“Lessons for Teaching in the Environment and Community” is a regular series that explores how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula.
Part 22: Use It All
Why settle for simple recall of facts?
by Jim Martin, CLEARING guest writer
We were observing a young woman sampling the temperature of the water in a stream. As she did her work, she would see the stream and its bank and look into the stream itself, see the plants, the animals, other students, the sampling equipment they used, and she would build an integrated perception of the entirety of this situation. She also talked with her partner, negotiated places to sample, told her observations, wrote them down, tabulated readings, interpreted her observations, etc. As she was doing these things, she would be using her temporal lobes for the language and some of the memory parts, the parietal lobes for the orientation and sensory parts, and occipital lobes for direct vision.
As all this was going on, information was shared with working memory in the prefrontal cortex, which is also the place where the brain facilitates the processes we call critical thinking. All that the young woman experienced serves as a rich context within which these new learnings are incorporated into concepts already stored and used in the brain. Actually doing the work, then reading about it integrates the new learnings into what you already know, where it becomes more like ‘common sense’ than new learnings. We also described the experience of approaching a cup of coffee with the intent to learn. Doing this small exercise with an actual cup of coffee is different from reading and thinking about it, abstract vs. concrete. There are times when it is relevant to comprehend the differences between abstract and concrete, and its effect on productive long term memories. Did you just read, or did you sip and think? If not, try and see the difference.
Our entire body, facilitated by the brain, is involved in the learnings here. This is how it is organized to live in its world. We can capitalize on this long after the experience, by referring to particulars and using these recollections to segue into new learnings. When the new concepts are there, held for the moment in working memory, we can integrate new information into them by traveling a known path.
Let’s say you’re teaching decimal fractions and have your students identify and count macroinvertebrates in the stream. After they have finished sampling, you have them count the number of each species present, then use that to calculate the total of all species in the sample. Then you ask them to construct a fraction that represents the proportion of all macroinvertebrates in the stream that one particular species constitutes. Later, you can segue from this experience into the calculation of percents, or lead to the calculation of exponents that also represent this fraction. By referring back to your students’ experience in the stream, you can begin a unit in any related area of mathematics with a concrete referent. And the new learning will be remembered. Or, English. Let’s say you are teaching poetry or creative writing. Your students’ experiences at the stream and its bank will produce a myriad of metaphors which can drive their writings. You might have them write a set of metaphors (referents) that they can use back in the classroom, then choose one as a vehicle to transport and transform a particular piece of writing. Then, they might explore a writer to see how she uses metaphor and how their usage is similar or different. Both metaphor and hands-on learning are powerful tools.
Art. How do you express the movements and motions of the different kinds of water they observed on site. Social Studies. How many examples of transportation can you find here? Whatever we teach in classrooms exists in the world about.
Think of what the young woman did, and how she knew the temperature of the water in, say, the stream, lateral channels, and a small pond. She had decided the places to sample, done the sampling and recorded her observations, and made some initial interpretations about their meaning. If you were to ask her some questions about what she was doing and what it meant, she could answer from her own knowledge, and not by referring to some authority. She owns the learnings, and this begins to translate into personal empowerment. I suspect that this is because she was processing these things in her prefrontal cortex, which helps carry out these functions, and also seems to be a facilitator of personality. She simultaneously grows as scholar and scientist, and an integrated, empowered person. Think of the potential which would reside in a nation of empowered graduating high school seniors.
I’ve seen this too often to doubt that engaging the real world involves and invests students in their educations, and empowers them as persons. This is the power of Assimilation when it begins in the real world, and decisions and actions are generated by the learner. Let’s contrast this with an activity from a written curriculum which confers the same information, but not the same experience. You can read about water temperature, and why it is important to salmon and the other organisms it lives with. You can read about things in the stream and streambank which affect temperature, and how salmon respond to the subsequent changes in water temperature. These facts will be stored, but not integrated into concepts and experiences you already hold unless the teacher makes a concerted effort to make this happen. It is not unusual that the next time students need to use this information, they may have to review and relearn part or all of it. They won’t be thinking as scientists, but as people who learn enough about facts to match them up on a test. In the young woman’s experiences, she was immersed in the visual, tactile, coolness aspects of salmon and temperature. Since these phenomena aren’t processed when learning from a book, the new learnings aren’t woven into this rich, remembered, texture, easy to recall later.
Starting in the real world ensures that a larger fraction of your students will see similar pictures when talking about what was done and what it means. This is an important consideration when students are learning new concepts, or new material about concepts they’ve learned before. (If you haven’t learned about it, you should find out about the field of Concept Validation. Too often, we zoom along expecting our students see the same pictures we do, only to find out on the test that they did not.) Misconceptions are a bugaboo of science teaching. We’re often talking about things we can’t see directly; that makes it a high priority to ensure we’re all talking about the same thing, from the same picture. Engage your own prefrontal cortex about these two ways to learn. Read about some aspect of the world you live in, then go off and write down all you can recall. Then go out and engage something in the real world with a question you ask. Make observations to answer the question, then write down all you can recall. Compare the two experiences.
This is the twenty second installment of “Teaching in the Environment,” a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests, and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”