Think! – Learning From Carl Sagan

Back at the end of 2012, I had a bright idea for a new blog. Taking inspiration from culture and the sciences, I would write about the intersection of these areas with language teaching and learning. I posted a few times, but as happens in life other things come along and the project drifted away.

However, I wasn’t happy to let these few articles drift away into lonely isolation, so I’ve dusted them off and resurrected them here on my regular blog, where hopefully a few more people will actually read them! The first post talks about how my main inspiration as a teacher is my favourite scientist, Carl Sagan.

Starseeds © Jon Lomberg – Inspired by Carl Sagan’s Cosmos

One of the joys I have found in my new interest in science is that it has brought me into what was a previously unknown world of inspiration, enlightenment and influence. As I am exposed to the likes of Neil Degrasse Tyson, Richard Feynman, and Richard Dawkins, I’m gratified that I have been able to bring their wisdom and intelligence into my life, and hopefully just a little bit will rub off somewhere. But one name sticks out above all others. In the last few months, I have been watching the finest television series I have ever seen, a source of wonder and learning for me which I cannot believe took so long to become part of my life. This series is Cosmos, presented by the legendary Carl Sagan.

I’m still struggling to comprehend how I wasn’t aware of the show before now. I’m a culturally aware person, but somehow it passed me by. I guess jokes like this just went over my head:

In each programme he leads us on a personal voyage through the history of scientific discovery  and the universe, known and unknown. The show is aimed at viewers without a scientific background and not only explains the cosmos around us, but also the achievements of the great thinkers of the past, such as Copernicus, Brahe and Kepler.

So as a result of watching the show my knowledge of the universe is increasing, but I’m no cosmologist and I can’t claim to understand everything. But there’s a lot we can learn from a programme like this even if we don’t understand particle physics or string theory. Essentially, in the show, Carl Sagan is a teacher and we are his pupils. Watch the video below to see what I mean. As you watch, you can try and learn about Flatland if you like, but mostly I want you to pay attention to what you can learn from him as a teacher.

If you were one of my students, it is at this point I’d ask you compare your observations with a peer. This time however, we are both learners, so you can compare your notes with mine:

  • He’s explaining a difficult concept, something many of the viewers will be unfamiliar with. Despite this he isn’t at all patronising, treating the audience with intelligence as he diligently and precisely explains the concept.
  • He displays an in-depth knowledge and is not shy about you knowing that he is an authority figure when it comes to this subject. In other words, he is clearly the teacher and we are definitely the learners.
  • While he treats the subject seriously, he is not without humour. He is very effective at breaking up the moments of seriousness with moments of levity. He handles the tone of the discourse beautifully.
  • He is clearly spoken and precise in his language. His ability to deliver a complicated concept in an economical way makes it easier to comprehend.
  • He uses practical and clear demonstrations to illustrate his point, again making the idea easier to understand. He’s not afraid of being very explicit in explaining what his point is.
  • His use of language is particularly interesting. He speaks beautifully and yet you never feel that he is talking ‘over you’. In fact, I love the mixture of registers he uses, ranging from “the universe is finite but unbounded” to “the only conclusion is that he’s gone bonkers”.
  • His body language is open and inviting. He frequently smiles, and you feel more like you’re being led on a journey of discovery by a wise uncle then bewildered by overly serious academic.
  • He occasionally uses aphorisms, for example “If you want to know what it’s like inside a black hole, look around”. They act as a form of punctuation, summarising the key points that he has just stated or asking the main questions that need to be emphasised. Phrases like this are memorable for the learners, and will enable them to recall key concepts at a later date.

It is vital that we, not just as language teachers but as educators in general, are prepared to look outside of our immediate circle to find influences and heroes. We have much to learn from Sagan and his like and we should not be cowed by his intellectual might and obvious gifts. Rather we should look to his example and and attempt to his follow in his footsteps with a ready heart and an open mind, although, as Sagan himself famously said (or did he?):


To read about more ‘outside influences’, head over to the iTDi blog:



2 thoughts on “Think! – Learning From Carl Sagan

  1. Hi James,
    I really enjoyed reading this. I bought Cosmos on DVD a couple of years ago, but haven’t been able to watch it again as I haven’t been in the same country as it for most of that time!
    Science and history are my two passions outside of languages/teaching/travelling. I really enjoy the Inside Science and Science in Action podcasts from the BBC. I think you already listen to the Infinite Monkey Cage, right? Have you read ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ by Bill Bryson? He discovered science late too, then decided he’d go and ask experts in each field to explain various concepts to him. The book was very easy to read, as always from him, and taught me a lot – highly recommended!

    1. Thanks Sandy, glad you liked it! I do listen to the Infinite Monkey Cage, as it combines my interest in science with one of my main hobbies, listening to comedy. And I have the Bryson book, but haven’t got around to it yet, like so many things in life – but I will!

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