Issues Magazine

Science and Spirituality in Education

By Beverley Jane

Considered as an entity, “science and spirituality” in education has the potential to increase student motivation to study science by challenging students’ stereotypical views of scientists and science.

Statistics show that in Australia most young people are disinterested in pursuing careers in fields related to science. Such a negative trend is of considerable concern given that Australia is a developed country whose population values scientific breakthroughs and embraces the latest technological products.

The growing shortage of science graduates is symptomatic of an underlying problem of student disconnectedness from the science they experience in their compulsory years of schooling. The “nature of science” taught in secondary schools has little relevance for many students, who over the years become indifferent to the science they are expected to learn.

Attempts to address this problem must take into account the media’s influence on student perceptions of science and scientists. The media persist in portraying stereotypical scientists that young people have difficulty relating to. The characteristics of these images are revealed in children’s drawings of scientists that show a male with facial hair, glasses and dressed in a lab coat. He is working alone in a laboratory with bubbling solutions, and is surrounded by scientific instruments, books and filing cabinets. Technological products, and captions including formulae and “eureka”, are also evident in children’s drawings.

The mismatch between student willingness to embrace the latest products of science and technology (such as computers, mobile phones and mp3 players) and their disinterest in school science occurs because an essential ingredient – spirituality – is missing from science education. When spirituality is purposefully blended into the science curriculum, students better understand how scientists work, which in turn challenges stereotypical images of scientists.

Student avoidance of science as a career is precipitated by two main factors. First, the “nature of science” promoted in curricula is limited, locked in and foreclosed of possibilities, making school science seem remote to most students. Second, the media promotes stereotypical representations of scientists that show them in as being mad, bad and out of touch with the real world. In particular, the portrayals in popular science fiction films tend to distort young people’s perceptions of scientists and the way they work.

To learn science effectively, students need to clearly understand the nature of science. Trevor Anderson, in Ethics in Agriculture – An African Perspective (2005), contends that science education has largely tended to ignore the philosophy of science that can inform students about the nature of science. He argues that “a good understanding of the nature of science can significantly enhance the practice of science and the development of various cognitive skills that are crucial for the doing of good science”. School science, with its narrow focus on conceptual understanding and process skills, falls far short of incorporating the features that characterise the nature of scientific knowledge.

Unfortunately, the media influences how students perceive science and scientists. Drawing on the categories described by Roslynn Haynes in From Faust to Strangelove (1994), the nature of science is distorted by the following types of stereotypical representations of scientists in Western sci-fi films:

  • alchemist scientist obsessed (Frankenstein) or maniacal (genetic engineer);
  • stupid virtuoso scientist who is out of touch with the real world, comic (the absent-minded professor in the film Flubber) and sinister;
  • heroic adventurer scientist (physically or intellectually) appearing scientifically optimistic at times;
  • helpless scientist who has lost control over his discovery or the direction of its implementation (Frankenstein); and
  • idealist scientist who is holding out the possibility of a scientifically sustained utopia but is in conflict with a technology-based system that fails to provide for individual human values (AI).

Several pedagogical strategies are recommended to counter these stereotypes. These strategies provide opportunities for students to meet real scientists and learn about their work, and to reflect on the nature of science. To foster positive and more realistic images of scientists, teachers can organise:

  • incursions with scientists who are good communicators as role models;
  • hands-on and meditative activities; and
  • research projects that require interviews with scientists, and reflection on narratives of scientists’ biographies.

In a recent study with pre-service primary teachers, data analysis by myself and John Gipps revealed that hands-on activities in small groups help children make connections between prior knowledge and the new topic being introduced. These investigations were designed specifically to build on the children’s interests, thereby maximising motivation. When the pre-service teachers implemented the activities they listened attentively as the children shared their ideas and offered possible explanations for their observations. Participation in these practical investigations helped the children make connections and influenced their perceptions of how scientists work. By the end of the program some children began to see themselves as mini-scientists engaged in scientific processes, and felt a sense of connectedness to the scientific enterprise.

While there is considerable evidence to show the effectiveness of hands-on science investigations, other types of meditative activity can facilitate an alternative form of connectedness. Meditative activities in science lessons enable students to move easily from cognitive learning to the meditative activity and back again. When meditative skills are included in school science, students’ process skills of observation can be maximised.

Simple activities such as pond dipping and learning about muscles in the human body can be enhanced by brief periods of meditation. For example, during a visit to a pond, students can use nets or buckets to take water samples from various depths and place them in white plastic trays. Before observing the water samples, students are encouraged to take time to relax and become centred. The right frame of mind allows them to see many tiny organisms moving about in the water. A magnifying glass or stereomicroscope can be used to closely examine the complexity and diversity of freshwater pond organisms. Drawings can be made, showing the differences and similarities between the various organisms.

The meditative activity of pond dipping fosters connectedness to nature. In contrast, meditation in motion – which encourages students to focus on one muscle at a time as they walk – can raise awareness of the muscles in the human body. Students can visualise and then draw these muscles, and also write down any questions that come to mind.

The narrative by Evelyn Fox Keller (A Feeling for the Organism, 1983) of non-stereotypical scientist Barbara McClintock offers a different perspective on how a scientist works. McClintock was awarded a Nobel Prize for her discoveries in genetics. She was a scientist who valued subjectivity, and had a “feeling for the organisms” she studied, treating them as subjects rather than mere objects. McClintock had a deep emotional investment in her scientific work, and developed a sympathetic understanding for plants. She felt connected to the maize plants she investigated, as if they were her friends.

As a naturalist, McClintock had enormous confidence in the underlying order of nature. Throughout her life, the natural world provided intellectual and emotional energy, and a relational world that was consistent. As a child, her relationship with nature substituted for a lack of intimacy in her personal relationships, particularly with her mother, and this continued to be the case throughout adulthood. Her creativity stemmed from her spiritual connection with the organisms she studied.

She was aware that reason and experiment are insufficient for a scientist to articulate the laws of nature. Her exceedingly strong feeling for the oneness of nature, the unity of experience and the mystery underlying the laws of nature were, for her, essential in the process of scientific discovery. The way she worked was to incorporate a “spirituality of connectedness”. She deliberately sought ways of connecting with the plants she was investigating.

Her interest in alternative approaches, such as the Tibetan Buddhists’ way of learning, led her to see the limitations of the scientific method. She was years ahead of her time, because although quantum physics corresponds to aspects of Eastern ways of thinking, still today biologists have not made a similar shift. She acknowledged openly and proudly that in her work as a scientist she drew on these other, mystical, ways of knowing.

McClintock’s way of working scientifically is an excellent example of contemplation-in-action by a scientist. Unlike the fast-moving molecular revolution, she took advantage of working with maize, a slow-growing organism that allowed time for contemplation, which was a catalyst for her scientific discoveries. A period of contemplation, or being present, was a key element in the way she worked as a scientist. At the time, many colleagues misunderstood, so she worked mostly outside the scientific community.

McClintock was not caught up in herself, preferring to show total interest in the maize plants she was studying. Her unique way of working required full absorption in the material, and a coming to know through being “one with nature”.

Observations of nature can evoke a sense of spirituality. Intimate interaction with and observation of nature can be energy giving, which was the case for McClintock. Being a naturalist, she patiently immersed herself in the variety and complexity of organisms rather than seeking answers to leading questions that can put pressure on nature itself.

McClintock’s spirituality of connectedness to the world of nature led her to argue for reincorporation of the naturalist’s approach into science research. She predicted an impending paradigm shift that will lead to a completely new realisation of the relationship of things to each other.

In this new paradigm, science is viewed as a human endeavour involving contemplation and intuition, as well as logical processes. Scientific discoveries can occur when scientists develop a frame of mind that allows space for new thoughts. A stepping back is often required to see the bigger picture.

The contemplative dimension is integral to the disciplines of science and education, yet currently the spiritual dimension is absent in science education. Spirituality, understood as connectedness, has an important role to play in the education of young people.

McClintock’s way of working offers a broader perspective of the nature of scientific knowledge and the way scientists work. A new vision for science education is one that enables students to begin to appropriate such a scientist’s way of working. This vision for a more authentic and transformative science education would involve students in new ways of connecting and participating that take into account the relational world of nature. Such a vision, that incorporates science and spirituality, can help students make vital connections that assist their learning.

Implementing this vision would involve students in hands-on and meditative activities, both in the classroom and in the natural world. In addition, students in small groups would develop their communication skills by reflecting on narratives of scientists such as McClintock, and engaging in shared dialogue in safe and supportive learning environments.

The strategy of including biographies of scientists whose ways of working encompass an alternative spirituality has the potential to change students’ stereotypical views of scientists. Scientists who incorporate spirituality in their work can be inspirational and diverse role models for students. By making such narratives readily available to students for reflection and discussion in learning environments that foster connectedness, students may be more interested in science and in turn choose to travel the pathway that leads to a science career.