If you want something really important to be done, you must not merely satisfy reason, you must move the heart also. - Gandhi
I am currently participating in the Mahatma Gandhi 2013 Summer Institute Building Peaceful Communities at the Faculty of Education here at the University of Alberta. The purpose of this Summer Institute is to provide graduate students, teachers and anyone else with a passion for teaching with the theoretical background on community building from a Gandhian perspective and an opportunity to engage with like-minded thinkers around issues of building peaceful communities. While building peaceful communities clearly would benefit most people in our society, for teachers, who are entrusted to teach and nurture our children, it is perhaps even more important to lead by example and foster ahimsa in their classrooms, schools and beyond. It makes sense if you think about it, it is not exactly rocket science. Children and youth are impressionable and whatever example you set is likely to influence them long after they have graduated from your class. Because of this you can only be an effective and respected teacher and role model if you practice and work towards ahimsa, i.e. nonviolence in your thought, word and deed.
Over the last week I have realized that Gandhi's life and philosophy is more multifaceted and complex than what it may seem to the uninitiated person, such as me a week ago or if everything you know about Gandhi you learned from Ben Kingsley. For the sake of brevity I will not go into details on Gandhi's life or philosophies, but rather I will focus on his concept of ahimsa and its role in teaching and education, particularly in the teaching of science (and mathematics, which I here will treat as a science). My main sources of information for this topic is Reva Joshee's article "Ahimsa and teaching", Laura Colucci-Gray et al. "From science literacy to sustainability literacy: An ecological framework for education", Ann Vibert et al. "Critical practice in elementary schools: voice, community, and a curriculum of life" and Devi Prasad's paper "Education for life and through life: Gandhi's Nayee Talim".
One of the key principles underlying the philosophy of Gandhi was the concept of ahimsa — often translated into English as "non-violence" but more accurately meaning "to not do harm" in thought, word or deed. While the Summer Institute aims to provide a entry point for teachers towards infusing Gandhian ideas of ahimsa and community building irrespective of subjects and grades, as a science teacher I cannot but wonder how these ideas could be applied specifically in the science and math classrooms. After all, science and mathematics are in the rather unique position of being (or supposed to be) objective, logical, void of subjectivity and the whims of human psyche, and may occasionally appear a bit "rough around the edges". Sometimes, particularly in the eyes of students, science and Nature can appear to be red in tooth and claw and not exactly ahimsa-like , e.g. the central idea of the survival of the fittest in Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and the scientific discoveries that lead to the making of the first atomic bomb, can be difficult to reconcile with non-violence and "do not harm". While science clearly can be used for non-peaceful purposes these ramifications are, theoretically at least, preventable. For example, to mitigate the manufacturing and distribution of nuclear weapons we can make it really hard for rogue individuals and nations to build such devises. Other things, however, in particular in Nature are beyond our control. One classical, albeit perhaps a bit more mundane, example is the natural history of the ichneumon wasp that Charles Darwin used as an example to illustrate the cruelty of nature, or as Mark Erelli hauntingly captures in his Kingdom Come,
The wasp she lays an egg 'Neath a caterpillar's skin It hatches and the larva grows Feasting from within It kills the host then off it goes To sting another one Seems to me there's too much misery to believe in Kingdom Come
As cruel as it may be, the ichneumon wasp is not unique. Strife, struggle, and demise are everywhere in Nature (anyone claiming otherwise simply has not looked close enough). How do we reconcile the violence and harm that is part of Nature and the misuse of science with teaching science and fostering community building through ahimsa in our schools? Colluci-Gray et al. argues that in order to understand problems in the natural world, science has to be presented using a complex perspective, incorporating controversies, ethical dilemmas and social values. Sometimes we portray science and scholars in general, in particular in academia, as sitting in an intellectual Ivory Tower far removed from the concerns of the world around them. Presenting science to students from this perspective makes the messages hollow and non-authentic. Science is by its very nature complex, not just by its technical complexity, but by being embedded in the most intricate of ways into the very fabric of our society. As teachers we would be doing our students a disservice by not presenting the full picture of science and how it connects to our society, humanity and spirituality. Yes, it is messy, but also necessary. One way of achieving this is and making science relevant and authentic is by engaging students in dialogue about complex and controversial issues surrounding science.
As scientists, and often as teachers as well, we typically engage in debates (some schools even have debate clubs), i.e. two sides oppose each other and attempt to prove each other wrong. When dealing with potentially controversial topics and questions in the science classroom it is easy to engage in debates, e.g. what are the pros and cons of nuclear power, how should we be harvesting and managing natural resources and why is infanticide common among lions? After reading Joshee I believe that a dialogue around controversial topics and questions would be a more constructive approach when teaching science. In contrast to the debate, a dialogue is a collaborative and sharing process where two or more sides are working together towards a common understanding. While the goal in a debate is for one of the sides to win, in a dialogue the aim is to find common ground.
It is interesting to note that although in the daily life of professional scientists the scientific discourse typically unfolds as a debate (e.g. here or here) where ideas are pitted against each other battling for supremacy. In the broader scope of things, however, science is by its very nature a dialogue as described by Thomas Kuhn in his "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" where ideas are born, developed, transformed and surrendered as new evidence is obtained and new insights are reached, or in the american poet Walt Whitman’s words:
I like the scientific spirit – the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine – it always keeps the way beyond open.Often in science, particularly when viewed through an ethical, moral or philosophical lens a single right answer may not exist, e.g. should we allow the use of embryonic stem cells in medical research and treatment? Is the dissection of frogs in schools justifiable? Should we be searching for extraterrestrial life? Was it really worth spending $13 billion on finding the Higgs Boson? These are difficult questions where a debate typically is fruitless. You either say yay or nay and in the end you are not much wiser. Exploring these types of difficult questions in a science class in a form of a Gandhian style dialogue rather than a neoliberal debate is likely to be much more productive and peaceful (i.e. ahimsa-like) and, at the end of the day, everyone will still be talking to each other.
Another central component of fostering ahimsa is to allow and enable students to have a voice by fostering participation, democratic education and critical thinking (Vibert 2002). One of the reasons I decided to pursue a teaching career after retiring from main stream academia was the pervasiveness of non-participation, nondemocratic mindset and lack of critical thinking skills among many first year university students. While there is no denying that university students are intelligent and hard working, after all they crossed all the 't' and dotted every 'i', to get where they are, this does not necessarily mean that they are "participating" or critically evaluating the information they are presented with. Obviously being able to think critically about complex processes, issues and problems is a skill that is particularly important in science. All too often when teaching science, it is portrayed as an objective means to find the truth. Science is, however, only objective in a statistical sense and only sometimes at best, e.g. when evaluating result or discerning between alternative hypotheses. In most other respects, however, science is passionate, subjective, highly personal and bustling with personal opinions and ideas. One way science teachers can foster critical thinking skills is to make science personal by embedding the scientific concepts into the very fabric of society, e.g. linking it with news stories and current events, and the day to day life of students. How can you teach genetics without discussing the philosophical and ethical ramifications of genetic sequencing and gene therapy? How can you teach freshwater ecology in Alberta without discussing the social, economic and environmental ramifications of the oil sands industry in the province? What we ultimately are striving for, not just as science teachers, but as human beings, is to enable our students to become critical thinkers that are engaged and involved with the society around them, locally and globally. One way of achieving this is to immerse your students into what Gandhi referred to as the Curriculum of Life or Nayee Talim. The central component of this concept is the idea that education should not only impart information but also allow students to develop a connection and insight of their role in Nature and society. The words of the Indian writer and poet Rabindranath Tagore captures this concept eloquently,
We have come to this world to accept it, not merely to know it. We may become powerful by knowledge, but we attain fullness by sympathy. The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence. But we find that this education of sympathy is not only systematically ignored in schools, but it is severely repressed. From our very childhood habits are formed and knowledge is imparted in such a manner that our life is weaned away from nature and our mind and the world are set in opposition from the beginning of our days. Thus the greatest of educations for which we came prepared is neglected, and we are made to lose our world to find a bagful of information instead. We rob the child of his earth to teach him geography, of language to teach him grammar. His hunger is for the Epic, but he is supplied with chronicles of facts and dates.
Although Tagore talks about India at his and Gandhi's time, early 20th century, not much has change a world a way and almost a century later. Ultimately our aim is not to produce adults that, in Ken Robinson's words, "...live in their heads. And slightly to one side." but whole creative individuals that engage and participate in their communities and in science with both their minds and hearts. Practicing and teaching science without a heart would be dull and would only create students that are proficient at crossing all the 't' and dot every 'i' to get where they want to go without participating, engaging or critically evaluate the world around them.
Science classrooms are unique learning environments unlike any other classrooms. As a matter of fact, some things only happen in science classrooms. Here is a collection of event that happened in my own science classroom over the last school year. It's a growing list, so check back for updates.
Report from yours truly live-tweeting and navigating the melee at GETCA 2015 (Annual Greater Edmonton Teachers' Conference).
Can a pencil be more than just your average run of the mill pencil? The legendary Palomino Blackwing Pearl can take a student or teacher's writing to new heights. We have taken a batch of the Pearls for a spin and are blown away by how much writing and sketching can be transformed by this unassuming pencil.
Dr. Pineda's Classroom is going YouTube with the release of its first screencast on the exciting topic of calculating percents. Only time will tell if this is the start of something big and shiny or just a passing fad.
After several weeks working on setting up habitats for new classroom animals the big day finally arrived. The newest addition to our classroom include aquatic denizens in our new aquarium and a teenage bearded dragon with lots of attitude and no table manners.