John Dewey and Aldo Leopold on Scientific Method


In his new book Rediscovering Dewey: A Reflection on Independent Thinking, Steven Simpson not only explores the philosophy of John Dewey and its application to 21st Century Education but he also draws wisdom from other scholars and philosophers who’s works speak to today’s educators.

In this excerpt Simpson draws a connection between Aldo Leopold’s work and Dewey’s philosophy of experiential education:

Teaching the Scientific Method is Not ALL Logic and Rationality
“According to Aldo Leopold, “The objective is to teach the student to see the land, to understand what he sees, and enjoy what he understands. Such teaching could well be called land ecology. . . . Land ecology is putting the sciences and arts together for the purpose of understanding our environment.” This Leopold quote has helped to guide my own teaching for the past twenty years, and I would think that it should pique the interest of a whole slew of experiential educators, especially those who use the outdoors as the setting for their educational experiences.

Leopold really was saying that the teaching of science needed to be part of an interdisciplinary process. Dewey understood this every bit as well as Leopold, and in somewhat uncharacteristically poetic and accessible prose, he wrote, “Flowers can be enjoyed without knowing about the interactions of soil, air, moisture, and seeds of which they are the result.  But they cannot be understood without taking these interactions into account.”

Had I been asked to guess as to the source of this quote, I would have guessed that it came from Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac rather than Dewey’s Art As Experience.  Aldo Leopold and John Dewey came to the same conclusion from opposite directions—Leopold worried that science education helped students understand nature, but not necessarily enjoy her; Dewey worried that uneducated students might learn to enjoy nature on their own, but not understand her.  As a result, Leopold asked the scientist to not neglect the arts, and Dewey asked the artist not to neglect science.  Dewey described the difference between a scientist and an artist as a matter of tempo and emphasis, not “the odd notion that an artist does not think and a scientific inquirer does nothing else.”

Great Science Teachers
I’m not trying to exclude scientists from the kind of teaching Aldo Leopold advocated.  He said that there needed to be teachers with a unique perspective on science teaching, not that the unique perspective could not come from scientists.  In fact, scientists who are able to make science accessible may be exactly what are needed.  Personally I consider Rachel Carson, Lewis Thomas, Loren Eiseley, E. O. Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould, David Suzuki, and above all, Aldo Leopold to be my science teachers.  That is because the attributes Dewey linked to reflective thinking were as much a part of their writing as the scientific content itself.

Scientists, of course, can be excellent teachers and may be able to instill wholeheartedness, open-mindedness, and responsibility with the best of them, but 1) all scientists should not be expected to be as effective communicators as those trained in education, and 2) the educational strengths of many scientists may lie in teaching science to science students, not to the artists, social scientists, and generalists who need a very different kind of scientific knowledge.  Unless those trained as educators have a wide knowledge base, they cannot teach science well.  Unless scientists have a wide knowledge base, they cannot connect science to the non-science world.  The problem is that non-scientists too often don’t know enough science and the scientists don’t know much else.

Look for more excerpts from Rediscovering Dewey in the next few Friday Lessons.

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