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?  


The Universe of Learning and a Sense of Wonder


This is Part One of Bill Moyers’ interview with astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Tyson is director of the Hayden Planetarium, at the American Museum of Natural History.  In the interviews with Moyers, Dr. Tyson explores the nature of an expanding universe, accelerating universe, the differences between “dark energy” and “dark” matter, the concept of God in cosmology and why science matters.

On March 9, Tyson hosts a new television series entitled Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.  Cosmos is an updated version of the PBS series COSMOS by Carl Sagan.

In the last two posts, I wrote about anti-science and unreason being played out by the actions of the Georgia Legislature in their decision to throw the curriculum of K-12 schooling into the hands of an appointed committee.

Figure 2. Carl Sagan. source:
Figure 2. Carl Sagan. source:

Today, I want to focus on the thinking of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan to bring “a sense of wonder” to our understanding of learning and teaching.  In 1980, PBS broadcast Sagan’s 13-part COSMOS series, and it became one of the most important PBS documentaries that brought a level of understanding and wonder to audiences, from young students to adults.  Now, in 2014, Dr. Tyson returns to Sagan’s Cosmos, and using new technology presents a new version for us the enjoy.  If you Google “images of Carl Sagan,” you will also find on the same page, many images of Neil deGrasse Tyson.  As we watch the new series, we see how these two scientists shared similar visions for teaching and learning.

Here is bit of information about the new series:

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is an upcoming American documentary television series. It is a follow-up to the 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which was presented by Carl Sagan. The new series’ presenter will be Neil deGrasse Tyson. The executive producers are Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow. The series will premiere on March 9, 2014 simultaneously in the US across ten 21st Century Fox networks, including National Geographic Channel, Nat Geo WILD, and Fox Life. The remainder of the series will air on Fox with Nat Geo rebroadcasting the episodes the next day with extra content.  (Wikipedia, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey)

One of my beliefs about learning is that whatever is studied should be of prime interest to the learner, to the students.  There is no body of knowledge that all students need to learn.  We do not have scientific evidence for this.  In this standards-based era of eduction, we’ve been convinced that all kids need to learn the same set of standards or same set of content.

We shouldn’t support this idea.

Instead learning should be about a sense of wonder.  Tyson and Sagan speak the language of wonder when they speak about the universe, science and learning.

Sagan and Tyson insist that we think big, that we bring students in contact with interesting questions, ones that continue to piqué their curiosity, and ones that are sure to interest them.  Where did we come from?  Are we alone in the Universe?  How big is the Universe?  Are we the only planet with living things?

In an age when we test students on content that is mandated, it is refreshing to think about content and learning that can open student’s eyes to a world full of wonder.

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.”

What is your universe?  How can we as teachers instill a sense of wonder into schooling?

Jack Hills Zircon: Evidence of a Very Old Earth

Latest Story

In a report published in Nature Geoscience, a scientific team studying rocks in Australia, used Australian zircons in the Jack Hills that are embedded in the rocks to decide the age and history of these rocks.

They found evidence that the Earth’s crust first formed at least 4.4 billion years ago.  They analyzed the atoms in zircons and used them like a clock to decide when they were formed.  The clock inside the zircon is the radioactive element uranium, and over time it becomes lead.  Follow this to how zircon is used to date rocks.

Figure 1. 4.4 billion-year-old zircon crystal which is used to determine the age of the Earth.  Credit: John W. Valley/University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Figure 1. 4.4 billion-year-old zircon crystal which is used to determine the age of the Earth. Credit: John W. Valley/University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Zircon, a silicate mineral, is like a buried clock that has ticked from the time it formed or crystallized in molten magma.  Zircon crystals are tiny, but very resistant to geological process, including erosion and metamorphism.  Zircons can survive these processes, and the clock keeps ticking.

According to the researchers:

The Earth was assembled from a lot of heterogeneous material from the solar system,” Valley explains, noting that the early Earth experienced intense bombardment by meteors, including a collision with a Mars-sized object about 4.5 billion years ago “that formed our moon, and melted and homogenized the Earth. Our samples formed after the magma oceans cooled and prove that these events were very early.

Figure 2.  Time Line for a Very Old Earth showing the relationship of the Australian Jack Hills Zircon and the geological timeline of Earth. Photo: Andree Valley/University of Wisonsin-Madison.
Figure 2. Time Line for a Very Old Earth showing the relationship of the Australian Jack Hills Zircon and the geological timeline of Earth. Photo: Andree Valley/University of Wisonsin-Madison.

Although zircons were not mentioned in the recent Bill Nye and Ken Ham Debate on evolution, this research study surely adds to Bill Nye’s idea that the record in layers of rocks, ice cores, tree rings, and fossils provides evidence that the earth is very old.  On the other hand, Ken Ham would dispute the findings in the research study on Australian zircons because this is historical science, and we were not there to see this.

According to the researchers, the zircon data “confirms their view of how the Earth cooled very early“, and became habitable, pushing back even further when life began on earth.

Whether we like or not, the debate on the age of the Earth still goes on.  Nye’s ideas are supported, while Ham will continue to resist agreeing with the findings because his ideology is so strong that he will hold on to his “young earth conception.”

What are your views on the value of the Jack Hills’ zircon findings in discussions of the age of the Earth?



What Would the Russian Scientist, V.I. Vernadsky Say To Deepen the Debate Between Bill Nye & Ken Ham?

Note: I didn’t lead three lives, but I did go to the Soviet Union more than 25 times!

From 1981 – 2000,  I was part of group of students, teachers and researchers who participated in reciprocal trips to the former Soviet Union as part of the Global Thinking Project (GTP).  During this period I traveled to Russia more than 25 times.  In 1989 I met Dr. Anatoly Zaklebyney, a professor of biology and ecology and a member of the Russian Academy of Education in Moscow.  The GTP in Russia was organized by the Russian Academy of Education, and it was through that connection that Anatoly and I met and became close friends. He was one of the most respected ecology and environmental educators in Russia, and had been involved in the development of environmental education teaching materials, as well as in directing environmental science teacher education seminars in the summer in Siberia.  It was Anatoly who introduced me to Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky, whose ideas influenced the GTP, and our own understanding of the biosphere, geology, and life on the Earth.  I watched the Bill Nye debate Ken Ham, and wondered how Vernadsky would affect the argument.
Figure 1. Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky as a high school student in St. Petersburg, Russia, 1878 (Wikepedia)
Figure 1. Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky as a high school student in St. Petersburg, Russia, 1878 (Wikipedia)

One of the most profound books published in the last century, was written by Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky.  Vernadsky’s ideas didn’t make their way into the west for many years. His original book was in Russian, and a French translation was published in 1929. And it wasn’t until nearly at the end of the 20th Century that his ideas were translated into English.

Interestingly, Vernadsky’s ideas were slowly coming into vogue in Russia at the same time that Gorbachev’s use of the concept perestro?ka (restructuring) took hold in the Soviet Union. Our work in the Soviet Union was propelled by the emergence of perestro?ka, and it aided in our work in Russian schools and in the Russian research institutes that supported us. An atmosphere of change was clear in our meetings with our Russian colleagues.

Vernadsky’s book is entitled The Biosphere (public library, 1927), which is composed of two lectures by the author that describe his conception of the biosphere, and it is the view that is accepted today by science (Jacques Grinevald, from the Introduction of the Biosphere).

Recently, Bill Nye, the Science Guy debated Ken Ham, the Answers in Genesis Guy.  Nye represented Bill Nye the Science Guy, a science education and educational television program. Ham represented the Answers in Genesis, a young Earth creationism organization.  They debated the question,

How we did get here?

Figure 2. Bill Nye (left) and Ken Ham Debate origins.
Figure 2. Bill Nye (left) and Ken Ham Debate origins.

For Bill Nye,  the answer lies in the evidence that is all around us, and is explained by the theory of evolution proposed by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace in the 19th century.  For Ken Ham the answer lies in Genesis, which in Ham’s belief, is the word of God.  For Nye, the record in layers of rocks, ice cores, tree rings, and fossils provides evidence that the earth is very old, and that life is explained by Darwin and Wallace’s theory of natural selection.  For Ham, the Earth is young (young Earth creationism) and that the first chapters in Genesis should be taken as literally true and historically accurate.  Ham disputes Nye’s assertion of the fossil record and a very old Earth because we were not there to see.

In the Biosphere, Vernadsky answered the question this way:

Life is the creation of the sun as a result of terrestrial processes.

Figure 3. The cover of The Biosphere by Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky
Figure 2. The cover of The Biosphere by Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky

Long before Bill Nye and Ken Ham walked on the surface of the Earth, Vladimir Vernadsky developed the idea of biosphere, which merged biology and geology from his scientific work in biogeochemical studies.  To Vernadsky, the biosphere is a global dynamic system that been transforming the “face of the earth” for eons.  Vernadsky’s biosphere was a space or region where cosmic energy is transformed.  The existence of the biosphere means that Earth systems function in a cosmic environment, powered by the sun.  Vernadsky proposed the biosphere as a holistic idea, which was the opposite of the mechanistic reductionist nature of mainstream science.  I’ll come back to this later, and relate these two ideas (holistic vs mechanistic) to the “Nye-Ham Where did we come from Debate.”

Holism was not a word that was received well in the scientific community. However, scientists who came after Vernadsky, namely Lynn Margulis, James Lovelock, and Fritjof Capra and many others, validated the work of Vernadsky, indeed, in many ways, their ideas were somewhat based on Vernadsky notion of holism.

Vernadsky’s aim was to get us out of our compartments and instead have us consider relationships between life and chemical/geological phenomena of earth.  To Vernadsky, the biosphere is a system of relationships involving cosmic energy from the sun, and its use in the transformation of that region of the planet Earth he referred to as the biosphere.

Lynn Margulis, and other scientists wrote the introduction to the English language version of the Biosphere, and had this to say about Vernadsky.

Vernadsky teaches us that life, including human life, using visible light energy from our star the Sun, has transformed our planet over the eons. He illuminates the difference between an inanimate, mineralogical view of Earth’s history, and an endlessly dynamic picture of Earth as the domain and product of life, to a degree not yet well understood. No prospect of life’s cessation looms on any horizon. What Charles Darwin did for all life through time, Vernadsky did for all life through space. Just as we are all connected in time through evolution to common ancestors, so we are all-through the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, and these days even the ionosphere-connected in space. We are tied through Vernadskian space to Darwinian time.  Vladimir I. Vernadsky. The Biosphere: Complete Annotated Edition (Kindle Locations 91-92). Kindle Edition.

It’s important to understand that Vernadsky considered empirical facts from a point of view of holism that combines all parts of the planet in an indivisible whole.  As such, Vernadsky explored ideas such as the geological effects of life.

Vernadsky, if he were in the audience the night that Nye and Ham debated, would have added much to the conversation with these statements.  He would have said that the following ideas are illusory, harmful, and even dangerous when applied to contemporary science:

  • Geological phenomena are accidental coincidences of causes, essentially blind, and obscure because of their complexity and number.
  • The assumption of the existence of a beginning of life at a particular time in the past is simply a logical necessity based on mechanistic thinking.
  • Philosophical and cosmic ideas that cannot be founded on facts should be discarded, and replacement sought.  Vladimir I. Vernadsky. The Biosphere: Complete Annotated Edition (Kindle Locations 330-332). Kindle Edition.

Bill Nye provided facts and observations to support his ideas; Ken Ham provided little in the way of facts by using the word of God as written in Genesis.  Nye provided credible evidence for life throughout time, while Ham believed life extended back only 6,000 years.  Nye was not sure when life began, or how.  Ham believed life began 6,000 years ago, and was the work of God.

Vernadsky would have pointed both of them to the idea of biosphere, and that life is a natural part of the Earth system. Vernadsky based his ideas on a series of principles that are based on known facts:

  • There is no evidence for the direct creation of a living organism from inert matter.
  • Throughout all of geological time, no geological periods have been observed devoid of life.
  • All living matter today is connected genetically to living matter from all previous geological epochs.
  • The earth’s terrestrial environment has always favored the existence of living matter under conditions as they are today.
  • Throughout all of geological time, the way in which living matter affects the surrounding environment has not changed much.
  • The global mass of living matter has remained about the same throughout geological time.
  • The energy given off by living matter is mainly solar radiation.  Living matter is an intermediary in regulating the chemistry of the Earth’s crust by solar energy.  Vladimir I. Vernadsky. The Biosphere: Complete Annotated Edition (Kindle Locations 327-330). Kindle Edition.

If these statements were part of the Great Debate, it would be very interesting to find out how Nye and Ham would react to them, and what they might propose to either support or refute these facts.

Bill Nye, Ken Ham, and Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky represent different ways of thinking about the world.  Using Russell Ackoff’s “thinking,” we can name two world views here, a machine age world view and a systems age world view.

Machine Age Thinking

Machine age thinking is the belief that the universe is a machine and operated in a kind of clock wise way.  Russell Ackoff, however, puts the machine age in context in this way:

I believe we are leaving an age that can be called the Machine Age. In the Machine Age the universe was believed to be a machine that was created by God to do His work. Man, as part of that machine, was expected to serve God’s purposes, to do His will. This belief was combined with another even more ancient in origin, man had been created in the image of God. This meant that man believed himself to be more like God than anything else on Earth. This belief is reflected in the way God was depicted in the art of the age: in the image of man. In a sense, men were taken to be “demigods.”  Russell L. Ackoff. Ackoff’s Best: His Classic Writings on Management (Kindle Locations 96-100). Kindle Edition.

The Machine Age is characterized by analysis, reductionism and determinism.

Machine age thinking is based on the idea that the way to understand something is to take it apart conceptually or physically.  By taking it apart, one can then try to understand the parts separately, and then trying to assemble this knowledge into an understanding of the whole.  It was the basic method of inquiry initiated by the Renaissance, and it is called analysis.

Figure 4. Machine Age thinkers?
Figure 3. Bill Nye and Ken Ham, Machine Age Thinkers?

Bill Nye is a science educator whose thinking has been greatly influenced by the prevailing nature of science which is based on the collection and analysis of data.  His understanding of the history of the earth has been shaped by his studies of geology, paleontology, physics and chemistry.  His examples tended to be compartmentalized citing fossils in one instance, radiometric dating, analysis of climate based on ice cores, and tree rings.

Ken Ham is a young-Earth creationist whose understanding of science is determined by his religious belief that the first part of Genesis is an acute description of the history of the universe, and that the world is 6,000 years old.  Ham is a determinist who accepts a cause-effect concept and that everything in the universe is the effect of some cause.  Ham traces all causes back to a “first cause,” and an explanation of the creation of the universe.  Ackoff explains this kind of thinking in this way:

Now, if everything in the universe is caused, then each cause is itself the effect of a previous cause. If we start tracing back through the chain of causes do we come to a beginning of the process? The answer to this question was also dictated by the belief in the complete understandability of the universe. It was yes. Therefore, a first cause was postulated and taken to be God. This line of reasoning was called the “cosmological proof of the existence of God.” It is significant that this proof derived from the commitment to the cause-effect relationship and the belief in the complete understandability of the universe. Because God was conceptualized as the first cause, He was taken to be the creator.  Russell L. Ackoff. Ackoff’s Best: His Classic Writings on Management (Kindle Locations 154-158). Kindle Edition.

Although Bill Nye and Ken Ham might have been seen as representing very different world views on the origins of life on the Earth, their thinking was, in Ackoff’s conception, machine age.

What about Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky?  How would Ackoff characterize his thinking?

Systems Age Thinking

Ackoff would claim that Vernadsky was a visionary.  Systems age thinking brings into question the awareness that machine age thinking does not lend itself to solving very complicated problems.  In fact, Ackoff provides many examples of research, especially during and right after World War II that required the interactions of people in different disciplines.  Interdisciplinary fields emerged including computer science, cybernetics, policy sciences, and decision sciences.

Figure 4. Vladimir Vernadsky, Systems Age Thinker? (Wikipedia)
Figure 4. Vladimir Vernadsky, Systems Age Thinker? (Wikipedia)

Long before Ackoff’s thinking appeared, Vladimir Vernadsky had invented a number of interdisciplinary fields including biogeochemistry, geochemistry and radiogeology.

Systems Age thinking is characterized by interdisciplinary activities, relationships, and synthesis.  If Vernadsky were on the stage with Nye and Ham, he would take them to task for ignoring the relationships that exist in the world, and that life should be considered in the context of the biosphere.  He would have taken them on a journey and one of his projected slides would have been this one:

A system, therefore, is a whole that cannot be divided into independent parts. From this, two of its most important properties derive: every part of a system has properties that it loses when separated from the system, and every system has some properties-its essential ones-that none of its parts do.  Russell L. Ackoff. Ackoff’s Best: His Classic Writings on Management (Kindle Locations 233-235). Kindle Edition.

He would tell Nye and Ham to think differently about the nature of life.  He would suggest that they consider the biosphere as the domain of life, and that is a biogeochemical evolving system with cosmic connections, principally the sun.  

He would ask Nye and Ham to get out their boxes, and think about what holistic mechanism combines all parts of the planet in an indivisible whole (Vladimir I. Vernadsky. The Biosphere: Complete Annotated Edition (Kindle Locations 327-330). Kindle Edition).

What would you add this comparison among Nye, Ham and Vernadsky?

A Story of Global Inquiry in Action

Eighth Article in the Series, Artistry in Teaching

In this article I am going talk about a project that grew out of personal and professional relationships among teachers from different countries.  Through reciprocal exchanges among educators in U.S. (most of whom where from schools in Georgia) and Russia (most of whom were from Moscow, Pushchino and St. Petersburg) a project emerged from the ground up to creation of the Global Thinking Project, a project steeped in inquiry and humanistic education.

Fran Macy, Director of the first AHP-Soviet Exchange Project delegation in September 1983 standing in front of the Russian train, The Tolstoy.
Fran Macy, Director of the first AHP-Soviet Exchange Project delegation in September 1983 standing in front of the Russian train, The Tolstoy.

Thirty years ago, a Russian train left Helsinki for Moscow carrying psychologists and educators from North America who were participants in the first citizen diplomacy project sponsored by the Association for Humanistic Psychology (AHP).

That train trip was the start of a 20-year Track-II  Diplomacy Project (coined by Joseph Montville–non-officials engaging in dialog to resolve conflicts and solve problems), and evolved into a global teacher and student environmental activist project that brought together hundreds of teachers and students not only from the United States and the former Soviet Union, but colleagues and students in many other countries including Australia, the Czech Republic, and Spain.

The 1983 train trip changed my life, and the lives of countless science and social science teachers, school principals, researchers, students (ages 12 – 18) and their parents in several countries.

Citizen Science and Youth Activism

At the center of this environmental project was the idea that citizens from different countries could work together to solve problems by being open to using inquiry and humanistic thinking.  Dr. Jenny Springer, principal of Dunwoody High School, in DeKalb County, Georgia was clear about how this could happen in a speech at the Simpsonwood Conference Center, in Norcross, Georgia.
The conference was an environmental summit for teachers and students in the Georgia-Russia Student Exchange program.  Dr. Springer said:

We must be scholars and activists. It is simply not enough to be scientists–that is to measure and calculate, but rather we must be willing to dedicate ourselves to causes–to be activists who are willing to commit to environmental and humanitarian issues.

Teachers getting wet to learn how to involve their students in social-action projects.
Teachers getting wet to learn how to involve their students in social-action projects at a small stream in SW DeKalb County, Georgia

Citizen diplomacy, citizen science, and youth activism are not new ideas, but the forces that shape contemporary education around the globe are based on issues related to work and economics.  In our capitalist system, conservative and neoliberal policies are making it more and more difficult for educators to create environments that foster the kind of inquiry and freedom needed to engage in activist projects. Put to the side in the words of Henry Giroux (2011), “are questions of justice, social freedom, and the capacity for democratic agency, action, and change as well as the related issues of power.”

During the period of 1983 – 2002, a project rooted in citizen science, youth activism, and global collaboration emerged and developed into the Global Thinking Project (GTP), a kind of hands-across-the-globe program.  It became an environmental education program based on “education for the environment,” a model that embodies the principles of Deep Ecology (library copy).

Deep Ecology, coined by Arne Naess, is a deeper approach to the study of nature exemplified in the work of Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson (Devall and Sessions 1985). In this sense, teachers encourage their students to engage in projects that help them experience the connections between themselves and nature as well as advocating a holistic approach to looking at environmental topics.

Engaging students in ways that enable them to take actions and experience environmental science as education for the environment (Michel, 1996) is what Aikenhead (2006) define as humanistic science.  This definition of humanistic science was the core of the approach to teaching science that was discussed and argued among American and Russian science teachers.

The Global Thinking project was a citizen diplomacy project that integrated citizen science, Eco justice and activism, involving hundreds of teachers, researchers and students who believed it was important to work together with people in other cultures to try to take action on important environmental questions that are both local and global.

The Lessons Seen Around the World

Visiting schools is a common practice when foreigners want to learn about a nation’s schools.  But what would happen if instead of observing teachers and students, foreigners taught lessons in science, social studies, and ecology to students in schools they were visiting?
American teachers began demonstration teaching in School 710, Moscow, a school with about 800 students from pre-school through high school.

It made all the difference in the world.  Who would have guessed?

We had visited School 710 the previous year, and at that time, an agreement was reached with the teachers and school’s head, Mr. Vadim Zhudov, that the demonstrations would:

  • Establish classroom environments where students would learn through inquiry;
  • Enable students to explore science topics in earth science and physical science;
  • Create learning situations where students would work in collaborative and cooperative learning teams

We didn’t realize how significant it was for us to teach lessons in School 710.  Those that taught lessons were naturally nervous and hoped that things would go well.  Each room was packed with observers, teachers, the Director, and researchers.  The lessons involved hands on activities and demonstrations, and small group discussion, artwork, and a take home packet of materials and a booklet in Russian for the students to share with their parents.

Our goal in these demonstration lessons was to present an approach to teaching that involved inquiry, cooperative learning and hands-on experiences to create dialogue among American and Russian teachers.  In this case, we wanted the students to take part actively in learning, a practice that was not common in Russian schools (or in American schools, for that matter).

Over the next 15 years, there were many exchanges of teachers and students, and it became tradition to have teachers conduct lessons in schools they were visiting and working with in the Global Thinking Project. Many Russian teachers taught in schools in Metro-Atanta, the Walker County School District and schools in the Savannah region of the state.

Teaching in each other’s schools was one of the most important aspects of our exchanges.  By doing this we were willing to be vulnerable not only with our adult colleagues, but it opened our collaboration to students, as well.  This personalized our work.

It also built trust.  Trust that lead to a collaborative venture of designing and implementing inquiry-based environmental lessons and projects.

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Dr. Galina Manke and a student from School 710, Moscow
Dr. Galina Manke and a student from School 710, Moscow



The GTP fostered an inquiry approach to learning by involving students in problems in their own communities, and extended inquiry to include dialog using email, bulletin boards, and videoconferences—thanks to Dr. Wayne Robinson.  In each project, students were asked to wonder and to ask questions that were relevant to environmental issues and problems in their own communities.  The GTP focused on helping students to become capable citizen scientists, or in the words Dr. Galina Manke, biology teacher at School 710 and researcher at the Russian Academy of Education:

The ideals of humanistic psychology and education were put into practice by involving teachers and students in the development of the curriculum.  The context of the GTP was dialogue among teachers, students and researchers.  Although the project began with the exchanges of teachers, administrators, and researchers, by 1992, student exchanges had begun, and during 1995 – 1998, more than 300 students and more than 75 teachers were involved in exchanges between U.S. and Russian schools.

Fostering inquiry among students and teachers in different countries lead to a problem.  How could we engage kids in distant classrooms with each other?  Today, there is an easy answer: The Internet.

But in 1990?  What’s a group of teachers to do?

Using the Internet to Foster Collaboration

In 1990, the Internet, as we know it today, was primitive.  The World Wide Web in its present configuration did not exist.  But even more so, none of the schools in Russia were connected to the Internet.  Even worse, the only phone lines we could find in Russian schools were in the Director’s (Principal) office, often times more than 1000 feet from the science classrooms.
Our vision was to somehow set up a telecommunications network among the ten schools that were in the project by 1990 (5 American and 5 Russian).  With a telecommunications network we could link schools, and use communication technologies (e-mail and bulletin boards, we also experimented with freeze frame television, and later video conferencing).  But in 1990, we still had no computers, modems or printers on the Russian side.
Our view was that a telecom network would enable students to collaborate with each other.  They could ask questions.  They could tell stories about themselves.  They could share information, indeed they could share “data” that they had acquired through their own inquiries.
The teachers in the project had strong beliefs about the role of collaborative and cooperative learning.  The GTP curriculum (a series on environmental project-based units) was organized in such a way that teams of students in each class worked together to solve problems, and then shared their collective data with students in classes in other schools, and in other countries.
But still, we had no computers in Russia.  How would we get computers in their schools?  Here’s how we did it.
We took six of these Apple SE 20 Macintosh computers and installed them in five Russian schools.  Remember the floppy disc?  How about a HD of 20 MB!
Remember the floppy disc? How about an HD of 20 MB!

Phil Gang and I went to the local Apple Computer office (in Atlanta for us), and were accompanied by five Russian colleagues who were with a larger delegation of Russian educators, and explain to Apple executives that we had developed this “global” project, but we didn’t have computers in the any of the schools in Russia.  We asked if they could help.  They gave us six Macintosh SE 20 computers and printers!  But we also needed modems.  We made a phone call to the Hayes Micromodem Company in Norcross, GA, and told them the same story.  They gave us six very high-speed modems (2400 baud).  We were all set with the technology we needed to connect all the schools.

Two months later, ten Americans flew to Moscow with the computers, printers and modems in tow, and then set up the technology in five Russian schools (2 in Moscow and 3 in St. Petersburg).
At each school, Gary Lieber  (an engineer from Apple who accompanied us throughout Russia) set up the technology that would enable teachers and students to logon to a network to send email using AppleLink, as well as post and read messages on bulletin boards we set up in the Apple Global Education network.  Each computer and modem had to be programmed to connect with a service in Moscow, which connected to an interface in Western Europe and then to the U.S. through standard telephone lines.  Amazingly, we got the system to work in every school in Russia (only blowing out one printer, e.g 220), and by the end of the two-week trip in December 1989 we had established the first Global Thinking Project Network.
The Global Thinking Project first telecommunications network using networks in the Soviet Union, Western Europe and the U.S.  AppleLink accounts were set up on each Macintosh SE20 in the Soviet Union.  American schools were able to provide their own computers.  By December 1989, the GTP network was running.

When the GTP began, we only had e-mail and bulletin boards to communicate with each other.  Over the next ten years we incorporated new technologies to include video conferencing, an interactive website, and software to enable students to post and retrieve data.

Over time, the GTP project, with no funding, expanded to other countries including Australia, Czech Republic, Argentina, Spain, Singapore, Japan, Canada, and others.

Online Projects Begin at Home

Screen Shot 2013-09-07 at 4.08.13 PMThe Global Thinking Project curriculum was organized into eight online project-based experiences designed for elementary through secondary schools.  The instructional materials are based on learning through inquiry and make use of cooperative learning as the core learning strategy.  The original GTP curriculum was published in English, Russian, Catalan, and Czech.

Three inquiry-based projects that are included here to give you an idea about the nature and instructional design of the GTP curriculum projects.  You are welcome to make use of the projects in any way you wish.  When you visit any one of the websites for these projects, you will find all the activities, as well as online forms to give you an idea how these activities work.

In these projects, students study a problem locally, and then use the Internet to share results with others.  The projects are online, and can be used by teachers and citizens around the world.
  • Project Green Classroom invites students to assess the environment of your classroom by examining and monitoring a variety of indoor parameters.
  • In Project Ozone, your students monitor ground-level ozone at your school, their home, or other designated sites.  They observe and make measurements of related variables such as temperature, humidity, and wind speed.
  • In Project River Watch, you and your students investigate the quality of the water in a local river, stream or body of water.

But what makes these projects interesting is that you can post your data on fillable webpages linked to the projects so that your data can be shared with others around the world.  You can also click on a link in each project to reach all the data, and download the data into Microsoft Excel, or other similar programs for data analysis.

Inquiry in the Service of Social Action

The three projects included here are examples of using an inquiry approach to teaching in service of involving students in action taking on science-related social issues.  We worked with students and teachers for nearly two decades engaging them in global thinking with face-to-face collaboration and online communication using a primitive Internet.

Today there are some  projects that use the same philosophy in which the Internet is used to foster inquiry and action-taking on the part of K-12 students.  Here are two projects that I highly recommend.

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Flat Classroom

The Flat Classroom Project was developed by teachers Vicki Davis, and Julie Lindsay.  The Flat Classroom supports and encourages global collaboration.  Davis and Lindsay are cutting edge educators who use Internet-based technologies to inspire global collaboration among teachers and students. Check it out.


iEarn is one of the most accomplished Internet systems promoting social action projects by bringing together schools around the world to work together on a wide range of teacher inspired projects which value communication among teachers and students. I think its worth visiting the iearn website.

There are many stories of inquiry-based Internet projects that have been developed by teachers.   What story would you like to share?