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

The Art of Junk Science

I read an article in the local paper that a U.S. Senator had evoked the phrase “junk science” when explaining why Rachel Carson’s work should not be considered for an award in the U.S. Senate. He was speaking specifically about her work entitled Silent Spring, which used scientific findings to raise questions about the widespread use of pesticides. This U.S. Senator referred to the science in Carson’s work as “junk science.” And this senator has a background in medicine.

I checked the National Science Education Standards, and I couldn’t find any reference to “junk science” in the Standards, so I suppose that this term is not part of the Nation’s science education curriculum.

But it is a phrase some members of Congress use in certain circumstances, and there is a website called Junkscience.com that Fox News would have you believe is journalistic. Except for the fact that Exxon-Mobile provides financial support to the web-master, a Stephen Malloy.

The term Junk Science is a recent one. For example the tobacco industry has used the term “junk science” to describe scientific research that demonstrated harmful effects of smoking and second hand-smoke. And indeed, they used another term, “sound science,” to direct your attention at corporate research that supported their position.

Politicians love to use the term “junk science.” It is primarily used to cast doubt on and deride scientific findings, even if the findings have been published in peer-reviewed journals, and are supported by the scientific community. Junk science has been evoked to counter global warming theories, and especially the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which has provided us with a comprehensive picture of the state of global warming. Even though the panel has reviewed thousands of studies, there are politicians and some in the media, who claim these conclusions are based on “junk science” and that until some “sound science” comes down the road, we should put a halt on any recommendations related to the data.

Now back to that U.S. Congressman that I mentioned at the head of this piece. It seems that a committee in the U.S. Senate wants to give an honor in memory of the 100th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s birth for her contributions to science. The honorable Senator Tom Coburn had decided to block the resolution claiming that Carson used “junk science” to open the eyes of the U.S. public that pesticides were not a good thing to be using without looking into the effects on human health.

This topic is a very powerful one if you are teaching students about the nature of science. What is science? What are the characteristics of a scientific study that would be reviewed favorably by a panel of peers? What is “junk science”? And do scientists use the term “sound science,” and in what situations?

Some sites on the web that you might look to for planning a discussion might be:

Junk Science–An outline of the history of the use of the term, Junk Science, and some specifics on how the term is used.
Pseudoscience–A very interesting site written by Stephen Lower, a retired faculty member of the Dept. of Chemistry, Simon Fraser University Burnaby / Vancouver, Canada.
The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science–A very good article published in the Chronicle Review of Higher Education.
The Scientific Method–A valuable site exploring the nature of the scientific method.

Silent Springs of Past

Today is Earthday, 2007. On today’s CBS News Sunday Morning Program, one of the feature stories was The Legacy of “Silent Spring.” We all now know that Rachel Carson, the author of the 1962 book, Silent Spring wrote the book (with fierce opposition from the pesticide industry) to inform the public the fact (according to Carson) that pesticides were destroying wildlife and endangering the environment. At the time, the pesticide industry drummed up contrary opinion, and tried to claim that Carson’s science was flawed, and there was really no scientific evidence supporting her claims.

Doesn’t this sound familiar? President Kennedy appointed a committee of experts to look into Carson’s claims, and when all was said and done, the committee agreed with all of her science and her conclusions.

It is important to be reminded of how scientific ideas are received. Rachel Carson’s theory that pesticides injected into the environment were traveling through ecological webs and impacting all wildlife. Science does not exist in a vacuum, and its ideas have social, political and religious consequences.

The Green Year?

Tomorrow is the year 2007 Earth Day, which started in 1970. Could the year 2007 be the Green Year, the tipping year in which government and industry embraced the importance of environmental sustainability just as the public is beginning to accept, and as the environmental movement has represented. Whether or not the environmental movement began in 1962 with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, this year has been marked by profound reports and a Supreme Court Ruling. Further, magazines such as Time and Newsweek, and The New York Times have reported extensively on climate change and global warming.

In fact, Newsweek had a special report in its April 16th edition entitled “Leadership and the Environment: Moment of Truth. As the article pointed out, “the ranks of global-warming deniers have mostly been forced to concede that the Earth really is getting warmer.” Two points are worth mentioning about the article. The first is the environmentalism that has been encorported into California’s environmental laws, and how the state has set the benchmark for how industry, government and individuals can play a role in achieving “green accountablily.” Companies such as One Source Green, dedicated to green construction and archetecture represent a new cadre of industry emerging in California.

But California is not the only state where environmental action is taking place. Seattle’s mayor, Greg Nickels, has emerged as one of the leading environmental politicians in the country. Sensing that climate change was impacting his city, Nickels drafted a document that would put the Kyoto Protocol into effect (even though the Federal Government did not sign off on Kyoto). His document, called the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, was presented at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 2005, and so far 435 cities have signed on (he indicated he would be happy if about 140 did so!). One fact that is significant is the 435 cities that have signed off this agreement represent more than 70 million people, and new jobs are emerging such as “sustainability director.”

Perhaps one of the most important events of the year was the Supreme Court’s 5 – 4 decision insisting the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions such as CO2, and that it should not defer to White House claims that they are adhering to the Clean Air Act. Now the EPA has legal authority to move on reducing greenhouse gases by regulating emissions. More importantly, the decision puts the government on notice that environmental sustainability and global warming are issues that can not be ignored, but must be encorporated into American culture.

This has also been the year of reports and other forms of publications that clearly show that Earth’s climate is changing, and that change must include human activities as one of the variables contributing the heating up of the Earth. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued two reports this year (a third will come out later in the year) that thousands of scientists agree with that identifies the science behind climate change, and the impact of human industrial activities that have contributed to climate change.

Clearly, Earth Day 2007 is a day that should shine green.

Gentle Subversives: Rachel Carson and Frances Oldham Kelsey

Yesterday I used the theme “Meeting of Minds”to focus on the US Congress and its hearing with Al Gore. Today, I would like to play this out one step further, and suggest how the members of the Congressional committees that are responsible for environmental issues and legislation might be informed by two great minds, each of whom received Presidential Awards for their contributions to government and society. These two great minds are Rachel Carson and Frances Kelsey.

Rachel Louise Carson (27 May 1907 – 14 April 1964) was a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-born zoologist and marine biologist whose landmark book, Silent Spring, is often credited with having launched the global environmental movement. Silent Spring had an immense effect in the United States, where it spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy. She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Frances Oldham Kelsey, most famous as the reviewer for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) who refused to authorize thalidomide for market because she had concerns about the drug’s safety. Her concerns proved to be justified when it was proven that thalidomide caused birth defects. Kelsey’s career intersected with the passage of laws strengthening the FDA’s oversight of pharmaceuticals. As a result of her efforts to prevent the approval of thalidomide, Kelsey was awarded the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service by President John F. Kennedy,becoming the second woman to receive that award.

When I watched the hearings yesterday in Washington I knew that Al Gore was the wrong person to be presenting ideas about climate change, not withstanding the enormous work he has done in the service of the environment for more than 30 years. However, he is polarizing, and the media uses critics’ sound bites to drown out any contribution he might make. Gore also tends to be an alarmist, and suggests solutions that are too far from the center to rally the kind of support that is needed in the US Congress for any action to occur. All you have to do is listen to the oil and gas lobbyists’ Senatorial cheerleader, James Inhoe, and you will see how easy it for critics to set Gore aside.

Today I was thinking who could come before the Congress and get our Congressional representatives to listen. Who? Someone of likes of Rachel Carson or Frances Kelsey. They were each contemporaries. They each worked for the Federal government. They were pioneers in their respective fields, of biology and pharmacology. And they bucked the system in the 1950s and 1960s that was male dominated, and that did not look favorably upon anyone that questioned the relationship between big business and human health concerns.

Rachel Carson, the subject of a new book by Mark Hamilton Lytle, The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring and the Rise of the Environmental Movement. Although Carson’s famous book, Silent Spring was not published until 1962, she first became aware of the problem the relationship between DDT and other insecticides on human health. Her courageous writing in Silent Spring brought the issue to the public, and to the Federal government. She was invited to meet with President Kennedy’s Science and Technology Committee. Even though the bio-chemical industry tried to subvert Carson’s work, she was quickly vindicated of any of the criticisms being leveled by this industry, and the US Congress went on to pass legislation banning DDT. Carson had started the environmental movement.

Impacting Rachel Carson while she was writing Silent Spring was another scientist, Dr. Francis Kelsey. Kelsey worked for the FDA, and refused to allow the drug Kevedon (thalidomide) from being marketed in the US unless more research was done. The pharmaceutical company (Merrill) brought pressure to the FDA, and tried to by-pass inspector Kelsey’s reports. Kelsey stood her ground, and refused to allow the drug into the American market. Sometime later the world was shocked by the horrifying birth defects caused by the drug taken by pregnant women. She became a hero. More importantly, it gave Carson the courage to continue with her work.

Each of these gentle subversives made ground-breaking contributions to society, not only in the USA, but in the world. Kelsey retired recently at age 90 from the FDA after 45 years of service. Rachel Carson died very young at age 57.

Who would you suggest as the gentle subversive that could speak about the issue of climate change, and the human impact on the environment in such a way that not only would influence the American people, but members of Congress?