Science at Living Wisdom School — A Conversation with teacher Doug Andrews

Doug Andrews has taught science at LWS for 10 years. Doug has a degree in biology from the University of California at Santa Cruz. He recalls, “I was in a PhD program for biochemistry. I had wanted to go to medical school, but I had three small kids, and I was a single parent.

doug-andrews“I was working at the molecular level, researching drug transport across membranes, and I realized that what I liked best was working with people, which was my motivation for wanting to go to medical school. I was looking for a more meaningful way to be useful in the world, and it’s how I eventually ended up at LWS.”

Doug spoke with George Beinhorn, a LWS staff member who serves as our webmaster, editor, writer, and photographer.

GB: Good morning, Doug. I had a long conversation recently with our school’s newest teacher, Kabir MacDow, who has worked in education for over 40 years. Kabir believes the principles we practice in the classroom at LWS make learning more efficient. As an example of inefficient learning, Kabir described how children in some public schools in India attend school six days from morning to mid-afternoon, and after years they come out unable even  to read well. In part, he believes it’s because the teachers are focused on rote memorization, but partly it’s also because they aren’t trained to bring out children’s enthusiasm for learning.

At LWS, we sometimes talk about educating children’s consciousness. And I believe it’s an unfortunate word, because it’s abstract and doesn’t clearly say what it means. It’s unfortunate, because if we look at the nuts and bolts of what happens classroom here, it’s inspiring.

Education for Life is based on the idea that we have five human tools for interacting with the world: our body, feelings, will, mind, and soul. And Kabir’s point is that learning becomes much more efficient when we address all five tools, instead of limiting our focus to the mind alone.

Science teacher Doug Andrews has the class excited about biology.
Science teacher Doug Andrews has the kids excited about biology.

A child is a tightly integrated system, and if you confine yourself to improving the mind, it’s like  tuning the carburetor on your car when the tires are flat and the fuel pump is broken. But if you include the peripheral tools when you educate children, you find that it greatly enhances their ability to learn, because you’re bringing more energy to the process – the enthusiasm of the heart, the deep interest of the mind which improves mental focus, and the natural energy of body, heart and soul.

So by drawing in all aspects of the child, you’re making a major contribution to their academic readiness.

Doug: That’s it. That’s everything. You’re refining the tools that contribute to learning. And it becomes especially clear in science that how you teach makes a huge difference.

The way science is taught in schools is often very uninspiring. Obviously, there are good teachers who are able to make science interesting. But what they’re doing individually, at LWS we’re doing philosophically across all our grades and academic disciplines.

First, we take into account that children in the K-8 grades are nearly all in the age group of 6 to 12. And these are the critical “feeling years” of a child’s development. The feelings years are extremely important in a child’s growth, because they set the stage for the child’s character, for their ability to know right from wrong, and for their ability to be enthusiastic about learning. And if you want to get the best out of the student in academics, it’s critical to bring out their enthusiasm, their energy, and their natural ability to love.

Math and science volunteer and Harvard graduate Richard Fouquet had a long, successful career as an engineer and flight manual publisher. Click to enlarge.
Math and science volunteer and Harvard and Stanford graduate Richard Fouquet had a successful career as an engineer and flight manual publisher. Click to enlarge.

In science, it matters only very secondarily if a child in 5th grade knows about atomic structure. But if he/she is highly enthusiastic about some aspect of science, and if the teacher can tap that enthusiasm and guide it creatively and rigorously, the child will learn to love science, and he or she will develop a love of the scientific method.

That’s the most important aspect of science education. I may not be able to hold all the details of my particular branch of science in my brain. But if I know the basic principles and how to find the information I need, and if I have a natural enthusiasm that makes me curious about finding the answers, I’m three-quarters of the way toward being a successful scientist.

I feel this is the best thing I can give the students, because enthusiasm is the motor that drives academic success. And it’s what parents continually tell me they respect about science at LWS. At our year-end ceremony, parents unfailingly tell me, “We want to thank you, because our child says that science is her favorite subject. And when we ask her what field she wants to study, it’s always, ‘I want to study science.’”

GB: The parents approach you and tell you that?

Doug: Oh, totally. Totally. And all of the work I do is directed toward the single goal of making sure the kids love science when they leave for the next grade.

I don’t put the students on a rigid program to finish X pages in X time, because that approach sucks all the life out of science. It really is of no particular value at all. I’m completely okay with the idea of finding our way through the academic curriculum by making science something that we can explore with energy and enthusiasm.

In the end, they learn more, retain more, and become more interested and more adept at applying the scientific method.

In the younger grades, for example, I may start a conversation with the kids about “things that fly.” I’ll ask them, “What flies? Tell me some things that fly. It doesn’t matter if it’s alive or if it’s a machine. It doesn’t matter if it’s coming from outer space. Whatever it is, let’s talk about things that fly.”

If you find that this particular group loves the idea of airplanes, well, airplanes have a lot of science in them. There are lots of things you can look at with airplanes, in terms of the shape of the wings, the shape of the propellers, wind currents, lift, and so on. We can build model airplanes and compare the designs and try to understand how they work, and why one works better than the others. And that’s science.

I can then go back and ask them, “What else flies?” And we might end up talking about butterflies. So we’ll take a day trip to Natural Bridges to see the butterflies in season. And we’ll study the life cycle of butterflies. So we’re following their enthusiasm and bringing in science as a way to understand how the natural world works. Child with Bubble, Living Wisdom School, Palo Alto, California

Bubbles fly, and bubbles are fun, and we can figure out which kind of solution yields the best bubbles, and why. We can make solutions and compare them, and then we’ll look at the science of why it works. And when we get to the level where we’re opening the book and drawing on the chalkboard and talking about the science, it’s a whole lot more fun because their enthusiasm is high.

I don’t know how most science teachers survive, when they’re required to follow an externally dictated curriculum. Bless them if they’re able to do it and make it interesting.

But Kabir is right. The philosophy that we’re privileged to work with here allows us to be scientists working together, which is a much deeper approach that pays big dividends in learning.

I remember, as a kid, going shopping and seeing my teacher, and not feeling that I could go up to them and say “Hi.” But when I run into our kids outside of school, they’ll often come up and talk. And that’s because we’re enthusiastic about having fun doing science together.

What I look for in the children’s science fair projects is the level of challenge in the experiment, the presentation, and how well they conducted the experiment. (See 2015 LWS Science Fair photos.)

GB: Are you working with each of the students individually on their projects in school?

Doug: I do. And the way it works is that, between the two classes, I have 40-44 kids that I’m checking in on. And it’s not like I can go in depth with each of them. So I have them propose an idea six months ahead. And once of the proposals are in place, I’ll ask them for procedures. And then I keep them on track with collecting their data. In the last couple of weeks I’ll help them work on their presentations. Then they’ll do a dry run, where they bring their project to school and do a dress rehearsal, so they’ve had some experience sharing what they’ve done.

GB: Do the classroom teachers help them on their science fair projects?

Doug: Not usually. They have their own schedules. But undoubtedly the parents are involved. I encourage the parents to see the science fair as a golden opportunity to do something creative with their kids, and many of them do.

Some kids don’t want their parents involved. For example, Vidushi is not a kid where that would ever be the case. She would not have to lean on her parents, because she would do it all on her own.

GB: Does developing enthusiasm in science help them with their other studies?

Doug: Well, that’s it. It doesn’t matter if they’re doing science or language arts or history. We all come into life with certain interests, and some people love math or geography or astronomy. And it doesn’t matter what you’re interested in. What matters is that you have the energy and enthusiasm to be able to understand it and love it.

If you’re inclined toward math, and you have it pounded into your head that you have to get through X pages – that’s a sure way to pull all the life and enthusiasm out of the student in math class.

GB: It’s an external motivator. And the research clearly shows that enjoying the process – being internally motivated – yields work of greater quantity and quality.

Doug: Yes, and one thing we do very well here is that we look at the children as individuals, rather than as an age group or a grade level or a group to be processed through an education machine. It’s not unusual here to have a child who’s chronologically in 2nd grade but academically and developmentally on a level with the 3rd graders. And that’s where they’ll go, because that’s where they’ll get the most academically.

But if a child needs to spend more time among his peers, we won’t artificially put them in a higher grade; instead, we’ll encourage them to work individually in their present class. For example, the child may not be socially ready to move up a grade. In that case, we might make it a gradual transition, so they’ll be ready to work at a higher level with appropriate social skills.

Keshav is a golfer, so it was natural for him to study golf balls. Manufacturers advertise their golf balls as traveling farther because of the way they’re made, and Keshav tested and compared various models to see if the claims are true. Keshav is a mathematician by inclination, and you can see that he generated plenty of statistics to support his work. It was a fine experiment and a really excellent presentation.
Doug admires Keshav’s exhibit at the 2015 LWS Science Fair. Keshav is a golfer; he tested the claims of golf ball manufacturers that their balls fly farther. Click to enlarge.

Many schools will advance a student based on academic ability alone, without any regard for the rest of the person. At LWS, we aren’t so blinded by academics that we’ll sacrifice the child’s long-term success by pushing them forward at all costs. That’s short-term thinking, and it commonly ends up demotivating the child, if they’re doing well academically but they’re uncomfortable with their social situation.

GB: Talking with the teachers, I hear them speak about how the culture of the school is built around social connections with people, and understanding other people’s realities. If you watch re-runs of Veronica Mars, you see a high school environment that’s a war zone, basically. It’s a jungle. And it’s not like that in this school. When I visit the classrooms to observe, or to take pictures for the website, I’ll often see the older kids helping each other, or helping the younger kids.

Doug: Because I teach science, I’m not a full-time classroom teacher. But I benefit greatly from what the classroom teachers are doing. For example, when I lead a science lab, I can expect that when I assign lab partners, I know I won’t get a lot of resistance about who the kids do or don’t want to work with. Many times, I’ll know that I can absolutely count on the students wanting to help, because the children have learned to enjoy helping in this school culture. The idea of being kind, of being of service, of being helpful to another person – you’re not “training” kids to do that. You’re simply creating a school culture that reinforces those natural tendencies that are present in human nature.

It’s the culture that allows that level of compassion to become the focus. In every classroom from K to 8, the kids are motivated to be that way, because the culture gives them a chance to experience how helping makes them feel great.

They know they aren’t going to mock or make fun of someone. And if they see a 6th grader who needs help, they’ll naturally and comfortably offer it.

So, as a science teacher, I get the benefit of that culture in my classroom. I see it working, and I’m very aware of it, because it’s a blessing to be able to teach science in an accepting, cooperative culture. And it’s one more way Education for Life makes learning efficient.

You can see it even in the early grades. The 3rd graders in Ruth’s class are wonderful. They’re sophisticated in a way that you wouldn’t expect, probably because of the culture in Silicon Valley. So they have a lot of information, and they’re very curious, and they’re really sweet. In 4th and 5th grade they can get a little sassy – nothing wrong with it! (laughs) But in 3rd grade they’re sweet and they’re not self-conscious, and they’re having fun.

This is Diana again. Her family are from Russia, and she could not be brighter.
This is Diana loading a volcano with fuel at the 3rd grade exhibit during the 2015 LWS Science Fair. Click to enlarge.

It showed in the volcano project that we did with the 3rd graders for the science fair this year. It was typical 3rd grade energy.

In other years, we’ve done a project that asks which bubble gum blows the best bubbles – we called it Bubbleology. It’s actually a great science experiment, because it’s a way to create a logical pathway for thinking through a problem. We’ll compare various brands of bubble gum, and it gets into materials science and physics and math.

The scientific method is something most people have a vague idea about. Everybody knows there’s a specific method that you can follow, and in the West we want to have information verified objectively and scientifically. But it’s a two-edged sword. First, because many people don’t need to know information scientifically, because there are many kinds of information they need to discover for themselves subjectively. But on the other hand, when it’s about coming to an intelligent, logical conclusion, it’s helpful to have the standard process to go by. Diet and exercise are great examples, where you may know the scientific principles, but you have to apply them with respect for individual differences that can be significant, and that can vary daily.