Monday, May 20, 2013

The 'spiritual' dimension of Science Education | Dialogic Education ...

An edited book on Science Education by Nasser Mansour and me is almost out and available on Amazon[i]. This includes a chapter on ?Dialogic Science Education?[ii] which was led by me but with ideas that emerged from discussions within the whole team of the recent ?Science Education for Diversity? project[iii]. This project team included researchers in Malaysia, India, Lebanon, Turkey and the Netherlands as well as in the UK. It was a great pleasure for me that we found we could converge on a dialogic framework for developing science education in order to respond to the challenge of diversity. Although I was the main author of this chapter and I am very happy with it there was one dialogic aspect of science education that I did not manage to include partly because I was not sure if it represented the views of the team or just my views. This is about the essentially spiritual nature of science and the need to engage students in science through engaging them in the open-ended mystery of things.

So what would it mean to say that science is spiritual?

?Spiritual development? is something that schools in England have a legal obligation to ?promote and encourage?. Success in developing spirituality is measured by the official body for inspecting schools: Ofsted. Unfortunately Ofsted find spirituality hard to define. The key document that is meant to guide inspectors quotes a range of definitions with apparent approval[iv]. Each one of these definitions, if taken individually, could be read as inspiring. The problem is that, when they are all presented together, the overall impression given is one of mushiness. We learn, for example, that the spiritual is about developing an ?inner life? with ?intimations of enduring reality?, it is also about ?expressing emotions through art?, it is ?experiencing transcendence? with feelings of ?awe and wonder?, but at the same time it is about developing ?a set of values? which includes ?challenging unfairness?. It is not obvious what inner essence, if any, unites these different things. Helpfully, an expert is quoted to confirm what any reader of this document must have already have begun to suspect:

?? of all experiences, it is the spiritual which, it seems, is most resistant to operational definition. At its worst, attempts to pin it down lead only to a greater awareness of its intangibility and pervasiveness?[v].


It seems plausible to assert that the spiritual exceeds our ability to grasp it through rational thought but unfortunately there are lots of other things that exceed reason and not all of them are nice so we need to find some way of distinguishing what is spiritual from what is not. Is it the nature of the spiritual that makes it so unclear or is it just the limitations of the ways of thinking that we apply?

The widespread but mushy view of the spiritual as something you can feel but cannot understand indicates an intuition that there is something very important here that does not fit with our normal ways of thinking. But this might just indicate that our normal ways of thinking about education are inadequate and need to be reformed.? I am not sure but I think it possible that the dialogic theory of education that I have outlined in ?Dialogic: Education for the Internet Age?[vi] and elsewhere, has the potential to make the spiritual dimension of education and of development much clearer and even ?operationalisable?.

My version of a dialogic theory of education is a re-thinking of education in terms of relationship and the voices that emerge within relationships, rather than, for example, in terms of knowledge and its movement (transmission theories) or in terms of cognitive structures and their ?growth? (constructivism). It follows from this dialogic way of thinking that the word spirit can be given a clear and useful reference.

The way of operationalising the word ?spiritual? in education that I propose was first suggested to me by observing Quakers. In Quaker meetings people should only speak if moved to do so by the spirit (?the Holy Spirit? to be more precise). Attention is therefore given to the issue of how to discern what is ?of the spirit? and what is not. Anyone can talk in a meeting but experienced Quakers are able to distinguish those who are good at discerning the spirit, spiritual experts if you like, and these are appointed as the ?elders? of the meeting. I am not suggesting that this system always works well, sometimes the wrong voices will be listened to and the wrong people appointed as elders, but what is interesting is that here is an established cultural practice depending upon an operationalisable idea of spiritual expertise. So what does this spiritual expertise consist of in practice?

If you are sitting in a meeting and you feel yourself being tickled or nudged by a voice that wants to speak then how do you decide whether or not to step aside and allow this voice to speak through your voice? One obvious filter is that of self-interest. Is this just my voice in disguise? Is this just my opinion or one that suits my self-interest? If so it is unlikely to be the spirit. Or, similarly, is it just the self-interest of my community? The easy rule here is, does it exclude or label other people casting them in a negative light?

The simple operationalisation of the term ?spiritual? that Quakers must learn in order to participate well in meetings is therefore something like, and these are my words not theirs, ?a motivation to speak and/or act having an authority that seems to come from a larger perspective than my own?. This idea of the spirit as a voice that comes from beyond my physical, social and cultural horizons fits well with the dialogic theory of education that I have outlined.

Education inevitably involves being taken over by immaterial cultural voices. Being a good student and a good citizen is usually defined in school as all about following the rules and internalizing them so that you follow them even when the teacher is not there. When the good student speaks they speak not simply with their own voice but with the voice of the school and the voice of the community.

But beyond the socialization role of education, or learning how to think ?what everybody thinks?, there can also be an aspect of education that is learning to question your own cultural horizons from the imaginary perspective of an outside point of view. This is where the spiritual comes in. It is about how you respond not just to defined voices of specific others and generalized others but also to the more challenging voice of the ?Infinite Other?. The ?Infinite Other? is the simple idea adapted from Levinas that behind the face of the concrete other person that I encounter in a dialogue there is an otherness that transcends me and calls me to account.

Acknowledging the reality and significance of this voice of the Infinite Other does not require any leap of faith. There is a simple logic to it. We come to consciousness always already within relationship with other voices and with otherness in general. This is just another way of saying that we are always already within a world and it is only through this being in a world that we can know ourselves. The experience of thinking new things is that of responding to the stimulus of others or of otherness. In thinking and learning we experience being part of something bigger than us, being called out to participate in a kind of circuit that flows through us and motivates us from within as well as from without.

Whatever we can pin down and understand is always from a perspective or limited point of view. However, and this where a spiritual disposition comes in, it is possible for us to remain open to the fact that there is a larger context and that seeing things from the point of view of that larger context can challenge us and help us to grow.

For Levinas the appeal of the Infinite Other calling to us through the face of each concrete other was primarily understood as ethical. Being open to the call of the otherness of the other leads to a certain open-ended sense of responsibility. However, the same sort of argument also applies to our response to the whole world around us, not only to the face of the other person in a dialogue for example but also to nature. This spiritual attitude was summed up rather well by Einstein:

?The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.? It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of all true?art?and science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.? It was the experience of mystery ? even if mixed with fear ? that engendered religion.? A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds ? it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity;? in this sense, and, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.? [vii]

Einstein might have been unique in many ways but his positive evaluation of mystery is widely shared. A friend of mind who is a leading natural scientist recently confessed to me that he had finally understood what spirituality might be about. It was a confession for him, told to me in private, because up to that point he had taken Dawkins? line and dismissed spirituality as childish. Out in the midst of nature one day he suddenly felt overwhelmed by the strange beauty and complexity of the vast eco-system that included him and yet was much bigger than him and which he could not understand. He realized that his life?s work was motivated not simply by his own interests but that it came out of his participation in this larger system. It was the larger system itself that wanted to know itself through him and he was just the medium of its self-reflection. This feeling was so overwhelming that he had to sit down and acknowledge that he had had, despite himself, a ?spiritual? experience.

It interests me that my friend could realize the real spiritual motivation of his scientific quest only late in his career because it had not been taught to him like that. The thousands of responses to our questionnaires on the Science Education for Diversity project indicate that mostly, all over the world, science is taught in schools not as a spiritual quest but as a lot of facts that you need to know in order to pass exams. This is not only misleading but also boring and off-putting when there are other more exciting subjects that students can choose to focus on. The point of science is not the answers but the questions. To teach science as a spiritual discipline would mean to encourage and promote a disposition of openness to the vast mystery of things ? or a responsive dialogue with the Infinite Other.? If we are open to the questions that come to us from beyond the horizon of our imagined self-interest then we may discover in practice the joy of being taken up in a flow of meaning that is much larger than ourselves.

[ii] Chapter 1: Dialogic Science Education for Diversity, Rupert Wegerif, Keith Postlethwaite, Nigel Skinner, Nasser Mansour, Alun Morgan, Lindsay Hetherington



[v] Best, R. ?Introduction: Where are we going with SMSC?? in Education for Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Development. London, Continuum, 2000. Page 10.




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