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?

The Cooperative-Communal Classroom–>Insights from Nature

Cooperative-communal classrooms are aligned with fundamental ideas that have been formulated from nature.  Cooperation, empathy, mutual aid, and the interdisciplinary nature of the biosphere are fundamental concepts that are implicit in cooperative-communal classrooms. Each has its origin in nature.

The rationale for establishing cooperative-communal classrooms can be linked to the theory of evolution by Charles Darwin and the work of two Russian scientists of the 19th and early 20th Century, Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky (1863-1945), and Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin (1842-1921).  I know that this appears strange, but as you read ahead I hope you will see how my thinking was influenced by not only my experiences as a teacher, but my collaboration with colleagues in the U.S. and in Russia.

Anatoly Zaklebney, ecologist and science educator who worked with students and teachers during the era of glasnost and perestroika.
Anatoly Zaklebney, Russian ecologist and science educator.

I started visiting Russia (then the Soviet Union) in 1981, and continued for the next twenty years making one or two trips per year collaborating with teachers, researchers, scientists, students and parents.  After several years of building trust and friendship with Russian colleagues (by sending and receiving delegations of teachers and researchers, teaching in each other’s classrooms, and holding open-ended discussions about teaching, and drinking lots of coffee and tea), we created a project that connected students, ecology, and the Internet into what became known as the Global Thinking Project–a kind of hands-across-the-globe environmental science project.  Cooperation was a central tenet of our work.  There was no attempt to Americanize Russian education; instead, we hoped to build a form of collaboration to enhance teaching and learning in each country’s classrooms touched by our work.  Our model was to join classrooms–the class–from one country to the other, for collaborating on one of several ecological and environmental projects that would be carried out using “project-based learning.”

GTP classrooms in Russia, and the U.S. had only one computer per classroom connected to the telecommunications network we established with the help of Gary Lieber, on loan to us from Apple. We actually carried on a flight to Moscow, six Macintosh SE 20 computers, printers, and 2400-baud modems. With this equipment, phone lines and a connection to SOVAM, a telecommunication’s company in Moscow, we linked six Russian and six American schools using email and bulletin boards.

Collaborative teams within each classroom were essential in the GTP, and as a result we had years of experience working with schools that experimented with cooperative-communal classroom learning.

We documented our work in a variety of publications including: Environmental Science on the Net,  The AHP Soviet Exchange Project, Teaching Students to Think Globally, Citizen Scientists, The Emergence of Global Thinking Among American and Russian Youth, and other research.

In time many other teachers and researchers joined with us including, Australia, the Czech Republic, and Spain.

Thinking in Wholes: Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky

In 1988 I met Anatoly Zaklebny, a professor of ecology and ecological education, the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences, Moscow.  Dr. Zakhlebny was a principal leader in ecological education in Russia, and had led many excursions into Siberia to give “field-camp” type experiences for science teachers.  He also developed ecological curriculum for schools throughout Russia.  He argued that science curriculum should be interdisciplinary, helping students experience connections not only among disparate fields in science (biology and chemistry, biology and geology, and so forth), but with politics, social science, and history.
image
Dr. Zaklebny introduced us to the ideas of Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky, a 19th Century Russian scientist.  At the time, most of us in the West were unaware of what Vernadsky had taught about the Earth.  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.  As Dr. Lynn Margulis, and colleagues stated in the introduction to the first English translation of Vernadsky’s book, The Biosphere, Vernadsky showed us the way to understand how life and non-life are connected.  They wrote:

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.

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

But Here’s the Thing.

The Common Core State Standards, and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) have been criticized for their lack of attention to interdisciplinary curriculum, and the role of schools in preparing students for citizenship. Professor William Wraga suggests that “disciplinary myopia” has led to standards that are overly technical and steeped in discipline concepts, processes and practice. He suggests, and we would agree, that interdisciplinary curriculum can lead to greater understanding by seeking connections among the disciplines. S-T-S, science-related social issues, and a lived curriculum should be starting points for a science curriculum; unfortunately this is not the case in the new science framework.

Wraga also focuses in on the unfortunate single purpose of schooling as depicted in the common standards, and that is that education should be in the service of economic interests. We see this in news reports each Spring when test scores are released which typically lead to “a sky is falling” mentality amongst chief school officers, governors, and other politicians. Repeated attention to international test results leads to unfounded comparisons among countries. Wraga sees this as a narrow function of schooling, and wonders why vocational, social, civic, cultural, and each goal give way to a single goal, which he identifies as the academic goal.

The same criticisms can leveled at the framework for science education in that National Research Council’s Framework as it is steeped in a disciplinary approach to content. In fact, the word “interdisciplinary” is found only twice in the framework, and one of these was part of one of the committee member’s biography. The science framework is neatly organized into four traditional content areas: life, earth, and physical science, as well as engineering and technology. The framework does name cross-cutting ideas, but this is not at all what science educators would view as anything remotely close to interdisciplinary curriculum.  The Framework was the basis for the NGSS.

We need to teach science that is rich in connections not only within the traditional disciplines of science, but the connections with and among social studies, politics, economics, history, and geography.   Charlene M. Czerniak, in a chapter entitled “Interdisciplinary Science Teaching” in The Handbook of Research on Science Education, an advocate for “integrated curriculum,” reports that there are challenges to implementing interdisciplinary curriculum.  Even though interdisciplinary approaches have been around for a long time, the 1996 Science Standards, and the Next Generation Science Standards, still organize the standards into each discipline of science.  There is very little attempt to integrate knowledge across disciplines.

Perhaps what we need is a Vernadskian curriculum theorist and practitioner who will apply integrated approaches, especially if we think that this kind of curriculum might be more relevant to students, and might indeed focus on problems that would be of interest to our students.

The Place of Cooperation in Evolution : Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin and Charles Darwin

kropotkin
Wordle on Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin

The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics is a new book written by Lee Alan Dugatkin an evolutionary biologist and historian of science and a professor and Distinguished University Scholar in the Department of Biology at the University of Louisville.  Dr. Dugatkin’s book should be of interest to scientists, and science educators, but I think also the corporate reformers that I wrote about in the last blog post.  Dugatkin writes about the science and politics of Peter Kropotkin, and it is the science that I think should be reading for all interested in improving teaching and learning of the youth of the species, Homo sapiens.
As Dugatkin writes, Kropotkin was a brilliant scientist, who spent years studying nature in Siberia.  As a young man, with the support of the Russian Geographical Society, his travels to Siberia began a life of exploration, writing, publishing, editing, and activist politics.  As Dugatkin points out, the evolutionary theory of the late 19th Century suggested tha the natural world was a “brutal” place; indeed, competition was the driving force.  Kropotkin expected that he would find examples of the brutalness of nature, but instead he found the opposite.  Lee Alan Dugatkin writes:

And so, in the icy wilderness, Peter expected to witness nature red in tooth and claw. He searched for it. He studied flocks of migrating birds and mammals, fish schools, and insect societies. What he found was that competition was virtually nonexistent. Instead, in every corner of the animal world, he encountered mutual aid. Individuals huddled for warmth, fed one another, and guarded their groups from danger, all seeming to be cogs in a larger cooperative society. “In all the scenes of animal lives which passed before my eyes,” Kropotkin wrote, “I saw mutual aid and mutual support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species and its further evolution” (Dugatkin, Lee Alan (2011-09-13). The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics . . Kindle Edition).

And during his studies in Siberia, he visited peasant villages, and in them he saw their sense of community and coöperation.  According to Dugatkin, Kropotkin as a young scientist “witnessed human coöperation and altruism in its purest form.”

These observations presented a problem to the Russian scientist.  As an advocate for natural selection (as discovered by Darwin and Wallace), as the driving force that shaped life on the earth, he began to question the way Darwin’s ideas had been perverted and misrepresented, especially by British scientists.  Even today, most people misinterpret Darwinian evolution by invoking the term “survival of the fittest” as the fundamental idea of evolution.  It is not.  Dugatkin writes:

Natural selection, Kropotkin argued, led to mutual aid, not competition, among individuals. Natural selection favored societies in which mutual aid thrived, and individuals in these societies had an innate predisposition to mutual aid because natural selection had favored such actions. Kropotkin even coined a new scientific term—progressive evolution—to describe how mutual aid became the sine qua non of all societal life—animal and human. Years later, with the help of others, Kropotkin would formalize the idea that mutual aid was a biological law, with many implications, but the seeds were first sown in Siberia (Dugatkin, Lee Alan (2011-09-13). The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics . . Kindle Edition).

Cooperation is an essential attribute of survival, not only among humans, but other animal species as well.

Instead of using the attribute of coöperation as a fundamental aspect of student learning, most classrooms use a competitive model to fulfill the goal of personal achievement, at all costs.  To make sure that one can measure achievement, élite groups have mandated single set of goals naming them common standards.  To date, we have developed common standards in mathematics, English/language arts, and science.  Concurrently achievement tests that are matched to the standards are being developed by two groups of test constructionists.  The tests, when they are ready for use, will be administered using computer technology.

Unfortunately, much of the rationale for this standards/high-stakes testing is based on the flawed theory that to compete in the global market place, we need to beat the drums and make sure that students attain a set of goals that may or not be related their own futures.  Using a behavioral and at best traditional model of knowledge attainment, instruction is geared to the teach to the test model.  All outcomes of this approach are measured by how people do on high-stakes testing.

Instead of recognizing that scientists have moved way beyond the simple model of knowledge transmission and have invented a new field of study, called the learning sciences, schools are stuck in the older model.  The so-called reformers of education want only one thing: Higher test score.  The learning sciences is an interdisciplinary field of study embracing disparate fields including cognitive sciencecomputer scienceeducational psychologyanthropology, and applied linguistics.  What is significant here is the notion of interdisciplinary study.  Vernadsky and Kropotkin uncovered new connections among various fields of study, and indeed, Vernadsky might be considered one of the earliest scientists to invent interdisciplinary fields including “biogeochemistry,” and “geomicrobiology.”  Kropotkin established that brought together various fields of study to develop a common thread or theme–the scientific law of mutual aid, which brought the fields together.  As Kugatkin in the Prince of Evolution writes:

This law boils down to Kropotkin’s deep-seated conviction that what we today would call altruism and cooperation—but what the Prince called mutual aid—was the driving evolutionary force behind all social life, be it in microbes, animals or humans (Dugatkin, Lee Alan (2011-09-13). The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics . . Kindle Edition).

Students do not learn in isolation, and their learning is not enhanced by competing with other students for higher grades, stars, happy faces, or even money.  In my view, learning is improved in environments where students are working together to build and share ideas through action on problems that are relevant to the student’s life experiences and cultural heritage.  As formulated by John Dewey, learning should be rooted in pragmatism resulting in school learning that is experiential and humanistic.  Cooperation should be a focus of the work of teachers in helping students “learn” to work with each other to tackle socially relevant problems.  Empathy and realism foster interpersonal relationships among students and teachers.

Thinking in wholes, and learning to use coöperation, one of the survival traits that evolved through natural selection, should characterize schooling for human beings living on the planet Earth.

What do you think about all of this?  Do you accept Kropotkin’s idea that mutual aid or coöperation played a major part in the evolution?  Does this have any application for teaching?  And what do you think of Vernadsky’s conception of thinking in wholes, and making connection among disparate fields?

Afterthought

Peter Kropotkin was also a famous political activist.  His travels to Siberia, and experiences with peasant villages led him to “give up on government,” and instead believe that it would be better to have no government.  He joined an activist group in St. Petersburg whose goal was to work with peasants and tell them of labor movements in Europe, and to educate them.  Remember, Peter was from an aristocratic family, and as such, he dressed as a peasant and traveled around spreading the ideas that government was evil, and that people would “naturally” coöperate and solve problems better than any government (See  Dugatkin, Lee Alan (2011-09-13). The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics (p. 23). . Kindle Edition).  Although imprisoned in the notorious Peter and Paul Prison in 1874,he was able to receive books, and with the help of the Russian Geographic Society, and his brother’s plea to the Czar, Peter was able to receive paper and pen to continue writing.  He escaped from a low security prison in 1876, and fled to England.  Follow this link to The Prince of Evolution to find out more about his political activities in England, mainland Europe and America.

 

 

From Earthday to Earthmonth: A Holistic Approach to Science Teaching

On Wednesday (Today) we celebrate Earthday, founded on April 22, 1970 by Senator Gaylord Nelson, and around the world it is a day that focuses on educating all of us for the environment with activities, celebrations, conferences, and programs.

earth_hands-3You can visit the Earthday Network to explore a myriad of resources that are available to us to further our understanding and involvement in environmental education and environmental science activities, as well as political & economic developments.

In the past 40 years the significance of Earthday has changed from of environmental awareness to mainstream developments in environmental policy that will shape our future.  Within this time frame, the EPA was created, laws were passed to clean the air, water, and land, scientists reported results of studies pointing to climate change and global warming, and the present US administration has appointed a very powerful group of environmental scientists and activitists to head the Office of Science and Technology, the Department of Energy, the EPA, and Interior.

In the last half dozen blog posts, I’ve explored the theories proposed by Vladimir Vernadsky, author of The Biosphere (read the complete book here), a book published in 1926, that laid the foundation for work that was to follow by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis. Vernadsky developed the concept of “biosphere” calling attention to a “sphere of life” which, according to him, came about from biogeochemical processes between living and non-living matter. Lovelock and Margulis proposed the Gaia hypothesis suggesting that living organisms maintain the chemical balance of air, seas, and soil that ensure their own existence. That life creates and maintains environmental conditions favorable to its existence was called the Gaia Hypothesis. For these two pioneering scientists, Gaia is like a living cell.  The scientific & theoretical underpinnings for an Earthday can be found in the work of these researchers, and many others.

 

The launching of a Global Environmental Summit in Moscow
The launching of a Global Environmental Summit in Moscow

For many years I was involved with the development of the Global Thinking Project (GTP).  Basing our work environmental science as underscored by Vernadsky, Lovelock and Margulis, we designed curriculum to foster global thinking among students around the globe.  One of the signature activities of the GTP was real time, face-to-face “global environmental summits” which were held over the years in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Atlanta.

 

American and Russian students and their teachers discuss "strategy" prior to making a presentation at a "global environmental summit" in Atlanta
American and Russian students and their teachers discuss "strategy" prior to making a presentation at a "global environmental summit" in Atlanta

The summits were carried out amonst one hundred American and Russian students, who had lived in each others’ homes for two three-week periods, participated in environmental research activities in American and Russian communities, and lived in the context of each others culture.  The summits brought them together to resolve environmental topics and to write declarations.  We described the student’s activity as that of a “citizen scientist,” one who combines the process of science with public policy decision making.

In the GTP curriculum, one of the “projects” that was based on the global environmental summits, was a project which we labeled Project Earth Month (you can find the entire project at this link).  Project Earth Month was an open-ended project that encourages students to identify an important environmental topic, design investigations, and take action on their findings.  Earth Month was traditionally held during the month of April so as to be part of local Earth Day activities.

You might want to follow this link to Project Earth Month to find out what procedures were used with the students, and read about some of the work that GTPers did in connection with this project.

Resources

Earthday Network: Its mission is to broaden and diversify the environmental movement worldwide, and to mobilize it as the most effective vehicle for promoting a healthy, sustainable environment.

Project Earth Month: A GTP environmental science research activity.

Environmental Science on the Net: The Global Thinking Project: Text containing the curriculum of the GTP.

Environmental Protection Agency

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.