Voices for Nature works with educators who inspire young people with their own passion and innovative approaches to protect all life on our planet. Here science teacher Jane MacCrae talks about her own long experience teaching in primary and secondary schools and how she has successfully adapted and applied the ancient wisdom of Vedics to inspire her students.
SCIENCE, NATURE OR NATURAL PHILOSOPHY?
by Jane MacCrae
When I started teaching Nature Study, I had just completed a PhD in cellular biology. This inevitably involved endless repetition of experiments, recording reams of data and masses of washing up of the special dishes I needed to culture live tissue, collected from the operating theatre. I worked next to someone who had to kill guinea pigs every few days to remove their pituitary gland for his research project. By the end of my three and a bit years I decided this wasn’t the life for me. The idea of communicating the awe and wonder of nature to young people, so very obscured in the laboratory, was an inspiring thought so teaching looked like a great option.
I started in a small, quite new school with a class of eight-year olds with a brief to teach nature study. (Incidentally, 30 years later one of those pupils turned out to be the headmistress of this school when I returned to it after my children grew up). In those days one didn’t need a teaching qualification and pupils had no targets to reach or tests to pass so I had carte blanche to do as I thought best. I looked at the texts books that were around then – the material seemed to lack coherence: one topic bore little relation to another and was, quite frankly, uninspiring. I wanted pupils to breathe in a sense of the wholeness of nature, of meaning, and to connect with it on a personal level. It was in my search to do this that I came across the idea of using the five ‘Elements’ of the classical Greek and Vedic systems as a framework for teaching nature study, and later general science at key stage 3. In the traditional Vedic teachings, for example in the Bhagavad Gita1 each of the five Elements2 is associated with one of the five senses. For me this provided an ideal and exciting means of bringing together direct sensory experience with any natural phenomena that we might want to study such as light, gravity, states of matter, reproduction and so on. The pupils and I together discovered the richness of knowledge that can come from connecting with something through one of the senses. For instance, if you connect with soil through the sense of smell you can detect its freshness, you can sense its vibrant, life-giving qualities and yet you can sense that it is old, even ancient, musty, damp and decaying. How accurate this is: we know that soil nourishes new life from decomposing organic matter which breaks down to releases its nutrients; we know it contains minerals from rocks that are millions of years old and that it holds air and water between its particles.
Direct sensory experience inspired further curiosity and a new kind of teaching and learning for us all. There was even a place for intuition and a sense that there is always more to nature than meets the eye. Guided by my pupils’ questions and interests we explored scientific knowledge and issues beyond. For example, from the life-giving quality of soil we studied germination and the life-cycle of plants. We looked at the abundance of food that grows from the soil on which all humans and animals utterly depend and we learnt about the interdependence of all life on this planet, including our own. We studied soil structure, soil types, the origin of soil, the cycle of decomposition in soil, the biological organisms in soil and learnt about the essence of sustainability – what you take from the soil you must give back.
According to the Vedic system and now, backed up with our experience, the sense of smell had connected us to Element earth. I applied this system to the other senses and Elements: the sense of taste connects to water, sight connects to light or fire, touch to air and hearing to space or ‘ether’. In the same way that we used the sense of smell to teach the science of soil – when we connect any of the five senses to the world around, a wealth of unexpected knowledge appears, sometimes going beyond the classroom and the curriculum, often defying what we think we know and leading to surprising questions. From experiments on light for example, the visual language we used for discovery, makes us think about the nature of insight and learning – we say ‘I see’ or we ‘light up’ when we suddenly understand something. Is the physical analogy just a verbal convenience or is there another dimension? Is there a connection or relationship between the light of the mind and physical light? Do they share some qualities? Does ‘reflection’ of this type bring deeper meaning to the nature of light? Is it a way of connecting with light on a personal or human level?
Over time, based on my experiences with pupils, I developed my own teaching scheme around these five Vedic Elements. I used this scheme for many years to teach most of the learning objectives for Key Stage 3.
This magnificent arrangement of water and food-carrying tubes from a cross section of a little part of a stem is evidence alone that there is plenty of awe and wonder in A level biology.
As I then moved on to teaching ‘A’ level biology, I saw no reason to give up on instilling a sense of awe and wonder into science learning and I found my ‘A’ level students too, very responsive to this approach. In particular they loved the philosophical discussions sparked by the bigger questions that biology naturally threw up. Throughout my teaching career the sense of awe and wonder has for me always been intrinsic to science. I have never found reason to stop searching for meaning in Nature whether inside or outside of the classroom.
WHERE NEXT? Jane is currently piloting her approach to science teaching in a way that can be replicated and followed by other science teachers in support of the UK’s formal examination system. More on this in her next blog.
1 Chapter 7 v.4, v,8, v9 https://asitis.com/7 Bhagavad Gita, commentary by Sri Shankaracharya, Samata Books, 1977
2 In fact the Bhagavad Gita refers to 8 Elements and some sources, to 9 but this is not the place to go into detail.