Why science must be reductive AND holistic


Scott D. Sampson, in his book How to Raise a Wild Child, suggests that science education has taken a wrong turn:

One of the most prevalent ideas in science is that nature consists of objects.... We objectify nature to measure it, test it, and study it, with the ultimate goal of revealing its secrets.

In order to heal the Nature Deficit Disorder that plagues children, Sampson suggests we need to give kids EMU: experience, mentoring, and understanding. But, he argues, traditional science education (and traditional science) has hyperfocused on one aspect of understanding and ignored the rest.

As Wordsworth put it: "We murder to dissect." In breaking apart the things around us to see what makes them tick, we end up losing the dynamic wholes that fascinated us in the first place.

Sampson points out that this desire to "break down" complexities lies at the heart of the modern scientific disciplines:

Science subdivides nature into chunks or "-ologies": geology is the study of rocks, entomology the study of insects, and so forth. Within each discipline, scientists further dissect their object of study into an ever-smaller array of parts. Zoologists, for example, think of animals in terms of species, organisms, cells, genes, and the like.

There's a certain breed of thinker that thinks this reductive science is bad, bad, bad — that a healthy science must repent of this "reductionism" and do the opposite!

I don't think Sampson is among this group. That he is card-carrying member of a "traditional" scientific discipline (paleontology) seems to imply that he sees the value of breaking down complex phenomena to understand how they work. (Dr. Sampson, if you're reading, feel free to set the record straight!)

Rather, I think, Sampson is arguing that this reductive approach must be combined with an emergentist approach, that looks for connections and wholes.

We need both sorts of science.

How can we bring this emergentist approach — this holistic approach — into schools?

Sampson gives four suggestions: subjectification, place-based learning, food science, and green schools.

I'll be explaining his vision for the last three in future posts. For the moment, I'd like to gush about how Sampson suggests we bring "subjectication" into the school. 

Sampson invites us to imagine walking through a forest. What do we see? An evergreen tree, perhaps. A squirrel. A crow. A butterfly. A beetle. A stream. And so on.

But this answer focuses on parts, and misses the complex relationships between them:

If we could put on Mother Nature's goggles, the revealed world would be a kaleidoscope of flowing relationships. A fir tree soaking up solar energy while siphoning water from the soil below. A beetle chewing on an oak leaf, gorging itself on green sunlight. A butterfly dancing atop a flower, finding food while helping the flower make more flowers. A spider wrapping up some winged creature for a later meal. A rotting log giving sustenance to a bevy of decomposing critters.

Nature is chockablock with subjects, with agents trying to flourish. To do this, they've negotiated complex relationships with the agents around them.

Science class can be, in part, an exploration of these agents, and of these relationships.

Ultimately, science education, in concert with other areas of learning, could go a long way toward achieving the "Great Work" described by cultural historian Thomas Berry — transforming the perceived world from a "collection of objects" to a "communion of subjects."

I've written elsewhere about how our new kind of school might do this — might help re-enchant the world. We can do that, I argued, by drawing from an indigenous American cosmology (a view that world is full of subjects, rather than objects) and engaging this through the teaching philosophy of Imaginative Education (which holds that everything is interesting, and that even complexity can be explored through stories, emotions, mysteries, and metaphors).

I'm happy to say that this seems deeply consonant with what Dr. Sampson recommends!

He gives us a simple suggestion, however, as to how to start: get kids outside, and

ask children to find as many examples of nature's interrelationships as they can.

The long journey toward rebooting school can start with such simple steps.

How can we help kids FALL IN LOVE with an ecosystem?


Let's assume that our new kind of school can achieve what I set out yesterday, in "Make Naturalists, Not Biologists": get kids learning about and loving nature through mucking about in it. How can we do that? How can we cultivate a love of the natural world?

Scott Sampson — whose powerful How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature I've been riffing on lately — argues that local places can help us.

He suggests that there may be something deep in human nature that helps us fall in love with specific places.

Sampsons suggests a "topophilia hypothesis".

He's riffing himself off of E. O. Wilson's biophilia hypothesis — that humans have an instinctive urge to affiliate with other forms of life. (For how we've responded to that, see our curriculum of animals and plants in the classroom.)

Sampson's idea, though, is a bit more specific. He starts by tracing the roots of the word:

In 1947, poet W. H. Auden coined a similar word, topophilia — literally, a "love of place" — to refer to the affective bonds that people often form with the places they live....

I decided to borrow this neologism to put forth a new idea, the topophilia hypothesis, which proposes that we humans possess an innate bias to bond with local life and landscape, inherited from our foraging forebearers.

Animals need to bond in order to survive: to food, to water, to members of the opposite sex, to anything that can protect them from predators, and so on. Animals are bonding machines, and each species needs to bond to somewhat different things.

What did humans need to bond to, throughout our evolutionary maturation?

Among other things: the particular ecosystems they were living in. 

Now, humans aren't koala bears: we're not just native to one specific ecosystem. So humans would need a general-purpose ecosystem bonding system: a drive that works something like "whatever the environment around you, pay attention to it. Be curious about it. Be prepared to develop affection for it!"

Sampson again:

I've proposed that topophilia evolved to help humans adapt to a diverse range of settings, each with its own unique suite of life forms and landforms.

Humans who bonded to the place of their childhoods — be they a savanna, desert, rainforest, or whatever — tended to understand it better, and hence tended to survive more.

This is, note, only a hypothesis. It's entirely possible that the lust we see for specific places doesn't come from a specific evolutionary source, but has arisen for other reasons. (We must, as always, be on guard against just-so stories.)

But what seems undeniable is that

a deep passion for local place often develops, particularly among those living in oral, indigenous cultures.... Our body, mind, and senses are "designed" to connect with nature.

Humans are designed to connect with specific natural environments.

A school for humans can make good use of that.

But how?

Here an idea from the Imaginative Education community can come to the rescue: Whole-School Projects.

And about that, more anon!

Make naturalists, not biologists.


A new kind of school — our new kind of school — is attempting to provide a fuller, deeper science curriculum than any school has ever achieved. Today — following my series of riffs off of Scott D. Sampson's powerful book, How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature — I'd like to suggest that, to do this, we shouldn't try to make biologists — we should try to make naturalists.

What's the difference, you ask?

It's subtle, but exciting.

Sampson talks about how scientists and explorers adopted the moniker "naturalist" in the 18th and 19th centuries. Charles Darwin called himself a naturalist. So did Thomas Jefferson! And in the 1870s and '80s, so did a whole host of Americans.

Nature fever overtook the general public, resulting in hundreds of small natural history associations from coast to coast.

This wave of excitement brought us our great natural history museums (including the Milwaukee Public Museum, which I loved as a boy).

But, by and by, people started spending more time indoors, and the scientific field became professionalized. A new field — "biology" — was defined, focusing

on genes and molecules rather than whole organisms.

The professionals wanted (quite understandably) to differentiate themselves from the masses. And they had reason to, because the sorts of research they conducted was quite different:

Field observations, the bread and butter of natural historians, were replaced by replicable experiments conducted in sterile laboratories.

Ultimately, the word "naturalist" itself faded. Sampson laments:

By the time I began exploring that forest on Vancouver's west side in the mid-1960s, natural history had become a quaint hobby for amateurs.

But, I think, in the death of "naturalist" lie the seeds of its renewal.

"Amateur": an interesting word!

The New Oxford American Dictionary gives one definition of amateur:

"a person considered contemptibly inept at a particular activity"

It probably goes without saying, but: That's bad. We don't want that.

But there's something cool in the word. Remember that amateur comes from the Latin amare: "to love".

Amateurs are lovers.

A new kind of school — an actual new kind of school, that pushes beyond the tired educational debates of the 20th century — needs to be a school for lovers, even before it needs to be a school for mastery or a school for meaning.

And so, I suggest, we need to reclaim the word "amateur".

The good people at the podcast A Way with Words summarize the difference between "naturalist" and "biologist" quite nicely —

"Naturalist" connotes "muddy boots". "Biologist" connotes "crisp, clean lab coat".

You think "naturalist", and you think tromping in the muck. You think "biologist", and you think holding a tenured chair.

In the last few decades, people have valued chairs over boots.

Well: "naturalist" is coming back. It's being reclaimed by scientists — most notably E. O. Wilson — who see the need to reconnect people to the natural world.

Now, ain't nothing wrong with lab coats. And ain't nothing wrong with tenured chairs!

Ain't nothing wrong, that is, with learning about the natural world through carefully-controlled experiments conducted in sterile labs.

Our society needs (desperately!) more of that sort of science. And we need to do some of it in our schools, too.

But it's not where we need to start.

So, let's be clear on this: A new kind of school needs to do science in the muck. A new kind of school needs to bring back actual experiences — oftentimes messy, occasionally dangerous — into science. A new kind of school needs to reclaim the mantle of amateur science.

Sampson writes:

We're closer than you might think to rebuilding a country of naturalists.

A school for humans needs to be a school for naturalists. And that's one of the things, I'm proud to say, we're doing!

Trees in the classroom? The case for greenery EVERYWHERE.


Why obsess about re-wilding schools? Because nature make kids better. Again, from the the fantastic book How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature, by the paleontologist Scott D. Sampson:

Plants are good for you, too.... Even a few trees can make a real difference. A remarkable set of studies looked at the effects of trees on residents of two high-rise housing complexes in a low-income Chicago neighborhood. 

Compared with residents whose building was surrounded by barren ground, those living in a building with a vew of stands of trees enjoyed substantially lower levels of agression, violence, and reported crime, along with increased effectiveness managing life issues. 

Greenery makes a difference. Being around trees, grasses, and shrubs makes us feel more at ease.

The benefits have been shown in kids, too: Sampson cites a study demonstrating reduced stress, reduced depression, improved concentration, and improved problem-solving skills.

These are, of course, the goals of nearly any school, especially of the traditionalist variety!

There's more! Sampsons continues:

Additional kid bonuses arising from nature interactions include greatly reduced symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), improved social interactions, a heightened ability to combat sickness, and a reduction or elimination of bullying. 

Greenery, then, could help a school achieve progressivist schools!

And, finally:

Compared to kids confined indoors, children who regularly play in nature show heightened motor control — including balance, coordination, and agility.

They tend to engage more in imaginative and creative play, which in turn fosters language, abstract reasoning, and problem-solving skills, together with a sense of wonder....

Play in outdoor settings also exceeds indoor alternatives in fostering cognitive, emotional, and moral development. 

Holy aboriculture, Batman! These are many of our highest goals in starting a new kind of school!

So: filling and surrounding a school with nature seems likely to help us create schools for human flourishing. (Almost makes you think we weren't designed to spend our time in cinder-block rooms lit by flourescent lights, eh?)

But the question still remains: how can we do it?

Stay tuned.

Can schools reverse the "indoor migration"?

Suddenly, kids are spending nearly all of their time indoors — a wrenching historical change. In the last generation, Scott D. Sampson writes in How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature, our society has witnessed an "indoor migration":

One study found that the average American boy or girl spends four to seven minutes a day outdoors....

By comparison, those same average American kids devote more than seven hours daily to staring at screens, replacing reality with virtual alternatives. Most boys rack up more than 10,000 gaming hours before age twenty-one....

The net result of these staggering statistics is what author Robert Michael Pyle has dubbed "the extinction of experience," highlighted by the gaping chasm between children and nature.

Ho boy.

I struggle not to be anti-screen in a simplistic, knee-jerk sort of way, but when I mull over the rising rates of depression among young adults, and the simultaneous lowering rates of outdoor play, it makes me nervous.

(I'm open, by the way, to any evidence suggesting that the two are not linked. Correlation ain't causation, and all that.)

Sampson suggests that this flight from nature isn't something that parents want. Quite the opposite, actually:

In the United States, 65 percent of respondents regarded this issue either as "very serious" or "extremely serious." Parents believe that developing a connection with nature is critical to a child's development. Among American parents, 82 percent regard time in nature to be "very important" to their children's development, second in priority only to reading.

What I take from this is the realization that there's a huge desire for ways to give kids real experiences in nature. There are other organizations who do this, of course — the Scouts come to mind! But because schools engage with childen five days a week, they seem to offer an even greater possibilities for reordering childhood to something more healthy.

So, our big question o' the week: how could a new kind of school regularly connect children with nature?

That's one of the riddles we're trying to unravel.

So far, our answers include bringing animals and plants into the classroom and cooking lunch together. We're also considering some manner of adventure playground. Though I haven't yet written about it here, we're also planning to engage in what Kieran Egan has dubbed "whole school projects" with a local natural site: a riverbed, for example, that we can regularly experience and intensively study for a number of years.

But let me raise this explicitly: how else can we do it?

How can a new kind of school lead the charge in re-connecting kids with nature?