The Cooperative-Communal Classroom–>Insights from Nature

Cooperative-communal classrooms are aligned with fundamental ideas that have been formulated from nature. Cooperation, empathy, mutual aid, and the interdisciplinary nature of the biosphere are fundamental concepts that are implicit in cooperative-communal classrooms. Each has its origin in nature.

The rationale for establishing cooperative-communal classrooms can be linked to the theory of evolution by Charles Darwin and the work of two Russian scientists of the 19th and early 20th Century, Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky (1863-1945), and Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin (1842-1921). I know that this appears strange, but as you read ahead I hope you will see how my thinking was influenced by not only my experiences as a teacher, but my collaboration with colleagues in the U.S. and in Russia.

Anatoly Zaklebney, ecologist and science educator who worked with students and teachers during the era of glasnost and perestroika.

Anatoly Zaklebney, Russian ecologist and science educator.

I started visiting Russia (then the Soviet Union) in 1981, and continued for the next twenty years making one or two trips per year collaborating with teachers, researchers, scientists, students and parents. After several years of building trust and friendship with Russian colleagues (by sending and receiving delegations of teachers and researchers, teaching in each other’s classrooms, and holding open-ended discussions about teaching, and drinking lots of coffee and tea), we created a project that connected students, ecology, and the Internet into what became known as the Global Thinking Project–a kind of hands-across-the-globe environmental science project. Cooperation was a central tenet of our work. There was no attempt to Americanize Russian education; instead, we hoped to build a form of collaboration to enhance teaching and learning in each country’s classrooms touched by our work. Our model was to join classrooms–the class–from one country to the other, for collaborating on one of several ecological and environmental projects that would be carried out using “project-based learning.”

GTP classrooms in Russia, and the U.S. had only one computer per classroom connected to the telecommunications network we established with the help of Gary Lieber, on loan to us from Apple. We actually carried on a flight to Moscow, six Macintosh SE 20 computers, printers, and 2400-baud modems. With this equipment, phone lines and a connection to SOVAM, a telecommunication’s company in Moscow, we linked six Russian and six American schools using email and bulletin boards.

Collaborative teams within each classroom were essential in the GTP, and as a result we had years of experience working with schools that experimented with cooperative-communal classroom learning.

We documented our work in a variety of publications including: Environmental Science on the Net, The AHP Soviet Exchange Project, Teaching Students to Think Globally, Citizen Scientists, The Emergence of Global Thinking Among American and Russian Youth, andother research.

In time many other teachers and researchers joined with us including, Australia, the Czech Republic, and Spain.

Thinking in Wholes: Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky

In 1988 I met Anatoly Zaklebny, a professor of ecology and ecological education, the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences, Moscow. Dr. Zakhlebny was a principal leader in ecological education in Russia, and had led many excursions into Siberia to give “field-camp” type experiences for science teachers. He also developed ecological curriculum for schools throughout Russia. He argued that science curriculum should be interdisciplinary, helping students experience connections not only among disparate fields in science (biology and chemistry, biology and geology, and so forth), but with politics, social science, and history.

imageDr. Zaklebny introduced us to the ideas of Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky, a 19th Century Russian scientist. At the time, most of us in the West were unaware of what Vernadsky had taught about the Earth. Vernadsky explained that life, including human life, using energy from visible light from the Sun, has transformed the planet Earth for billions of years. To Vernadsky life makes geology. To him, life is not merely a geological force, it is the geological force. At the Earth’s surface, just about all geological features are “bio-influenced.” Although Vernadsky did not coin the word “biosphere,” his understanding and views are what are accepted today. As Dr. Lynn Margulis, and colleagues stated in the introduction to the first English translation of Vernadsky’s book, The Biosphere, Vernadsky showed us the way to understand how life and non-life are connected. They wrote:

He illuminates the difference between an inanimate, mineralogical view of Earth’s history, and an endlessly dynamic picture of Earth as the domain and product of life, to a degree not yet well understood. No prospect of life’s cessation looms on any horizon. What Charles Darwin did for all life through time, Vernadsky did for all life through space. Just as we are all connected in time through evolution to common ancestors, so we are all-through the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, and these days even the ionosphere-connected in space.

Vernadsky’s contributions and scientific contributions are metaphors for thinking in wholes, and the connections that exist within any system that we study. This is especially true for the science curriculum.

But Here’s the Thing.

The Common Core State Standards, and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) have been criticized for their lack of attention tointerdisciplinary curriculum, and the role of schools in preparing students for citizenship. Professor William Wraga suggests that “disciplinary myopia” has led to standards that are overly technical and steeped in discipline concepts, processes and practice. He suggests, and we would agree, that interdisciplinary curriculum can lead to greater understanding by seeking connections among the disciplines. S-T-S, science-related social issues, and a lived curriculum should be starting points for a science curriculum; unfortunately this is not the case in the new science framework.

Wraga also focuses in on the unfortunate single purpose of schooling as depicted in the common standards, and that is that education should be in the service of economic interests. We see this in news reports each Spring when test scores are released which typically lead to “a sky is falling” mentality amongst chief school officers, governors, and other politicians. Repeated attention to international test results leads to unfounded comparisons among countries. Wraga sees this as a narrow function of schooling, and wonders why vocational, social, civic, cultural, and each goal give way to a single goal, which he identifies as the academic goal.

The same criticisms can leveled at the framework for science education in that National Research Council’s Framework as it is steeped in a disciplinary approach to content. In fact, the word “interdisciplinary” is found only twice in the framework, and one of these was part of one of the committee member’s biography. The science framework is neatly organized into four traditional content areas: life, earth, and physical science, as well as engineering and technology. The framework does name cross-cutting ideas, but this is not at all what science educators would view as anything remotely close to interdisciplinary curriculum. The Framework was the basis for the NGSS.

We need to teach science that is rich in connections not only within the traditional disciplines of science, but the connections with and among social studies, politics, economics, history, and geography. Charlene M. Czerniak, in a chapter entitled “Interdisciplinary Science Teaching” in The Handbook of Research on Science Education, an advocate for “integrated curriculum,” reports that there are challenges to implementing interdisciplinary curriculum. Even though interdisciplinary approaches have been around for a long time, the 1996 Science Standards, and the Next Generation Science Standards, still organize the standards into each discipline of science. There is very little attempt to integrate knowledge across disciplines.

Perhaps what we need is a Vernadskian curriculum theorist and practitioner who will apply integrated approaches, especially if we think that this kind of curriculum might be more relevant to students, and might indeed focus on problems that would be of interest to our students.

The Place of Cooperation in Evolution : Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin and Charles Darwin


Wordle on Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin

The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics is a new book written by Lee Alan Dugatkin an evolutionary biologist and historian of science and a professor and Distinguished University Scholar in the Department of Biology at the University of Louisville. Dr. Dugatkin’s book should be of interest to scientists, and science educators, but I think also the corporate reformers that I wrote about in the last blog post. Dugatkin writes about the science and politics of Peter Kropotkin, and it is the science that I think should be reading for all interested in improving teaching and learning of the youth of the species, Homo sapiens.
As Dugatkin writes, Kropotkin was a brilliant scientist, who spent years studying nature in Siberia. As a young man, with the support of the Russian Geographical Society, his travels to Siberia began a life of exploration, writing, publishing, editing, and activist politics. As Dugatkin points out, the evolutionary theory of the late 19th Century suggested tha the natural world was a “brutal” place; indeed, competition was the driving force. Kropotkin expected that he would find examples of the brutalness of nature, but instead he found the opposite. Lee Alan Dugatkin writes:

And so, in the icy wilderness, Peter expected to witness nature red in tooth and claw. He searched for it. He studied flocks of migrating birds and mammals, fish schools, and insect societies. What he found was that competition was virtually nonexistent. Instead, in every corner of the animal world, he encountered mutual aid. Individuals huddled for warmth, fed one another, and guarded their groups from danger, all seeming to be cogs in a larger cooperative society. “In all the scenes of animal lives which passed before my eyes,” Kropotkin wrote, “I saw mutual aid and mutual support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species and its further evolution” (Dugatkin, Lee Alan (2011-09-13). The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics . . Kindle Edition).

And during his studies in Siberia, he visited peasant villages, and in them he saw their sense of community and coöperation. According to Dugatkin, Kropotkin as a young scientist “witnessed human coöperation and altruism in its purest form.”

These observations presented a problem to the Russian scientist. As an advocate for natural selection (as discovered by Darwin and Wallace), as the driving force that shaped life on the earth, he began to question the way Darwin’s ideas had been perverted and misrepresented, especially by British scientists. Even today, most people misinterpret Darwinian evolution by invoking the term “survival of the fittest” as the fundamental idea of evolution. It is not. Dugatkin writes:

Natural selection, Kropotkin argued, led to mutual aid, not competition, among individuals. Natural selection favored societies in which mutual aid thrived, and individuals in these societies had an innate predisposition to mutual aid because natural selection had favored such actions. Kropotkin even coined a new scientific term—progressive evolution—to describe how mutual aid became the sine qua non of all societal life—animal and human. Years later, with the help of others, Kropotkin would formalize the idea that mutual aid was a biological law, with many implications, but the seeds were first sown in Siberia (Dugatkin, Lee Alan (2011-09-13). The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics . . Kindle Edition).

Cooperation is an essential attribute of survival, not only among humans, but other animal species as well.

Instead of using the attribute of coöperation as a fundamental aspect of student learning, most classrooms use a competitive model to fulfill the goal of personal achievement, at all costs. To make sure that one can measure achievement, élite groups have mandated single set of goals naming them common standards. To date, we have developed common standards in mathematics, English/language arts, and science. Concurrently achievement tests that are matched to the standards are being developed by two groups of test constructionists. The tests, when they are ready for use, will be administered using computer technology.

Unfortunately, much of the rationale for this standards/high-stakes testing is based on the flawed theory that to compete in the global market place, we need to beat the drums and make sure that students attain a set of goals that may or not be related their own futures. Using a behavioral and at best traditional model of knowledge attainment, instruction is geared to the teach to the test model. All outcomes of this approach are measured by how people do on high-stakes testing.

Instead of recognizing that scientists have moved way beyond the simple model of knowledge transmission and have invented a new field of study, called the learning sciences, schools are stuck in the older model. The so-called reformers of education want only one thing: Higher test score. The learning sciences is an interdisciplinary field of study embracing disparate fields including cognitive science, computer science, educational psychology, anthropology, and applied linguistics. What is significant here is the notion of interdisciplinary study. Vernadsky and Kropotkin uncovered new connections among various fields of study, and indeed, Vernadsky might be considered one of the earliest scientists to invent interdisciplinary fields including ”biogeochemistry,” and “geomicrobiology.” Kropotkin established that brought together various fields of study to develop a common thread or theme–the scientific law of mutual aid, which brought the fields together. As Kugatkin in the Prince of Evolution writes:

This law boils down to Kropotkin’s deep-seated conviction that what we today would call altruism and cooperation—but what the Prince called mutual aid—was the driving evolutionary force behind all social life, be it in microbes, animals or humans (Dugatkin, Lee Alan (2011-09-13). The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics . . Kindle Edition).

Students do not learn in isolation, and their learning is not enhanced by competing with other students for higher grades, stars, happy faces, or even money. In my view, learning is improved in environments where students are working together to build and share ideas through action on problems that are relevant to the student’s life experiences and cultural heritage. As formulated by John Dewey, learning should be rooted in pragmatism resulting in school learning that is experiential and humanistic. Cooperation should be a focus of the work of teachers in helping students “learn” to work with each other to tackle socially relevant problems. Empathy and realism foster interpersonal relationships among students and teachers.

Thinking in wholes, and learning to use coöperation, one of the survival traits that evolved through natural selection, should characterize schooling for human beings living on the planet Earth.

What do you think about all of this? Do you accept Kropotkin’s idea that mutual aid or coöperation played a major part in the evolution? Does this have any application for teaching? And what do you think of Vernadsky’s conception of thinking in wholes, and making connection among disparate fields?


Peter Kropotkin was also a famous political activist. His travels to Siberia, and experiences with peasant villages led him to “give up on government,” and instead believe that it would be better to have no government. He joined an activist group in St. Petersburg whose goal was to work with peasants and tell them of labor movements in Europe, and to educate them. Remember, Peter was from an aristocratic family, and as such, he dressed as a peasant and traveled around spreading the ideas that government was evil, and that people would “naturally” coöperate and solve problems better than any government (See Dugatkin, Lee Alan (2011-09-13). The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics (p. 23). . Kindle Edition). Although imprisoned in the notorious Peter and Paul Prison in 1874,he was able to receive books, and with the help of the Russian Geographic Society, and his brother’s plea to the Czar, Peter was able to receive paper and pen to continue writing. He escaped from a low security prison in 1876, and fled to England. Follow this link to The Prince of Evolution to find out more about his political activities in England, mainland Europe and America.

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Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a former high school science teacher and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University. While at Georgia State he was coordinator of science education, and was involved in the development of several science teacher education programs, including the design and implementation of TEEMS, a clinically based...