Holistic Teaching: Integrating ideas of Vernadsky & Lovelock into science teaching

The opening sentence in John Miller’s book, The Holistic Curriculum is that holistic education attempts to bring education into alignment with the fundamental realities of nature. Nature at its core is holistic,interrelated and dynamic. As such we have much to learn about curriculum from environmental education, and the science-technology-society (STS) movement (each developed In previous posts.

The essence of Vernadsky’s concept of the biosphere, and Lovelock’s Gaia theory reflect Miller’s construct.

However, curriculum, for the most part, has been broken into fragmented pieces, even within a single discipline, such as our own field of science. The National Science Education Standards reflect this compartmentalization of content (as shown below). Although in the text of the Standards, the authors emphasize that science should be taught by using an inquiry approach, the overriding outcome is the empahsis on discrete, non-contextual, standards, divided into these categories:

  • Unifying concepts and processes in science.
  • Science as inquiry
  • Physical science.
  • Life science.
  • Earth and space science.
  • Science and technology.
  • Science in personal and social perspectives.
  • History and nature of science.

I want to explore here the notion of holistic curriculum and teaching as an implication of the theory of the biosphere as developed by Vernadsky in Russia, and the Gaia theory by Lovelock in England, and Margulis in the USA.

My own experience in applying holistic ideas of Gaia, the biosphere, and curriculum came together in the development of the Global Thinking Project (GTP). We developed cross-cultural and holistic curriculum materials that focused on global thinking. Our strategy was to get students involved in real-world problems and to work together collaboratively within their own classrooms, and using the Internet, with schools in other cultures. The holistic ideas of Vernadsky and Lovelock were integrated into the GTP philosophy.

Both Vernadsky’s biosphere, and Lovelock/Margulis’ Gaia imply interrelationships, symbiosis, synthesis, a system, if you will. To apply these ideas to science teaching means designing lessons that help students think in wholes, to see and develop relationships among concepts and ideas, and involve and connect students to real problems and issues.

In the GTP, we traced the historical roots of global thinking to Albert Einstein’s statement shortly after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: “everything has changed save our mode of thinking.” Although he didn’t say it directly, Einstein knew that humanity would have to learn to think in wholes. He knew that hardly anthing is independent and freestanding; rather virtually everything is part of some larger system. This would require a new mode of thinking.

And there were others who invoked the same message. Andrei Sarkharov, the Soviet physicist, advised his government that atmospheric testing of nucelar weapons must be suspended if humanity were to sustain itself in the “nuclear age.” At the same time, Rachel Carson warned all citizens that a year may come when appears a “silent spring.” Her book described the interconnections in the biosphere, and the deadly effects of some chemical sprays on the pyramid of life. earthAnd then there was the photograph of Earth taken by astronauts on their way to moon when they looked back at the “blue planet” and saw at once that the Earth was whole, and a new perspective in thinking was needed—global thinking.

The Global Thinking Project, which was an active project from 1990 – 2002, developed a web-assisted global communication and collaboration program enabling elementary, middle and high school students to pursue environmental studies that focused on problems facing communities around the world. The GTP was organized around seven “Projects” including: Project Hello, Project Green Classroom, Project Clean Air, Project Solid Waste, Project Water Watch, Project Soil, and Project Earth Month.

In the activity shown in this image, American and Russian students work together to explain visually how the biosphere works.  Using photographs, and arrows, they had to create a web of ideas.
In the activity shown in this image, American and Russian students work together to explain visually how the biosphere works. Using photographs, and arrows, they had to create a web of ideas.

In Project Hello of the GTP curriculum, one of the first activities that students were engaged in was “Earth as a Living System.” This activity introduced the concept that the Earth can be viewed as a living organism (Gaia theory), with the lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and heliosphere interacting to form a functioning whole. We went on to say that changes that affect any one of these subsystems (temperature of the atmosphere, for example) necessarily affect them all. Click on this link for the full details on the activity, and the materials you need to carry it out with your students.

I’ll explore holistic teaching in the coming days, and also make more connections to Vernadsky’s theory of the biosphere, and Lovelock’s Theory of Gaia.


Jack Hassard & Julie Weisberg. Environmental Science on the Net: The Global Thinking Project. 1999. Good Year Books

Nir Orion. A Holistic Approach for Science Education for All. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science & Technology, 2007, 3(2), 111-118

John Miller. The Holistic Curriculum. University of Toronto Press, 2007

Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky & the Gaia Theory

In the last post, I introduced Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky (link to a brief bio), the Russian scientist whose pioneering work, unnoticed by James Lovelock when he first proposed the Gaia hypothesis, forms the basis for much of our understanding of the biosphere, what it really is, and how the region of the biosphere is the key to understanding Gaia.  In this post I will explore some of Vernadsky’s ideas, based on his book, The Biosphere, first published in Moscow, in 1926.  His book was translated into English, and is now available online, and in print. Click on the image of his book, and you will be able to read the Table of Contents, and a few pages.

The Biosphere by Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky
The Biosphere by Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky

In the Introduction to the English translation of Vernadsky’s book, the writers explain that Vernadsky set out to describe a physics of living matter.  Vernadsky viewed life as a cosmic phenomenon which could be understood by the same universal laws that applied to such constants as gravity and the speed of light.  His ideas, however, traveled out of Russia at the speed of a tortoise.  Even James Lovelock failed to find Vernadsky’s ideas until many years after he had published many papers, given speeches, and published a major book on the Gaia hypothesis—the idea of which was developed in nearly a complete form by Vernadsky more than 50 years earlier.  Vernadsky’s ideas, however, were known in Europe, especially France, where his book was translated into French in 1929.  After World War II his ideas were introduced in Western Europe as biogeochemistry, geomicrobiology, ecology, and environmental chemical cycles.

The concept of the biosphere is a Vernadskian invention, and some say a Vernadskian revolution.  In the context of the Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Vernadsky’s idea of the biosphere represents a paradigm shift for both scientists and laymen alike.   To Vernadsky, the Biosphere was “the integrated living and life-supporting system comprising the peripheral envelope of planet Earth together with its surrounding atmosphere so far down, and up, as form of life exists naturally” (as defined by Nicholas Polunin, and quoted in the introduction of Vernadsky’s book).

It is important to note here that the term “biosphere” was coined by the Austrain geologist Eduard Suess, who described the biosphere as the concentric, life-supporting layer of the primordial Earth.  The deeper notion of the biosphere is the work of Vernadsky, however.  According to Jacques Geinrvald, who wrote the introduction to the 1998 edition of Vernadsky’s book, Vernadsky explained that:

the biosphere is not only ‘the face of the Earth’ but is the global dynamic system transforming our planet since the beginning of biogeological time.

To Vernadsky, the biosphere is a biogeochemical evolving system.  And according to Geinvald, the ideas was not welcomed by mainsteam science. Vernadsky’s idea the biosphere should be conceived from a geochemical point of view, that considered the Earth as a “dynamic energy-matter organization, like a thermodynamic engine” (Geinrvald, p. 26).  Conceptually here is the biogeochemical Earth is powered by sun.

Here we see the initial stage of the “earth system” concept, and again, Vernadsky is ahead of the game.  To many earth science teachers, this is beginning of the earth system education approach, an approach that call holistic science education (see Nir Orion’s article on holistic science).  Holistic science education is still NOT mainstream.  Most curriculum standards are still written splitting science into compartments that are based on traditional college science departments.  But that’s another story.  But in this discussion, the main point is that Vernadsky was trying to integrate the disparate fields of biology, chemical and geology in his synthesis of the biosphere, while at the same time these fields were going their separate ways.

For science teachers, Vernadsky’s ideas provide empirical support for the teaching of the Gaia theory.


Vladimir I. Vernadsky. The Biosphere. Copernicus, 1998. (Read a limited preview on Google Books)

Global Thinking & the Gaia Theory

In 1989 I met Dr. Anatoly Zaklebyney, professor of environmental science education, the Russian Academy of Education, Moscow. I was working with American and Russian teachers on a project that had emerged from teacher and researcher exchanges that I directed for the Association for Humanistic Psychology.

Dr. Anatoly Zaklebny explains  to American & Russian Global Thinking Project students in Moscow that the Earth is a single system as depicted in the Vernadsky's ideas.
Dr. Zakglebny explaining to American & Russian Global Thinking Project students in Moscow that the Earth is a single system as depicted by Vernadsky.

Our project 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.

The theme that emerged in our work with American and Russian teachers was the concept of global thinking. Through a series of seminars, school visits, and teaching in each others schools, this group collaborated to create the Global Thinking Project. Early in our conversations with Phil Gang, and myself, Anatoly introduced us to the Russian scientist Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky (1863 – 1945). Anatoly explained to us that Vernadsky developed the idea of the biosphere, which had been coined by Eduard Seuss years earlier. In his book, (which I located in the Georgia State University library) published in 1926, Vernadsky outlined his ideas that contained three principles (see Vernadsky’s book, The Biosphere for more details):

  1. Life occurs on a spherical planet.
  2. Life makes geology—that is life is not merely a geological force, it is the geological force, and to him nearly all geological features at the Earth’s surface are influenced by life.
  3. The influence of living matter on the Earth becomes more extensive with time. Increasingly more parts of the Earth are incorporated into the biosphere.

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. When Lovelock proposed his ideas in the 1870’s he was unaware of Vladimir Vernadsky. Interestingly, Vernadsky’s ideas were slowly coming into vogue in Russia at the same time that Gorbachev’s use of the concept perestroika (restructuring) took hold in the Soviet Union. Our work in the Soviet Union was propelled by the emergence of perestroika, and it aided in our work in Russian schools and in the Russian research institutes that supported us. An atmosphere of change was evident in our meetings with our Russian colleagues.

From Vernadsky’s ideas emerged fields such as biogeochemistry, geomicrobiology, ecosystem study, and ecology. Vernadsky’s ideas became fundamental to the philosophy of the Global Thinking Project. In our original teacher’s guide we wrote:

But perhaps more pertinent to global thinking is the fact that Vernadsky coined the concept of biosphere. He believed that scientists should focus attention on the “sphere of life.” According to Vernadsky the so called living and nonliving parts of the earth were interdependent and tied to each other. In fact Vernadsky called life “a disperse of rock.” To him life was a chemical process in which rock was transformed into active living matter and back, breaking it up, and moving it about in a never ending cyclic process. This amazing Vernadskian view of life, rock and earth never became widely known in the West, but recently, Vernadsky’s work has been given more attention, partly because of the translation of some of his articles and books, and his discovery by Western scientists concerned with a holistic view of Earth.

Vernadsky is crucial to our understanding of the theory of Gaia. In the introduction to the English translation of his book, the writers (13 in all, including Lynn Margulis) tell us that Vernadsky taught us that life, using visible light energy has transformed the Earth over the eons. They say:

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.

Vernadsky’s idea of a biogeochemical evolving system was not welcomed by mainstream science, any more than Lovelock and Margulis’ Gaia hypothesis. For some scientists it was not surprising that these two holistic ideas were at first highly critiqued because of the mechanistic-reductionist nature of Western science. When I first started going to Russia I was impressed with the influence of Eastern thought on Russian thinking and examples of holistic thinking.

As Lovelock said in an introduction to the booklet The Biosophere by Vernadsky, published by the Synergetic Press, “We retraced his steps and it was not until the 1980s that we discovered him (Vernadsky) to be our most illustrious predecessor.”

As science teachers, Vernadsky’s work is essential, particularly to those teachers who work hard to help students become involved in science from an interdisciplinary standpoint. Of course, in my view, Vernadsky’s views are deeper than the traditional approach to interdisciplinary science education. Vernadsky believed scientists (especially Earth scientists) should explore the relationship between the development of life on Earth and the formation of the biosphere. To him living phenomena are at the center of geological formations. Vernadsky encouraged scientists to consider a holistic mechanism that unifies biology and geology.

I find these ideas exciting and now early in the 21st Century they are becoming mainstream. Or are they? What do you think?


Vladimir I. Vernadsky. The Biosphere. Springer, 1998.

The Gaia Theory: Its Origins & Implications

The Gaia Theory was the result of collaboration between the British scientist, James Lovelock, and the American biologist, Lynn Margulis. They proposed the Gaia “hypothesis” in their 1974 paper entitled Atmospheric homeostasis by and for the biosphere: the Gaia hypothesis and was published in Tellus, Volume 26.

According to the Gribbin’s account, Lovelock and Margulis first met at a conference at Princeton University in 1968. It was at this conference that Lovelock presented his idea of the “earth system.” At the time Margulis was a professor of biology at Boston University and was married to Carl Sagan. Margulis was interested in the “oddity” of the oxygen rich atmosphere and asked Sagan whom she should discuss this with. He suggested James Lovelock. Margulis, who is now Distinguished University Professor of Microbial Evolution and Organelle Heredity at the University of Massachusetts, worked with Lovelock and together they developed the Gaia hypothesis. Here is abstract of this pioneering paper:

During the time, 3.2 x 109 years, that life has been present on Earth, the physical and chemical conditions of most of the planetary surface have never varied from those most favourable for life. The geological record reads that liquid water was always present and that the pH was never far from neutral. During this same period, however,the Earth’s radiation environment underwent large changes. As the sun moved along the course set by the main sequence of stars its output will have increased at least 30% and possibly 100%. It may also have fluctuated in brightness over periods of a few million years. At the same time hydrogen was escaping to space from the Earth and so causing progressive changes in the chemical environment. This in turn through atmospheric compositional changes could have affected the Earth’s radiation balance.It may have been that these physical and chemical changes always by blind chance followed the path whose bounds are the conditions favouring the continued existence of life. This paper offers an alternative explanation that, early after life began it acquired control of the planetary environment and that this homeostasis by and for the biosphere has persisted ever since. Historic and contemporary evidence and arguments for this hypothesis will be presented. (Emphasis mine)

In this groundbreaking paper Lovelock and Margulis argue that the total “ensemble of living organisms which constitute the biosophere can act as a single entity to regulate chemical composition, surface pH and possibly also climate.” Then they state:

The notion of the biosphere as an active adaptive control system able to maintain homeostasis we are calling the ‘Gaia’ hypothesis.

Lovelock was introducing a new way to look at life on Earth and was affirming in a scientific theory that “all things are connected.” Lovelock was urged to use the name Gaia by his neighbor, the novelist William Golding. Gaia, the Greek goddess of the Earth was to become the name of his and Margulis’ theory.

The implications of Gaia and the idea of connectedness are profound. Rachel Carson had written Silent Spring in the preceding decade which showed how DDT cycled through the food chain and had the potential of causing cancer and genetic damage. gaiaNow, Lovelock, in his 1979 book, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth provides us with a theory which explains that

Gaia is a complex entity involving the Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet. The maintenance of condtions on Earth may be conveniently described by the term ‘homeostatsis.’


Here are fundamental readings on the Gaia Theory by Lovelock and Margulis.

James Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford University Press, 1979

James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth. W.W. Norton, 1988

Lynn Margulis, Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution. Basic Books, 1999.

James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis & The Fate of Humanity. Basic Books, 2006

John Gribbin & Mary Gribbin. James Lovelock: In Search of Gaia. Princeton University Press, 2009

The Gaia Theory: Implications for Science Teaching

I returned this week from a two week trip to Texas, and waiting for me in the mail was a book I had pre-ordered from Amazon.  The title of the book is James Lovelock: In Search of Gaia, and it was written by John Gribbin & Mary Gribbin.  Here’s what the book is about:

In 1972, when James Lovelock first proposed the Gaia hypothesis–the idea that the Earth is a living organism that maintains conditions suitable for life–he was ridiculed by the scientific establishment. Today Lovelock’s revolutionary insight, though still extremely controversial, is recognized as one of the most creative, provocative, and captivating scientific ideas of our time. James Lovelock tells for the first time the whole story of this maverick scientist’s life and how it served as a unique preparation for the idea of Gaia.

I am going to use the book as the basis for a series of posts that will explore the theory of Gaia, and not only for its implication for science teaching, but how the theory is essential for our understanding of what has happened on the Earth for the last 3.8 billion years, and what will happen in the near future.

My own experience with the theory of Gaia began in the 1980s when I first started working cross-culturally with colleagues in the United States and the U.S.S.R.  Through a series of exchanges among American and Soviet educators and pyschologists, a project emerged that became known as the Global Thinking Project.  The theory of Gaia became the underlying framework for the development of curriculum materials.  In our first publication, Global Thinking: A Cross-Cultural and Interdisiciplinary Problem Solving Curriculum and Telecommunication System we wrote this in the introduction:

A whole-earth agenda of global concerns faces the people of planet Earth, and students, as future citizens, need to be empowered to deal with them.  The Earth is a single entity—a global cell, if you will—that is unified by important biophysical cycles involving Earth’s oceans, atmosphere, continents and biosphere.  The serious problems facing the planet involve at least four interdependent global systems: ecological, economic, political, and technological.  Understanding these systems, and how they interface with each other will contribute to a sustainable planet.  Dealing with these systems requires a manner of thought that we refer to as global thinking.

In the coming days, I’ll explore the Gaia theory, and the concept of Earth Systems Education, which is a highly related, yet different concept.  Both, however, are important to science teachers, and I’ll explore each.