Science Education – a Holistic Approach

IFSR Newsletter 1986 Vol. 6 No. 2 Summer
Contemporary science education is largely outdated, according to Franz Pichler. Teachers do to not inform their pupils about many of today’s most urgent problems. Pichler believes that mathematics courses should include computer sciences, physics teachers should deal with the technical processes so important in our everyday lives (i. e. production of atomic energy). Before revealing these theses, Pichler explains what is meant by holistic science education, discussing both historical and systems-theoretical approaches. He then proceeds to acquaint us with three pioneers of integral science.
A familiarity with the classical disciplines such as physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology and biology merely enables us to comprehend isolated natural phenomena. Proponents of the holistic approach to science education do not regard the acquisition of such specialized knowledge as their ultimate aim.
Rather, they demand that this knowledge be applied to the elucidation of broader human and environmental concerns – whereby ethical considerations should not be excluded.
In the age of Chernobyl and gene technology the value of this kind of science instruction should be immediately apparent. Teachers could more readily promote an interest in natural phenomena by emphasizing their relevance to fundamental societal problems. Two different integrative methods will be considered here: 1. the historical – and 2. the systems-theoretical one.
When we use the historical method we follow step-by-step the development of scientific ideas. We not only deal with the theories ultimately considered correct but also with erroneous conclusions and models which turned out to bei irrelevant. General systems theory, on the other hand, has a different emphasis. It provides us with tools which enable various levels of abstraction.
This makes it possible for us to attain an integrative overview, whereby the classical disciplines are relegated to the mere elucidation of the component bits of information.
Pioneers of integrative science
In the last two centuries a few researchers with broad ranging interests have combined particular aspects of diverse fields, thereby creating new interdisciplinary sciences devoted to problems formerly ignored by classical scholars. Astrophysics and biochemistry can serve as examples. Most of these pioneers are relatively unknown.
One of the first was Alexander von Humboldt, who lived in the last century, travelled widely and undertook extensive, multifacetted studies. These ultimately enabled him to found whole new pursuits such as plant geography. In his popular lectures in Berlin he dealt with a great variety of natural phenomena, explaining them to his listeners in a generally comprehensible but stylistically elegant language. These performances were greeted with an enthusiasm today generally reserved for the performing arts.
Are Humboldts’ educational ideas still attainable today? In an essay, the Nobel-Prize physicist Heisenberg concluded that they are no longer feasible; there is simply too much detailed information available. The specialist can, however, he concluded, acquaint himself with a generalized scheme of things which will allow him to rapidly orient himself in diverse disciplines. Although Humboldt’s specific scientific concerns might seem outdated today his multidisciplinary approach is still highly relevant.
Even in his own times Humboldt was an exception. It is difficult to find a comparable personality among the scholars of the last century. Irrespective of their impressive intellectual accomplishments, Goethe and Herder did not have anywhere near the same profound comprehension of scientific phenomena. Haeckel and Helmholtz were, on the other hand, specialists lacking a holistic orientation.
The second integral researcher we shall consider here is Raoul H. France, a scientist whose name is now only familiar to some collectors of antique biological works. As a young man he devoted himself to the life sciences in order to acquire the prerequisite specialized knowledge. His system of values and priorities, however, did not ultimately coincide with those of his colleagues; he left academia to become a free-lance scientist, ultimately writing more than 60 books.
Although in the years prior to the Second World War France devoted himself to the promulgation of popular scientific education, he was also a very original thinker. He was able to skillfully combine results from different disciplines, thereby opening new avenues of scientific endeavor. On the basis of his book about the technical accomplishments of plants, “Die Technischen Leistungen der Pflanzen”, he can be regarded as the founder of bionics. In another work, “Edaphon”, he demonstrated the importance of soil microorganisms. His composting studies, which show how humus can be manufactured from garbage, were epoch-making.
Our third pioneer is the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy, who is considered the father of general systems research. This field of science provides us with the methodological tools enabling the construction of integrative models which can be used to analyze complex multidisciplinary problems. Bertalanffys’ contributions are best summarized in his book “General Systems Theory”.
It is certainly not just a coincidence, that the three aforementioned scientists were all biologists. The investigation of living systems often necessitates the development of complex models encompassing various aspects of a problem. This tendency towards a comprehensive orientation is today often shared by engineers. Engineers and biologists have some things in common – the machine has now become more or less an extension of our living world.
What is integral knowledge?
In respect to natural systems, a prerequisite for this kind of cognition is that interactions and relationships be taken into consideration. An organism must be viewed in the context of its environment. Today a great deal of lip service is paid to this ecological approach, but results deriving from it are rarely applied to really important decisions such as the construction of hydroelectric stations or the arms race. In functioning democracies this situation can only be altered by enhancing the general appreciation for ecological interactions.
The only kind of change that is realistically possible is a gradual one. Nowadays economic considerations – including pressures for increased production and consumption of industrial goods – predominate. The slogan “Knowledge is power” has been replaced by “Money is
power”. Contemplation is often regarded as superfluous: one must simply produce.
How can this prevailing attitude be reversed? We will have to begin in the schools. To be universally effective this change win have to simultaneously take place in many different countries, including the somewhat less-developed nations which are often the worst pollutants of our environment.
Relevant Sciences
In order to bring about a broad general comprehension of nature it will be necessary to stress certain disciplines which enable the integration of diverse scientific viewpoints. In former times this function was fulfilled primarily by philosophy, perhaps by theology as well. Modern systems sciences serve to complement these classical academic fields. They include: statistics, operations research, cybernetics, systems theory, systems engineering and applied mathematics. Of course these pursuits cannot be precisly separated, and there is considerable overlap. Simultation, which oriented, also plays an important role, since the computer has become one of our most valuable scientific instruments.
Today the computer sciences, which are only about forty years old must, together with the systems sciences, compete with classical studies such as physics and chemistry. At least in Austria, funds for research are limited, and so is the time devoted to the natural sciences in school and university curricula. Because of their traditional predominance, the universality of chemistry and physics is greatly overestimated. After receiving his college or university degree, a mathematics teacher is not competent to deal with computer sciences. The physics teacher is not prepared to inform his pupils about the technical problems which influence their everyday lives. Of course the educators can acquire proficiency in these fields if they are particularly idealistic, but the overcrowded curricula hardly allow them time to transmit this knowledge to their pupils.
Now we can uriderstand the difficulties confronting us. How will it be possible to surmount them and promulgate an integral comprehension of nature? The following measures would be advisable:
1. Improved teacher training in relevant pursuits.
2. Integral knowledge should be taught in the schools esspecially ecology, effects of technical innovations on our environment and means of minimizing pollution.
3. Current school curricula overemphasize formal, geometrically-oriented mathematics. These should be replaced by methodical disciplines such as systems theory, operations research and cybernetics.
4. Information sciences including simultation should be stressed.
5. It will be necessary to promote adult education in integral sciences by means of lectures, courses, books and magazines.
6. The media, especially television, should be recruited to participate in this educational endeavor.

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