Signs of life on the landscape

16th February 1996, 12:00am
Kevin McCarthy


Signs of life on the landscape
Science meets RE:Kevin McCarthy applauds an experiment in cross-curricular linking

Moral and spiritual values have become news. We have Nick Tate, chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority calling for clear moral directives; OFSTED on the look-out for the spiritual across the curriculum and Prince Charles calling for spiritual renewal to preserve "those intuitive powers of the heart which lie at the root of all spiritual experience". Plenty of rhetoric, then, but what is going on at the chalk face?

Imagine finding a response like this to your day's teaching: "I now know I am important because I can think and I never thought about that before." Martin Cook, a Year 11 pupil at Crispin School in Streat, Somerset wrote that after taking part in the school's first "Science and Religion Conference". How did happen that a lad like Martin should have had such an enlightening day just after his mocks? And what light does his experience throw on the current debate?

The day was conceived by Frances Thomson, head of RE at the school, "I was concerned that the really big questions of meaning and purpose were being lost. Our PSE programme simply didn't get to grips with important spiritual or religious issues." She found an ally in Paul Nicholson, the school's head of science. " The original science order of the national curriculum included a whole section on the nature of science. We really should be teaching this kind if critical thinking."

I had been invited through the Scientific and Medical Network to provide the opening address. The Network is an informal international group which questions the assumptions of contemporary scientific thinking, remaining open to intuitive and spiritual insights.

On a dreary December morning, such grandiose notions seemed distant. "Dunno why I came in today." Outside, the sun was struggling to persuade the day that it was worth getting up. I pointed to a few threshold moments in my own life: killing a chicken, seeing my son born, when all my questions flowed together. What is life? Where does it come from? Where does it go? The big scientific questions of our age are also the big spiritual questions, I said. Schools may chop up your education into "subjects" but yours, I continued bravely, ignoring the waves of indifference emanating from the slim rows before me, is different.

"Now I know I should have stayed at home," shrugged one disgruntled lad as he passed me.

The day began with an exploration of two big questions of science and religion: how was matter created and how did human life come into being. Pupils watched the CEM video The Question Is. . . ? For many, it was eye-opening to consider that the Big Bang, the formation of the Earth and the gradual emergence of life bore at least some relationship to the Judaeo-Christian tradition. That such discussion should take place in a science lab with a science teacher happy to share the stage with a local minister was deeply reassuring. In the discussion which followed there were some brave and thoughtful questions: what is it that makes us uniquely human? How can evil have just evolved by random selection?

The group then entered the experiential experimental part of their day. In four sessions they measured maps, looked at candles, tossed coins and examined biological forms. The map measuring was a charming and characteristically gentle Quaker exercise about the multiplicity of ways of approaching the truth. In the chemistry lab, instead of a Bunsen burner, pupils experienced a lighted candle, with all its its romantic, spiritual, ritual, elemental, poetic and symbolic resonance and considered how the word "fire" encompasses more than the scientific "combustion" with its overtones of mechanical working and quantifiability. What kind of science could possibly allow qualitative experience?

From here, the pupils carried a piece of first-hand research. Drawing on Rupert Sheldrake's Seven Experiments that Could Change the World, Paul Nicholson set up an exploration of intuition or sixth sense. Many people, perhaps teenage girls more than any others, have the feeling that someone is watching them. Scientists dismiss this as nonsense, but Sheldrake enjoys posing challenges to orthodoxy. So did the pupils of Crispin School. The pairs of students sat one behind the other meticulously tossing a coin which decided whether they would stare at their partner, who indicated with raised or lowered thumb whether they felt the unseen gaze. "I know it - I just know it - when someone's looking at me", reported One girl who scored an uncanny 20 out of 20.

Pupils finished the morning by looking at complex forms in Nature: the logarithmic spiral of sunflower heads, the delicate webs of bone tissue, enthralling fractal images. For perhaps the first time, their science teacher asked than how they felt and whether they could account for such complexity by chance.

Lunch must have come as a welcome break, but it was obvious in the canteen that the pupils' indifference had melted like the frost outside. There was now an altogether cheerier glow among them.

The afternoon consisted of a role play, in which a group of scientists (the pupils) on the verge of a breakthrough in cancer treatment comes up against the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. Should they experiment beyond the fourteen day limit? What will be the reaction of the churches, the press? What will be their legal position? "If we've really got a cure for cancer what does it matter if we bend the rules a bit?" "Yeah, but these embryos are alive; they're like babies." Here was real engagement with moral dilemmas.

As the chill of winter settled in once more, the year group reassembled in the hall to record their impressions . Reassuringly, for it adds credibility to the remainder, some half a dozen were negative. Most were overwhelmingly positive. There was Amy Vowls: "The day gave me a very practical and interesting way to learn about conflicting issues. It made me think about my own views on some difficult subjects." And Jennifer Carter . "I've started to think instead of just accepting: Why are we here? Who is God? These questions are going to pester me until I find my own version of the truth." The pupils must also have realised that real science is not smugly self-confident about having all the answers, that its theories require constant revaluation.

In their workshop sessions, too, they touched on the question of what is and what is not "scientific". Rowan Price may have gone too far in asserting, "I have learned that emotions and gut reactions are more important than scientific theories", but Sheldrake's experiment raised questions about the reality of intuition. They have discovered that scientists cannot possibly work in a moral vacuum, and that moral questions have a habit of spiralling out of spiritual ones. What shall we do about the embryos? begs the crucial philosophical question: when does human life really begin?

The staff also gained from the day. "One of my most abiding memories" says Frances Thomson, "is the way we thrashed out our teaching styles in the planning meetings. It gave us all great respect for the integrity of both discipLines." And what next? "We've started something now," says Paul Nicholson, "that will be carried on through future science sessions. We've shown the kids that we're not afraid to embrace all the big questions, even the ones that undercut our own subject discipline. That's vital." I have been looking for signs of life in our bleak educational landscape, for quality of experience rather than mere competence in skills.

What the Crispin day did was Isis-like to "re-member" education as something which transcends subject barriers and calls on our whole being, our feelings, our intuition, our creativity as well as our intellect. It was successful because it emerged not out of some simplistic programme of moral correctness, but out of the wishes of a particular constellation of teachers responding to complex moral and spiritual problems.

By all means let Nick Tate launch his forum, but let none think that tackling questions of values in education will be a simple task. In June, the third conference on "Education, SpirituaLity and The Whole Child" takes place at Froebel College. It will be an ideal opportunity for teachers to explore these issues.

I would be very grateful to hear from other teachers who are interested in the kind of integration and honest questioning evident at Crispin School. I am looking for schools where such cross fertilisation is part of the culture, where apparently disparate departments interact.

Perhaps there will develop a network of support for teachers who share a similar yearning to explore with pupils feelings of wonder and mystery, who wish to help them thread and not tread their way through the difficult moral maze of a world approaching the millennium.

Further details of the Froebel College course from CEDARR office, Froebel College, Roehampton Lane, London, SW15 5PJ The speaker service of the Scientific and Medical Network can be contacted through their office at Lesser Halings, Tilehouse Lane, Denham, Uxbridge, Middlesex UB9 5DG Kevin McCarthy teaches at Our Lady of Sion School, Worthing

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