Science in Neohumanist Schools

By Rutger Tamminga

For the past twenty-five years as a Neohumanist educator in Taiwan my focus has been on literature (storytelling) and arts. It was only recently (the last two years) that working on the Circle of Love curriculum let me realize that I had not been giving enough emphasis on science. Stories and arts stimulate creativity and connection to feelings and identity. For me that had always been the main focus of my education. In Neohumanist philosophy however Shrii P.R. Sarkar also emphasizes the formation of a ‘rationalistic mentality’. I had often seen that as something separate from the creative and personal development I emphasized. How ignorant was I!

In researching and designing my version of the Circle of Love, I realized that science is not what I remember from my school years anymore, where you work with formulas you have memorized (but not fully understood) to come to the correct answers regarding gravity and the speed of light or sound. Science is about a journey towards truth, the relativity of our observations and the discovery of the beauty and interconnectedness of all of life. And while story tackles similar issues through poetry and fantasy, science does so within the parameters of logic, verifiable observation and measuring. Could they fulfill the same purpose?

The first book that set me off on this journey was Neil Shubin’s book, Your Inner Fish. He outlines the connection between the human body and the evolution of life forms. He explains how the structure of the trilateral brain originates in cockroach-like insects, eyes (cells sensitive to light) began in worm-like centipedes in Asia, our limbs began in the first fish that left water, and our ear structure is linked to the gills in fish. He goes on in much detail how we are linked to a wide variety of life forms in the universe. The human body as a product of evolution, was that not the central idea of the Circle of Love?

Another key aspect of the Circle of Love curriculum is that we are children of the universe. I had heard many times that ‘we are made of stardust’. What I did not know was the scientific understanding, that the heat and pressure in stars provided the environment to transform the hydrogen and helium that pervade the universe, into more complex elements such as carbon and oxygen.

Science, I realized, if taught with a philosophical perspective can bring greater self-awareness, and a deeper self-knowledge that can set us free from the anthropocentric mentality that pervades our lives and give us a realization of our universal nature.

As I continued my work, I set up some suggestions for a Neohumanist approach to science, which I share here below:

1.    Start with a question

Research on teaching of science finds that scientific information itself does not always most efficiently encourage scientific thinking. The suggestion is that instead we start with learning to ask questions and look for answers. Some ideas I have been working on for lower elementary are:

Why does the wind blow?
How far are the stars?
Why do birds sing?
How many colors does a rainbow have?
Can we live without bees?
How heavy are clouds?

These questions are the foundations for scientific observations.

2.    Keep explanations simple.

When you talk about the heat of the sun, how do you explain nuclear fusion? Online one suggestion offered is with marshmallows. Hydrogen is one marshmallow. Helium is two marshmallows. When two Hydrogens fuse (squeeze two marshmallows) you get Helium and a lot of heat.

It may be simple but it lays the foundation for a deeper approach in later years.
Similarly when we teach the rock cycle, initially I would avoid the terms sedimentary, metamorphic or igneous rock. The learning curve for my students would be too steep. Instead I talk about ‘water rock’, ‘earth rocks’ and ‘volcanic rocks’.
These are more familiar vocabulary.

3.    Make it practical and doable.

The number of science experiments available online is almost limitless. Actually doing them is a lot fun, especially when they go wrong! While YouTube provides many ‘super simple science’ experiments, actually doing them and failing makes my students extremely happy, and most interestingly extremely keen to find out why things went wrong. Isn’t that science?

4.    Preserve your own wonder.

As a novice in the field of science teaching I am still surprised at discoveries that people have made. Understanding the world with this scientific perspective, has helped me greatly on my personal journey of discovery of identity. That feeling of joy and wonder transfers to my students. For example we usually say a rainbow has seven colors. But a dog may only see two (yellow and blue), while most spiders only see green. Many animals might not see colors at all. While others can also the UV and Infrared wave lengths and see a whole new world, beyond our imagination. So how many colors does a rainbow have? It really depends who you are. Sight, which so strongly shapes our perspective on reality, is so unreliable! Then what is really true?

5.    A wider context.

Many cultures have their own creation stories. The aboriginal Australians talk about the Sun mother, some native Americans see the Earth as being carried by a turtle. All these stories shape the philosophies, values and behavior of their peoples.

While these stories may not correspond to our scientific observations, they teach interconnection, respect, transcendence, grace and other high moral values. Today our society has no real wider context for our lives. Our old creation story does not work anymore. We have to reintroduce the child to a connection with the universe, and the universe’s origin through a new story that can form the framework for scientific exploration. A story that offers the values the traditional cultures offered their people and at the same time one that can withstand the scrutiny of scientific and rationalistic mentality.
Without this larger framework scientific exploration can be fun, exciting and stimulate a lot of good ideas, but lacks the integral connection that Neohumanist educators aim to cherish and protect.

Proponents of eco-psychology, a branch of psychology that sees our relation with nature as identical with the relation we have with our selves, also supports integrating the spiritual with our understanding of nature. Science, the logical and rational can come together with the spiritual.

The Circle of Love offers such a perspective.

I hope this sharing can inspire a larger discussion on the role of science in Neohumanist schools. At the moment I am working on a set of fifty books (Science Readers) to help children below ten get familiar with some of the concepts, vocabulary and processes of science. A lot of these resources will become available in 2023/4. If there are others active in this field, I would like to learn their observations and suggestions.

Our new version of the Circle of Love is available in digital form for those interested.
We did a lot of art work, story props and worksheet resources. The science readers will be integrated with this.

One paper cup seems not strong, but many together can carry the weight of even a heavy person. A symbolic science activity for the power of many working together.

Our solar cooker baked small bread buns in over three hours. The sun really added an extraordinary flavor to the otherwise bland bread. Warmly recommended

The Circle of Love

A long time ago, there only was love. Pure, beautiful love.
No trees, no mountains, no fish, even no sun, stars nor moons.

And I am that love
The love that I see
I am the love
And that love is me.

Deep inside itself, Love burst with joy and became space…filled with quiet, stillness, peace.

And I am that space
The space I see
I am the space
And that space is me.

In that space small particles were moving around. They became the wind.

And I am that wind
The wind I see
I am the wind
And that wind is me.

But it was dark, totally dark in that world, and that wind became sparkling light ….

And I am that light
The light I see
I am the light
And that light is me

In that world of space and air, and pure light, came water to cool the air flowing like rivers of rain….

And I am that water
The water I see
I am the water
And that water is me.

In some place that water became solid earth firm and strong like mountains of rock.

And I am that earth
The earth I see
I am the earth
And that earth is me.

In this world of five elements came life: little plants with leaves that began to grow and became flowers, shrubs and trees

And I am those plants
The plants I see
I am the plants
And those plants are me.

And on those plants there came little creepy crawly insects that crawled over the stones and rocks.

And I am those insects
The insects I see
I am the insects
And those insects are me.

In this world of insects and plants, there came fish and other creatures of the sea, twirling and dancing, pouncing around.

And I am those fish
The fish I see
I am the fish
And those fish are me.

These creatures of the sea became reptiles – turtles and snakes, lizards and dinosaurs

And I am those reptiles
The reptiles I see
I am the reptiles

And those reptiles are me.

And these reptiles learned to fly and became the birds.

And I am those birds
The birds I see
I am the birds
And those birds are me.

Love changed forever and the birds became mammals – elephants and whales, cats and giraffes, monkeys

And I am those mammals
The mammals I see
I am the mammals
And those mammals are me.

And those mammals finally became
Us, people.

And I am the people
The people I see
I am the people
And those people are me.

And people, what will we become?
We flow back to that love.
Because that is what all of life is
And that is what we are.
So close your eyes, and sit and feel:

And I am that love
The love that I see
I am the love
And that love is me.