagues.  His ideas are important and what follows is a brief discussion of some of his ideas and how they might be applied to learning.

In 1975, Capra wrote the groundbreaking book entitled The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism (public library).  In Capra’s view, the natural world is one of “infinite varieties and complexities; a multidimensional world which has no straight lines or completely regular shapes, where things do not happen in sequences, but all together.”  Capra viewed the Eastern philosophy as a new paradigm, one that was holistic and integrated, and not a dissociated collection of parts.

It is this essential idea that forms for me the starting place to discuss learning.  Learning is holistic and integrated, and for learning to happen, students must have the freedom to learn.  For this to happen, cooperation needs to assert itself as an important aspect of establishing a teaching and learning environment.  An idea that follows here is that teachers could work with students to help them choose what, when and how students learn.  As radical as it might sound, I’ll explore this idea with theoretical, experiential, and personal data.

When we design school for learning (instead of teaching), principles drawn from our understanding of nature will go a long way in giving us clues and directions.  In this regards, Capra made this statement in his book The Hidden Connections (public library):

The design principles of our future social institutions must be consistent with the principles of organization that nature has evolved to sustain the web of life.  A unified conceptual framework for the understanding of material and social structures will be essential for this task.  Capra, F. 2002. The Hidden Connections: Integrating the Biological, Cognitive, and Social Dimensions of Life into a Science of Sustainability.

As teachers we should consider applying Capra’s framework to the structures of learning and teaching that we experience as professional teachers, whether it be pre-school, or graduate school.  Learning is a web–an interconnection of ideas, people, events, experiences, attitudes, opinions….

Capra suggests an intriguing idea in his latest book.  What would have happened if Leonardo’s ideas were the basis for 19th and 20th century science?

Screen Shot 2014-01-21 at 7.49.56 PMCapra, in The Science of Leonardo  (public library), argues that the true founder of Western science was Leonardo (1452-1519), not Galileo (1564-1642). However, it was the science of Galileo that influenced later scientists (Newton, 1643-1727) who stood on Galileo’s shoulders.

Capra wonders what would have happened if these 16th – 18th century scientists had discovered Leonardo’s manuscripts, which were “gathering dust in ancient European libraries. You see, Capra shows that Leonardo’s view was a synthesis of art and science, and indeed science was alive, and indeed science was “whole.” Leonardo was ahead of his time in understanding life: he conceived life in terms of metabolic processes and their patterns or organization.

Capra suggests that Leonardo, instead of being simply an analytic thinker, was actually a systemic thinker preceding the lineage established by scientists and philosophers including Wolfgang von Goethe, Georges Cuvier, Charles Darwin, and Vladimir Vernadsky.  Would it be fair to suggest that Capra’s uncovering of Leonardo’s holistic view of science a rationale to critique the Next Generation of Science Standards which have divided science into its traditional offerings, and further broken each science into bite sized student performance?  Just a thought.

Needless to say, thinking in wholes has an immediate application to learning.  Instead of the industrial model of breaking content into behavioral sentences (behavioral objectives!), student performances, or to be on the side of the industrial reformists, core standards in math, science, and language arts, we need to reject these ideas, and argue for a transformation that focuses on learning, learning how to learn, giving students the freedom to learn.

Freedom to Think in Wholes

Fritjof Capra’s research has led to a greater understanding of systemic and complex systems, including learning and schooling.  His contentions are a social system (such as a classroom or a school) is a self-generation network of communications.  According to Capra, we can’t direct a social system, only disturb it.  Our creativity and adaptability arises at critical points of instability of the system.  Leadership (a teacher in a classroom, or the principal of a school) is really the facilitation of a learning culture in which questioning and innovation are encouraged.

Thinking in wholes, networking, webs, interconnections, or systems opens a different kind of world for us, especially in the teaching and learning profession.  In his new book, The Systems Thinking School (public library) Peter A. Barnard states that systems thinking seeks interconnectivity.  His book is a powerful thesis on how systems thinking can be applied to schooling.  Although his book is for the transformation of schools, it can also be applied to the transformation of the classroom.

In this next quote from Barnard, he talks about the school as a system.  Read the quote, substituting schools with classrooms, and step back and take a look at our own places of work.  If we think of the classroom as a system, and face many of the assumptions that have restricted us, what possibilities do you see?

Schools have to somehow see and come to terms with the idea that not all is as it seems and that many assumptions about learning and school systems management no longer work but remain endemic to our thinking. To confront the system that a school operates for the basket case it is, with all its illusory fixes and reforms, means exposing assumptions and looking again at the underpinning management knowledge base. In effect, schools have to unlearn the false rationale of separatist, component, tool-box thinking if they are to prevent old ideas and assumptions from hitching a ride with them on the road to school improvement.  Barnard, Peter A. (2013-09-19). The Systems Thinking School: Redesigning Schools from the Inside-Out (Leading Systemic School Improvement) (Kindle Locations 368-372). R&L Education. Kindle Edition.

 What is your view of learning?  To what extent do think it is possible to give students the freedom to learn?