Are Economies the Only Things that Expand and Contract?

Do we need to inject more time for contemplation into our curricula?

by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor


Photo by Jim Martin

Concentration and contemplation. Expand and contract. Walk drive. Makes life varied, interesting, doable. In school, the intensity of work in the field or lab can make the follow-up work seem interminable. Slowing down to contemplate and write may seem, not a waste of time, but using time that needs to be spent preparing for the next test or lab or field trip. Some of us assume it can be done quickly, just make a table, graph the data in the table, and write a one-paragraph conclusion, then move on. But it’s contemplation that drives home the learnings. And makes life purposeful and meaningful. Even at the cellular level, it takes neurons time, hours to days to weeks or more, to lay down an effective memory. Even though the transmissions that set up the neuronal networks involved in that memory moved at velocities well over 100 meters per second. Contractions and expansions, working together to make the world meaningful.

Years ago, Dryas and I met a man who loved to restore old homes. Something he enjoyed working with, and which was a pleasant surprise for me, was the concept of expansion and contraction of space. For instance, two large spaces, two rooms, in our house were linked by a short, low, narrow passage. Moving from one room to another meant leaving a large space, contracting as you traversed a low, narrow space, and then expanding again into a large space. Traversing them was a small adventure. How do we recognize and use these large and small elements of our lives? Do we even allow them?

Even when life becomes unbearable – a bitter divorce, the death of one we’re close to – the emotional contraction is concentrated, intense, then opens to an expansion into a world we’re beginning to know and explore. The period before the event, if it was a life involved and invested in, was an expansion, the time we enter into understanding. It’s this concentrated period of exposing ourselves to new information, then moving to an extended period of contemplation that has the capacity to consolidate new learnings so they become elements we can easily bring to mind and to bear on new experiences. Even divorce and death.

Life today seems to emphasize contractions – tweets, texts, two people with lattes sit together talking to others on their cell phones – does it allow expansion, contemplation? As I write this, I look around my favorite coffee and crepe house and see people, many 20- and 30-somethings, talking and laughing, talking and thinking, reading; or eyes past the window, lost in thought. From time to time, a hand caresses a cell phone to life, an eye glances to see what’s there, then hand returns to thought, book, or friends. As people, we haven’t lost contemplation. Those who seem to be distracted are probably the same who have always found contemplation difficult. Of the hundred-plus people I’ve friended on Facebook, only a few send constant updates, and most of those, I know, spend quality time in contemplation.

And so it should be in school, but, paralleling school’s inability to adequately help us prepare for life in the real world, contractions tend to be the norm. Checking off standards seems to be our frenetic response to the need for doing a better job of teaching. Even though teaching less, but in more depth – expansion and contemplation – results in a better education. Test scores around the world tell us that our capacity to pass similar tests is well below that of the rest of the highly developed world. So we try to catch up by emphasizing test preparation in schools, and track our progress on tests of academic standards. We even invest heavily in preparing to take these tests. What we don’t emphasize is learning for understanding.

We don’t really understand something unless we’ve done it, thought about it, and done it again. And talked about it, and thought about it. Learning and memorizing facts in order to pass tests is effective when we are learning how to stop and go through a series of traffic lights, or to use a drill press effectively without injuring a finger. It doesn’t work as well for learning or modifying concepts for understanding. The networks of neurons for this kind of learning, learning for understanding, are much larger, and provide a broader base of information for understanding when we encounter something new. Students whose teachers engage this larger approach to teaching actually score better on standards tests than those where teachers focus significant amounts of time on preparing their students for these very tests. Let’s look at this.

Concentration and contemplation; what does this look like as an organizer for delivering curriculum? Let’s move from one large room to another via a narrow, arched passageway – contemplation, concentration, contemplation. One step further: Let’s follow the last contemplation with a sharp contraction.

Walking through the first room, observing and thinking about what’s there, we find people reading, discussing, working computers, writing. They’ve been presented with a question, “What about its local habitat influences where macroinvertebrates decide to spend their time?” The question is a short cut, devised by the students’ teacher to save time. The class has three days to develop a list of possibilities, discuss them, and find out how to observe them. They’ll do this in their work groups.

Even while they’re in this large room dedicated to contemplating the problem, some moments are busier than others, such as when they are deciding whether to add water temperature to the list, since the creek near the school has a generally predictable temperature. So, I might modify my metaphor to include large and small areas within the room; a room, nevertheless, where students know they have time to do the work.

What the teacher has done by phrasing the question in its particular way is to induce her students to employ higher level cognitive skills as a vehicle for learning. (And defining the limits of the playing field. An effectively devious method of setting boundaries.) Instead of starting by finding and memorizing facts, students begin by assessing and discriminating the macroinvertebrate habitat, which induces them to seek, acquire, and understand information, and apply what they find to answering the teacher’s prompt. This work takes time, involves research and what I call ‘negotiation of meaning’, where discourse begins to clarify meaning. While busy, students have time to think and digest information they have sought and found. Time to make sense of what they are learning. And to assure ownership of the learning.

They are starting by delineating and assessing a habitat with a mind toward developing a concept which includes macroinvertebrates and aspects of their habitat. Instead of being taught specifics about macroinvertebrates and stream habitats, then moving up the line, they start at a higher conceptual level, and the impetus for working at the lower levels comes from the students themselves by following up on the needs-to-know that emerge from their work. And they will spend their time learning the basics more effectively than if we teach to them from the front of the classroom. Not only that, but they will remember what they discover. That is what we’re after if we’re teachers.

Now, to a contraction. So they decide on temperature, water depth and velocity, characteristics of the bottom, and algae, as aspects of the local habitat which might influence where macroinvertebrates live. Now, they need intense concentration on how to observe and measure these. Then they put this into a design to answer the over-arching question, go out to the creek, and do the work. This is a straight-forward operation, much like what they usually experience in school. Except that it was derived almost entirely from their own minds. The things we’re charged with developing.

Next in the contraction is to do the work, followed by an expansion to process and interpret results. They’ll need to tabulate and analyze their results, then synthesize and interpret what emerges. After this, they will prepare to communicate their results. These processes will engage discussion and contemplation as they begin to comprehend what they have learned. By this time, they will be the owners of their learnings, and you will be tweaking things here and there to tie down the learnings which are your main curricular goals.
The final contraction? Go back to the site to follow up on questions that arose in reporting. Rarely done, but nails down the learnings. Products of their own minds.

jimphoto3This is 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.”