“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 10: Assimilation

When the world outside becomes the world inside

by Jim Martin, CLEARING guest writer

brainStarting in the world outside our skin, our personal tegumental boundary, I have claimed, is the best way to learn. By ‘learn,’ I mean integrate new material into old understandings so that they become a part of you. Part of you because they begin their synaptic lives with you by adding protein to the synapses they innervate, piles of stones along a new path, so they can find their way again. Becoming protein within you, they are you, a part of yourself that will travel with you wherever you go.

An enchanting thought, that, one that all teachers could give to their students in every class they teach. Learning for understanding, carried through each person’s life. I would think that thought would drive education, but it doesn’t. Even so, I’d like to talk about it for a bit.

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What happens when we engage some concrete piece of the world outside our bodies with the intent to learn? Or, at least the teacher expects us to learn. Let’s say we’re on a streambank, collecting, identifying, and counting the macroinvertebrates (macros) we have netted in the stream. You empty the net into a tub of stream water, then use a pipet to suck one particular macro from the milieu, place it into one of the depressions of an ice cube tray, and use your macro identification book to attach a name to it. These activities are all coordinated by your brain, the organ system which will do the learning and, hopefully, the eventual remembering.

While you are hovering over the basin, pipet in hand, your parietal lobes begin to pay attention to what is happening where the skin of your hand ends, and the rest of the world begins. That’s one of their jobs. Another thing they do is to alert other parts of your brain about what you are doing. The Gnostic area (in the parietal lobes) integrates sensory interpretations with memories from most of the brain to formulate a common thought and devise a single response to the incoming information. Cells in your parietal lobes are stimulated and in turn stimulate neurons connected to parts of the midbrain associated with attention, instinctive and procedural skills, and episodic (past experience) memory.  Other neurons are stimulated in the frontal lobes, where working memory is organized and where stored memories advise and guide current behaviors, in the temporal lobes with their stores of general knowledge memories, and in the hippocampus, which has the capacity to turn experiences into long-term memories.

So, what does this mean? When we use our hands to net macros, use a pipet to transfer a particular one to an ice cube tray depression, then grab a book and try to identify it, the parietal lobes turn on our wonderful autonomous learning machine. It automatically focuses us on the subject of our actions, brings all relevant knowledge and concepts to bear on it, and sets up a working memory room for us to work in until we’re ready to incorporate the gist of this new experience into knowledge, concepts, and skills already stored in our brain.

As the Learning Machine continues its work, it does so by firing impulses across synapses, connections between nerve cells involved in this activity we’re involved in. A neat thing about cells is that they build more parts when one is used. So, each of the nerve cells which fire during this learning add to the size of a synapse each time it is used. This increases to the probability of firing when stimulated again. Later, when one of these neurons is stimulated, others will more than likely be stimulated too, and you’ll remember significant pieces of the objects and related concepts that you worked with originally; in this case, a visual image of the macro, its name, and relevant facts you discovered about it. If you build from hands-on activities, in May or June you can remind students what they did in October, and they’ll bring the concepts and relevant facts out spontaneously. That’s because the knowledge and concepts are in the brain proteins that are part of them.

And to make this even simpler: What I’ve described is the process of assimilation, starting with concrete objects to develop new understandings which are incorporated, integrated, into previously held concepts and thus more likely to be remembered. This idea has been around a long time, a part of the psychology of learning, but is not used by most educators. Instead, we ask students to place new learnings in working memory until they have passed the test. Once the job is finished, working memory flushes itself out. Then we wonder why they can’t remember enough to pass the SAT.

Once you’ve started in the real world with concrete objects, then you can milk this opportunity by tying these learnings to new material the class learns from books, and other standard sources. If you’re clever, you’ll find that you can stretch this a long way. Start with concrete experiences, move to the abstract. This is one of the reasons that community and environment based education works so well. It is based on the way the human brain works. Since the brain is the organ of learning, we ought to know something about how it works.

When you take your students into the community and natural areas, plan your curriculum with assimilation in mind. Talk with the people you work with in these places. They can help you find what you need to get started, the curricular starting places that are embedded in the places where they work. While your students are working, observe them for evidence of the pieces of assimilation. You’ll find that, once you get a handle on it, your teaching will begin to move in an interesting direction.


jimphotocroppedThis is the tenth installment of “Teaching in the Environment,” a new, 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.