Teach Like Vladimir Vernadsky: Education as a Holistic & Dynamic System

I started going to the Soviet Union when it was the USSR in 1981, and for the next 20 years collaborated  with teachers and researchers, particularly Julie Weisberg, Phil Gang and Jennie Springer in the US, Sergey Tolstikov, Galina Manke, and Anatoly Zaklebny in Russia in a mutually designed and developed program, the Global Thinking Project (GTP).  The GTP is about how citizen diplomacy among American and Russian educators and psychologists emerged into a youth and teacher activism project.  During nearly 20 years of work, educators, primarily from Georgia, forged a hands-across the globe program with colleagues and students in Russia, and then partnered with teachers in other countries including Australia, Czech Republic, Singapore, and Spain.

The citizen diplomacy activity that emerged between American and Russian students, and between students in other countries as mentioned above, integrates Vladimir Vernadsky’s (1926) conception of the Biosphere and environmental education, the humanistic psychology and philosophy of Rogers (1961), John Dewey’s conception of experiential learning (1938), and Track II Diplomacy (Montville and Davidson 1981).

In this post I want to write about Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945), a Russian scientist, whose ideas really never made it into the west until the time of Mikhail Gorbachev.  The Biosphere, a book written by Vernadsky in 1926 was not published in English until 1998.  It’s available on Kindle here.  Vernadsky’s 150th birthday was celebrated in March 2013.

What does Vernadsky have to do with teaching?  That’s the question I’d like to explore in this post.  I am going to argue that the fundamental concepts underpinning Vernadsky’s view of the biosphere give the rationale for a holistic and dynamic conception of teaching and learning.

Dr. Anatoly Zakleny, Professor of Ecology and Science Education, Russian Academy of Education
Dr. Anatoly Zakleny, Professor of Ecology and Science Education, Russian Academy of Education

Anatoly Zaklebny, professor of ecological studies at the Russian Academy of Education introduced  us to Vernadsky’s work.  Anatoly is an ecological educator, author of ecological and environmental education teaching materials for Russian schools, and ecological teacher educator.  Anatoly understood and applied Vernadsky’s conception of the biosphere, and used the concept of Biosphere to design teaching materials for Russian ecological education.

Zaklebny was the chief scientist on the GTP, and participated in all aspects of the project.  We embraced Vernadsky’s holistic view of the Biosphere, which resists the mechanistic reductionist nature of Western science.  Vernadsky’s ideas were late in arriving in the west, and it was only in the 70s and 80s, that his ideas gained prominence in Western science.

Vernadsky’s Ideas

Lynn Margulis, biologist at the University of Massachusetts, and co-creator of the GAIA Hypothesis, in the introduction to the English translation of Vernadsky’s (1926) book The Biosphere, explained that Vernadsky was a great teacher.  According to Margulis, who discovered that interdependence and cooperation were the underlying themes in endosymbiosis theory (one organism engulfed another, yet both survived and eventually evolved over millions of years into eukaryotic cells), Vernadsky teaches that life has transformed the planet over eons.  She put it this way in her introduction to The Biosphere:

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. (Forward, L. Margulis in V.I. Vernadsky, 1998, The Biosphere. New York: Copernicus.)

Russian Google Doodle for Vladimir Vernadsky's 150th year anniversary, 2013.
Russian Google Doodle for Vladimir Vernadsky’s 150th year anniversary, 2013.  Doodle posted by googlescribbles

 

Vernadsky explained that life, including human life, using energy from visible light from the Sun, has transformed the planet Earth for billions of years. To Vernadsky life makes geology. To him, life is not merely a geological force, it is the geological force. At the Earth’s surface, just about all geological features are “bio-influenced.” Although Vernadsky did not coin the word “biosphere,” his understanding and views are what are accepted today.
Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky
Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky

Vernadsky’s contributions and scientific contributions, especially the idea of “biosphere” are metaphors for thinking in wholes, and the connections that exist within any system that we study. This is especially true for the curriculum.

To Vernadsky, the biosphere is a biogeochemical evolving system. And according to Jacques Grinvald, the ideas was not welcomed by mainstream science. Vernadsky’s idea is the biosphere should be conceived from a geochemical point of view, and the Earth as a “dynamic energy-matter organization, like a thermodynamic engine” (Grinvald, 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 is 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 teachers, Vernadsky’s ideas provide empirical support for interdisciplinary teaching and curriculum development.

The current standards based system of education is just the opposite of the kind of thinking that Vernadsky’s mind set out to discover.  Our current curriculum (math, reading, science, you name it) splits everything into little components and thinks that students at different ages and stages should accumulate these bits of information, and of course be tested to see if they have retained the bits.  Not in Vernadsky’s scheme.
Vernadsky was always combining fields of science.  Biology, chemistry, geology became biogeochemistry. He also founded fields including geochemistry and radiogeology.  Vernadsky’s thinking is literacy in synthesis, building wholes, construction, integrating, structure, and  cooperation.

Application of Vernadsky’s Ideas to Teaching

If we accept the Vernadskian view, teaching ought to be holistic and dynamic.  The curriculum for our students ought to be constructed into wholes, not parts, and we need to use a dynamic view of knowledge, and one that brings the students in touch with the world around them.
If you consider the following ideas of Vernadsky, then one can begin to conceptualize curriculum and teaching as fundamentally a holistic process.  Take a look at these ideas (see Vernadsky’s book, The Biosphere for more details):
  • Life occurs on a spherical planet.
  • 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.
  • The influence of living matter on the Earth becomes more extensive with time. Increasingly more parts of the Earth are incorporated into the biosphere.
As teachers, I believe that Vernadsky’s work is essential, particularly to those teachers who work hard to help students become involved in learning from an interdisciplinary standpoint. Of course, in my view, Vernadsky’s views are deeper than the traditional approach to interdisciplinary 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.
It seems to be that his ideas should encourage us to think differently about our work with students.  I don’t believe  that thinking holistically, or in wholes are clichés, but instead they are based on empirical studies not only in science, but other fields as well.

One More Thing

Fritjof Capra, in his book The Science of Leonardo, 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.

What do you think are the applications of Vladimir Vernadsky’s ideas for teaching and learning?

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?

Readings:

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.’

Reading:

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