Not One More Cute Project for the Kids:
Neal Maine’s Educational Vision
by Gregory A. Smith
Lewis & Clark College, Professor Emeritus
(see Part One here)
Sustaining Neal’s Place-Based Vision of Education: Lessons Learned
Despite the power and attractiveness of these educational practices, few of them remain in evidence after the close to 20 years since Neal retired and started devoting his time to land conservation and nature photography, one of the reasons he sought me out to document central elements of his work in Seaside and the north coast. He is thus well aware of the difficulty of institutionalizing teaching approaches that run contrary to the direction embraced by most contemporary schools. Part of the reason behind this outcome might be related to the way this dilemma is framed in dualistic terms. Rather than seeing the implementation of Neal’s vision as an either-or proposition, a more productive strategy might be to adopt a both-and perspective and then find ways that more of the kinds of things that Neal encouraged could become part of the mainstream educational agenda, not replacing what is now familiar and widely accepted but balancing this with an approach capable of generating higher levels of student engagement, ownership, and meaning. To that end, here are six lessons I take from what I’ve learned from Neal over the years:
- Give as much priority to student questions as to required standards.
- Value excited learners as much as competent test takers.
- Make as much time for community and outside-of-classroom explorations as the mastery of textbook knowledge.
- Create organizational structures that encourage creativity as much as accountability.
- Encourage teachers to partner with students as co-learners as much as they serve as their instructors.
- Develop teachers as alert to unexpected learning opportunities as they are to curricular requirements.
Give as much priority to student questions as to required standards. Human beings are intellectually primed to investigate questions whose answers are not immediately apparent. Think of the appeal of mystery novels, movies, or television programs, our attraction to riddles, the appeal of crossword puzzles. Although these formats involve no ownership on the part of readers, listeners, or players, they still are capable of eliciting attention and time commitment. Even more powerful are the questions we come up with ourselves. Part of the power of the educational approach Neal encouraged teachers to develop lay in the way he tapped into this human desire. Here’s one more story from the tour as an example of the possible. The students who had been involved in the Pompey Wetlands project at one point got ahold of a tape recorder and oscilloscope and began recording one another’s laughter. They had been studying the sounds and images (on the oscilloscope) of whale songs. They wondered whether their individual laughter would have some of the same recognizable visual features on the oscilloscope as what they had observed with whales. They found that they did and after a time could associate different visual patterns with the laughter of specific students in the classroom. Imagine their fascination at having made this discovery. Such fascination is the stuff of serious learning.
Value excited learners as much as competent test takers. Making time for student questions Is one way to excite learning. Another is to provide the opportunity to do things as well as hear about them or meet people as well as read about them. Part of that doing can be as simple as taking a walk in the woods or planting a garden. Part of it could involve designing an experiment to see whether moss really does only grow on the north side of trees. Part of it could involve participating in a group that sees what’s on the river bottom across a transect of the Columbia River. The possibilities of the doing and the investigating are nearly limitless. Such learning opportunities take advantage of human curiosity and the pleasure our species takes in gaining new skills and competencies. I can imagine some of the stories that children who had learned to keep a boat on straight course across the Columbia must have told their parents when they got home that evening—or what students who participated as photographers in the Day in the Life project shared. Not all learning experiences in school will be as memorable or as exciting as these, but some of them should be and not only on an infrequent basis. Things should be happening in school that fire students’ imaginations and intellects, things that instill in them a desire to learn more. Mastery of information for tests of one sort or another is one the requirements of life in modern societies, and it is a mastery we desire from the experts we turn to when in need of medical, legal, or mechanical services. The demand for such testing is not going to go away. But what ignites deep learning is an emotional connection with different topics, the personalization of learning that Neal sought to spread throughout the Seaside School District, something much more likely to happen by getting kids into the thick of things and engaging them in projects that demand their involvement.
Make as much time for community and outside-of-classroom explorations as the mastery of textbook knowledge. The knowledge found within textbooks is not without value; it is, after all, one of the central tasks of education to transmit culture to the young. At issue is whether this culture is being linked to the lives of children and youth in ways that communicate its significance and meaning. In the past, the authority (and fear) invested in teachers, ministers, and older relatives was enough to ensure the attention of many children to these issues. This is no longer the case in part thanks to the media, to mass culture, and to the weakening of traditional institutions like the family, school, and church. Place-based educators argue that one way to address this issue involves situating learning within the context of students’ own lived experience and the experience of people in their community. When this learning also engages them in the investigation of important local issues and provides them with the opportunity to share their findings with other peers and adults, so much the better. One of the strongest motivators for human participation is the chance to engage in activities that are purposeful and valued by others. Experiences like the health fair described earlier can both encourage involvement and strengthen students’ mastery of the knowledge and skills their teachers are attempting to convey to them. More students, furthermore, seem likely to produce higher quality work when they grasp its social significance and know it will be viewed and examined by community members as well as their teacher.
Create organizational structures that encourage creativity as much as accountability. One of the consequences of the standards and accountability movement since the 1980s has been the tendency on the part of many educators to teach to the test and for their administrators to assess their competence on the basis of students’ scores. School administrators have also become more likely to require teachers to justify the activities they bring into the classroom on the basis of specific curricular aims or benchmarks. Given the degree to which schools, for decades, have failed to adequately prepare non-White and lower income students, accountability structures are clearly needed, but the way they are currently being used has resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum and a reduction in teachers’ ability to respond to learning opportunities presented by either students or community members. Place- and community-based education requires the capacity to improvise and make use of instructional possibilities that present themselves during the school year; these possibilities can’t always be anticipated. Embracing them demands the willingness of teachers to follow interesting leads while at the same time looking for ways that curricular requirements can be addressed by doing so. When schools impose both constraints and reward structures that inhibit this kind of flexibility, fewer teachers become willing to experiment in the way teachers who worked with Neal were able to. School districts can go a long way to encouraging creativity by inviting innovative teachers like Neal to share their expertise with others, either as teachers on special assignment or as members of within-district teams responsible for professional development. Addressing policies that affect daily schedules, the school calendar, and transportation requests can also do much to make learning in the community both possible and accessible.
Encourage teachers to partner with students as co-learners as much as they serve as their instructors. It is not surprising that teachers feel uncomfortable about venturing into unfamiliar intellectual terrain with their students, something that gaining knowledge about what may be a new or minimally examined place and community will necessarily require. The same thing is true of pursuing questions that aren’t going to be answered by the textbook but demand data gathering and analysis. Teaching in this way involves a certain relinquishment of control and the willingness to trust students to be engaged participants in a process of collective learning. This doesn’t mean that a teacher only becomes a “guide on the side” completely following students’ lead and offering assistance only when needed. The teacher instead becomes a “model learner,” the person in the room with more expertise in knowing how to frame questions, seek out information, assess its credibility, locate appropriate experts, create experiments, organize data and analyze findings, and prepare presentations. There will still be a need for mini-lessons about specific content tied into students’ investigations, but the primary task of a teacher with many place-based units will be—like a graduate school advisor—to demonstrate what it means to be an independent learner committed to uncovering the truth inherent in different situations—just as some of the students attempted to discover whether moss always grows on the north side of trees when they began asking questions of the watershed. Moving into a role like this will be disconcerting for many teachers, but the rewards can be worth their initial discomfort as they find themselves no longer teaching the same thing every year but joining their students in a process of intellectual discovery and knowledge creation.
Develop teachers as alert to unexpected learning opportunities as they are to curricular requirements. Enacting the previous five suggestions involves cultivating teachers who feel competent enough about their capacity as educators–drawing upon an analogy from the kitchen–to invent new and healthful dishes from ingredients at hand as they do following recipes. Recipes are certainly useful, but the test of an experienced cook is found in what they can create from scratch. Toward the end of our day together, Neal told a story about a storm-felled Sitka spruce in a park just across the street from a local middle school. Neal and a teacher there recognized the learning potentiality of this fallen giant and were able to forestall city employees for a couple of weeks as students conducted a tree necropsy. Especially valuable was the possibility of seeing at ground level the biological activity that goes on at the crown of a mature tree. In many instances, this learning resource would have been seen as no more than a mess to be cleaned up rather than an opportunity for an in-depth and unique scientific investigation. Novice and even experienced teachers need to be exposed to stories like this one that invite them to consider possibilities they may have never or rarely encountered during the course of their own education. Neal recognized that teaching in this way might be more of an art form than something that cab be easily taught but still offered the following guidance: “Don’t sleep on the way to school. Have your brain engaged. Always be looking for opportunities to make it come to life, especially if it’s community based. That really makes it work!”
Paying It Forward
My day-long journey through a partial history of Neal Maine’s work in Seaside deepened my understanding of his vision of the possible and at the same time his frustration with how difficult it has been to get many of his good ideas to stick. Early in our conversation he spoke of the way our society’s conventional vision of schooling constrains the education he believes needs to happen if young people are to grow into responsible citizens able to bring fresh and potentially more appropriate ideas to the challenges of living in the 21st century. Rather than asking students to be the passive recipients of information passed on to them by others in an effort to prepare them for adulthood and citizenship, educators need to give children the chance to participate now as data gatherers, knowledge producers, and community participants. As Neal put it, “You ought to exploit someone who is uncontaminated with having the same old answer. . . . How much could you exploit them, so to speak, in a positive, productive, humane, and sincere way? The irony of it is that the effort to exploit that capacity becomes the most powerful preparation possible for a later point in your life cycle which is what we should call adulthood.” This, not the creation of “one more cute project for the kids,” was Neal’s aim when he attempted to stimulate educational innovation in districts along the Northern Oregon and Southern Washington coast and influenced the thinking of rural educators across the United States as a board member of the Annenberg Rural Challenge.
He found that institutionalizing changes like the ones he enacted is not easy. A similar lesson was learned through the Rural Challenge, as well. As a board member of the Rural School and Community Trust I had a chance to be in touch with a number of the schools or districts that had received grants from the earlier Rural Challenge. Without the added resources and the network of support provided by that well-funded effort, it was difficult for teachers and administrators to sustain the work they had accomplished during that five-year period.
Regardless of these difficulties, ideas set in motion during that time are continuing to evolve. One of Neal’s Oregon colleagues, Jon Yoder, played a significant role in shaping the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative in Michigan that has sought to make environmental stewards out of the state’s children and youth for over a decade. Much of the work done there bears the stamp of Neal’s efforts, affecting over 115,000 students since the program began in 2007 (https://greatlakesstewardship.org/). Across the United States, a survey of place- and community-based educators completed in 2016 surfaced over 150 schools that are retooling their curriculum and instruction in ways that advance the aims Neal pursued in the Pacific Northwest (https://awesome-table.com/-KlsuLBGU0pYWpjFH1uh/view). Many other schools were also surfaced through a project sponsored by the Getting Smart website that has created a blog where teachers have been able to post their own stories about place-based education (http://www.gettingsmart.com/categories/series/place-based-education/). Finally, well-established institutions like Eastern Michigan University (https://www.emich.edu/coe/news/2016/2016-05-10-a-new-wave-of-urban-education.php) and the Teton Science Schools in Wyoming (https://education-reimagined.org/pioneers/teton-science-schools/) are creating teacher education and professional development programs aimed at preparing teachers able to embrace and then deliver learning experiences likely to lead to the forms of participation, citizenship, and community change Neal hoped to engender.
Whether schools on their own will be able to support and sustain innovations like these remains an open question, but the persistence of these ideas and the possibilities they are stimulating seem hopeful. Believing as I do that cultures change more through the telling of stories than bureaucratic manipulation, I encourage readers to have conversations about the work of Neal Maine and his educational vision. Going even further, for those of you who are teachers, try some of these possibilities out in your own schools and communities and see what happens. Then share your experiences with others—both the things that work and those that don’t. Learn from one another. As a tribute to Neal and the future, let’s see how long we can keep these ideas alive and how far we might be able to spread them.
Greg Smith is an emeritus professor who taught for 23 years in the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis & Clark College. He’s keeping busy in his retirement serving on the board of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative in Michigan and the educational advisory committee of the Teton Science Schools in Wyoming; at home, he’s co-chairing a local committee that is seeking to develop curriculum regarding the Portland-Multnomah County Climate Action Plan. He is the author or editor of six books including Place- and Community-Based Education in Schools with David Sobel.