Zen and the Art of Science Education

30 Jun

Oct 30, 2010

Late October in Jerusalem is cool and clear, and there has been rain—the first substantial rain since spring. The trees all still have their leaves, though the grape vines and a few others have let go of the tiredest, driest ones, which I sweep from my back garden flagstones and place on the top of my compost bin.

I am reading and enjoying Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. For many years I have been interested in the tension or divide between “classical”, or traditional scientific, and “romantic” ways of knowing and understanding. I noticed that people tended to exhibit a predominance of one type of seeing the world over the other. This included authors, or at least what they wrote, classes and workshops as well. And as I grew up I was influenced in these understandings by my mother and my father.

Mom showed me primarily the romantic, with its intuitive response to external form, the response of the “gut” to data gathered by the senses, without rational analysis or inquiry into underlying structure. She would be working in the kitchen, and exclaim, “Oh! Come see!”  It might be a forest creature come down to explore our lawn, or the cat giving the dog a bath, or a particularly beautiful puffed omelet she was taking out of the oven. It was to be experienced and enjoyed, not discussed or analyzed. She had little use for systematic guides such as recipes or craft patterns—she created meals, hooked rugs and did her housekeeping when the mood was right, rapidly, by intuition. On the negative side, she might wrinkle her nose, shake her head and utter a rejection of an idea, another person’s behavior or politics, a taste, and that too was to be accepted, allowed without comment at least, not weighed for its validity. One did not question or analyze these responses derived from her gut. But in these cases her refusal to explain these reactions caused me to mistrust the intuitive, emotional side of knowing, which I saw in some of its forms as thoughtless, judgmental and irrational. I would ask, “But why?” and she would scowl and refuse to answer—it was a case of non-overlapping spheres of understanding. I thought she wanted me to blindly trust her judgment, which I was not about to do. I wanted reasons for everything, especially things that blocked my gratifications. I was a teenager.

Dad grounded me in the rational, the logical, but not at the expense to the romantic; he perceived the beauty in not only the external form but also the underlying forms into which most perceived and conceived knowledge can be divided. He would be appreciating the romantic appeal of a shaft of light piercing a glass of red wine held in its rays, but I knew, even if he didn’t always say so, in the classically understood interactions between the photon-waves as they struck and navigated the molecules of alcohol, water and solids in the silica-solids of the glass, and even in the nature of his sensory, psychological and emotional responses to the experience. Unlike my mother, he enjoyed discussing this too. Then he might paint it, or write about it. But he would not try to take a photo for the album—too utilitarian. I see now that I saw my Dad as being the logical, reasonable one, because he was much less likely to yield to snap judgments and first impressions. He would try to explain his reasons, and even sometimes those of my mother. But even so, he was very romantically inclined.

When I decided to study biology in university, it was for several reasons. First, I was interested in marine life. My parents had instilled in us a love and care for living things, and a curiousilty about their ways. Marine animals were hard to encounter and therefore mysterious. I loved fishing for that reason—who knew what kind of fish might be brought up from beneath the rippling, reflective surface? I wanted to see these creatures closer and understand their ways—to me they were inherently interesting. I also had never really enjoyed the analytical aspects of English and although I loved reading, writing, philosophy, history, and so on, I had seldom had an English or history class I had enjoyed. Except for the Shakespeare passages I had to memorize in high school, I didn’t retain much of value. And as for philosophy, I’d do that informally by living in the dorms of a small liberal arts college and joining conversations with the artsies at parties and cafes. I went to the big university next door for my biology, chemistry and calculus classes, but my friends were in journalism, English, classics and fine arts. The only humanities-related class I took in my early years was German that had a low professor-input pass-or fail English writing requirement attached (mostly taken by foreign students). Once a month we went to a lecture hall, were given a few interesting topics from which to choose and wrote spontaneously for one hour—this I enjoyed very much.

Back to the “divide” between classical and romantic: While I was irritated by school English teachers’ concentration on analyzing underlying form, I also felt that in most of my university science classes there was little appreciation for form itself—everything, every scientific discipline, was chopped up into parts without much attention to understanding the whole. Ecology, for which I signed up with anticipation, was the worst—it seemed to have nothing to do with the interesting ways in which species, populations and communities interrelated, but was entirely about numerical data-gathering and statistical analysis.  The text was dominated by charts and graphs, not biological webs of interaction. I was disgusted (and I almost failed the class).  No wonder they had to make it a required class. I had thought that marine biology was my “thing,” yet the way I was required to study it, or at least the neglect of the non-classical aspect, left me dissatisfied. Not that I wanted to hear intelligent design adherents gush about the miraculous aspects of it all, and how it couldn’t have all come about by chance, but I wanted at least to be allowed to ruminate and appreciate, not just master knowledge. And I sought out fellow students who could bridge the gap. They were few and far between.

In biology labs we observed real, albeit mostly dead and preserved, organisms, and got to draw them. But whenever I drew what I really saw, complete with fuzzy edges and shading, and missing whatever really was missing, the comments on my assignment would be to the effect that I was to diagram, not draw. I was to draw with reference to the text model, and include what should be there, eliminating uncertain lines. This went against my drawing philosophy, and didn’t it go against the principles of scientific observation? I didn’t want to fudge the data. But it was about grasping the content, not learning from real life. Even further abstracted from reality was my mandatory statistics class. I hated it, and because of my lack of attention and not handing in assignments, I had to take it twice to get an acceptable grade. If only the lecturer had showed some enthusiasm for number crunching, a sense of the beauty or fun of it, it would have been bearable, but as it was it was merely a tool for the kind of scientific inquiry no one had even convinced us was worth doing.

A first-year philosophy of science would have been valuable, perhaps, if the university could have kept it out of the hands of true believers from either side of the Intelligent Design-godless evolutionary forces debate. Just someone to ask us, Why did you decide to study the sciences? Why is such study valuable? What are the different ways such studies may be approached, and for what purposes? How do the mind, the heart, traditions, personal and social values, personality, and gender affect the way we study the sciences? Will you be a generalist or a specialist?  A researcher, educator, inventor, investor, visionary, a cog in the machine, a leader or a follower? When I look back now I see the elephant in the room—it was largely about getting jobs.

I remember a parasitology class, two algae classes and a marine animal physiology class that caught my attention, because I could sense the real appreciation these professors had for the forms of these organisms, not just a knowledge of underlying form. In the algae classes we even got to go out and gather samples for pressing and drying—taxonomically labeled, they made beautiful designs against the thick, white paper. The physiology professor in particular not only taught us the material, but shared his delight in the wonderful design (not, for him, a creationist idea) of the bodies of these ocean creatures and what they were able to do. “What is the ultimate reason for the presence of the vertebral column? Swimming, of course!” he grinned. He was on the university’s master swim team.

So here and there I picked up the tacit component I was eager to integrate with my science studies. Even so, it was not the balance I sought. After two years of my Bachelor of Science program, I took a year off to learn about international development on a rural Quebec farm and in a West African village. When I came back, at least I appreciated my studies more and was more disciplined. And I took some history and International development classes. I worked in my first biology-related job, which involved digging up and measuring baby clams of a certain species and feeding the data to the PhD guy so he could analyze the stuff. So much for underwater wonders. I was completely turned off my honors-track studies, at least for the time being. I finished a regular three year degree instead by my fourth year, then since my artistic side had been left totally unnurtured, I then went to study Fine Arts for a semester. That was a breath of fresh air, but I did find that these young art students weren’t very reflective about their reasons for studying art, and although they were fun and sometimes talented, they were a bit flaky.  One semester was enough, and I was broke. What next?

How to integrate my interest in science, in art, in being creative, and in general knowledge about the world? Teaching! There I could communicate the classical and romantic perspectives, enjoy facilitating discovery, see things through younger eyes. I looked forward to creating integrated lessons, with artistic, dramatic, ethical and communications components. And the summer before my education degree program began, I found the perfect job—as an environmental education leader in a beautiful seaside park, with a team of wonderful leaders whose goal it was to help kids first appreciate and then understand their world using fun activities in natural outdoor settings. During the summer we also ran camps called Sunship Earth at a semi-wilderness campsite, and I learned how one could reach the heart (“affective domain” in Educatorspeak), teach the fundamental ecological concepts, and stimulate kids to make commitments to living lighter on the earth.

They say B.Ed. programs don’t really prepare you for teaching. One comes into the program with, presumably, a solid grasp of the content area one will teach, and education classes provide a philosophical framework and understanding of child psychology, educational issues, and methodology, as well as practice writing goals, objectives, and lesson plans. Pre-service teachers get to teach mini-lessons to one another and get feedback, prepare learning centers and audio-visuals, and do a bit of research. But in today’s regular schools, it is skill in “classroom management” that makes or breaks a new teacher. And it is only by apprenticeship and practice that a new teacher can gradually learn the tricks of effective organization and discipline. Even with those, there is a certain “je ne sais quoi” that distinguishes a gifted teacher from the usual set. I wanted to emulate the best teachers I had known, and overcome the negatives I had seen. I knew very little about “classroom management,” but I loved to learn, I expected my students would too, and I really wanted to help students make connections between scientific knowledge, and wonder. I wanted them to remember to appreciate nature, the creation, to enjoy it, to love it, and to take care of it, not just as “natural resources.”

My first year teaching 9th grade science and French was grueling, while I was disillusioned about students still being fresh little learners whom I could just facilitate along. What was I thinking? School doesn’t really cultivate a love for learning, in general. (Significant adults, especially parents, do. But that’s another story.) It would take time to develop the “je ne sais quoi” art of teaching that would make a space for real, integrated learning. But there was enough of the joy still left after the first year that when I returned to teaching (after raising and home educating my kids for fifteen years, also grueling, but a joy), it was life-giving. Except for the constraints of the system itself, which every teacher must deal with. Back home as a homeschool parent, I love to find opportunities to teach others. Mostly informal, and in moments, rather than within structures and institutions.

When I am teaching from my true nature, it will be like this: I will make those connections between the classical and romantic ways of seeing. I will provide opportunities for the more linear, left-brain thinkers to learn and understand, and for the more romantically-inclined see the beauty of nature’s laws and entities. I will especially nurture those with more holistic ways of seeing, and, best of all, I will help them all find the motivations and means to be a responsible human part of the world in their own ways.


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