Details, details, details…

The degree to which you can elaborate detail determines the level of confidence you’ll have in teaching curricula which begins in the real world

sowbugby Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor

J(fancy)ust as the degree with which they elaborate the ecological details of the compost communities students study delineates the levels at which they are working, the degree to which you can elaborate detail determines the level of confidence you’ll have in teaching curricula which begins in the real world. A metaphor to illustrate this: Let’s say you live in a neighborhood like mine, in which every block has some homes with large trees in their yard or in the planting strip next to the street. A strong wind comes through and knocks a large tree limb onto a neighbor’s roof, damaging it. The neighbor immediately has the tree cut down, and every home owner in the neighborhood feels some degree of panic or anxiety about the trees near their own homes. What will they do?

My experience tells me that a very few will cut down the trees they fear, or at least top them off near roof level. Most people won’t bother. Why? My guess is that they, like Dryas and I, will count the number of homes damaged by trees during the storm, then elaborate and think about the details embedded in the results of our search. In our case, we found that fewer than 1% of neighborhood trees fall in windstorms, or lose branches which cause damage. We also checked our homeowner’s insurance, and found it covered storm damage from falling limbs and trees. We also took into account that our home was build in the 1880s by barn builders, who used rough-hewn wood and the skills it takes to build large barns which withstand storms.

Martinquote62813In other words, we elaborated the details it took to get our anxieties under control, and allow us to make a rational decision about a real-world problem. The real world problem you and I think about on these pages is, how do we teachers find the confidence to use the real world to initiate curricula which will involve and invest our students in their learning lives, and empower them as persons. For them to receive the educations they deserve, we have to give ourselves the educations we, the teachers, deserve. I got mine from high school history, geometry, and drama teachers, undergraduate and graduate science and English teachers, a Russian language teacher, special education teachers I took classes from or worked with, teachers and staff people I worked with in the field, students and teachers I met and worked with, and on ad infinitum. What we need is already in place, within us; we need to recognize it. Many of us have, and consequently have grown as teachers. Confidence isn’t easy to come by, but it resides within each of us. We just have to meet it.

So, the elaboration of details. I’ve elaborated the word, elaborate, to death so far. That’s because it’s an important word, one of the keys to engaging critical thinking to learn for understanding. Elaborating details simply means writing down as many things as you can think of about a particular topic. Let’s do that for the animals we counted in the compost heap.

The first things I saw in mine were lots of sowbugs zipping around and tumbling about. Then, as my eye calmed down, I saw a centipede in a very damp spot, then another. A spider ran across the top of the heap. Then I saw a beetle, then two more, smaller. All in what could have been no more than ten seconds.

If I was to sit down and elaborate details about the compost heap, I’d have to start with the words, ‘compost heap animals.’ So, the lowest level of elaboration, the simplest detail, would be ‘Animals.’ Doesn’t tell me much, nor does it outline a clear road toward learning for understanding. How often do we allow students to satisfy their need for understanding by leaving them with a word or two? It takes time to elaborate, but the pay off for the investment in time is powerful.

After Animals, I named some that I observed: Sowbugs, Centipedes, Spiders, Beetles. Elaborating just these details already raises questions in my mind. Were all the animals in each group actually the same species, or were there more than one in some groups? What do they do in the compost heap? What do they eat? Is this all I can find? Let’s elaborate more details.

Start with the sowbugs I observed. I looked them up and found that they are also called potato bugs by some people, and those I saw probably belong to the family whose name is Porcellionidae. I’m not sure of the scientific name of the sowbugs in my compost heap, but would guess it might be Porcellio scaber. Not only that, but I found that they are Primary Consumers, who eat decaying vegetation in the compost heap. They store the nutrients and energy they acquire in their bodies, and when they die or are eaten, the nutrients and energy move up the food web they are a part of. That’s another set of details I can include in my elaboration: Organisms in this small ecosystem have roles in processes. They eat particular things, occupy particular niches in a food web, transfer nutrients and energy, and have scientific as well as common names.

Let’s take the sowbug, beetles, the centipede, and the spider, and elaborate these details about them. (This is a different process than filling out this information on a worksheet. Doing the learning this way involves the student in developing the learning, and leads to ownership of the learning.)

The beetles were of two kinds, one large and one small. When I looked them up, I found that the large ones may be Caterpillar Hunter, and the small ones, Common Black Ground Beetles. They belong to the Family Carabidae, and their species name might be Calosoma scrutator, and Pterostichus spp., but I can’t be positive about that without examining them more closely with my stereoscope, which I gave away when I retired. The beetles prey on caterpillars and other small insects, which makes them Secondary Consumers in their food web.

(This means that I have now got to learn more about food webs, nutrient cycling, and energy flow. When plants photosynthesize, and use that energy to acquire more nutrients and grow new parts, they act as Primary Producers. Animals which eat them are Primary Consumers, and on up the food web. Notice the conceptual foundation of the ecological structure on human economics theory. When producers and consumers die and decompose, or their parts are excreted by consumers, the bodies and excreta are taken up by the ‘recyclers,’ in a process called Secondary Production. So, we’re actually studying a secondary production system in our compost ecosystems.)

Now, I can treat the centipedes and spider in the same way. I’ll try to identify them with as much detail as I can find, find out what they do in the compost ecosystem, and place them in their food web. This takes time to do, and I’ll only be able to accomplish as much as time permits. If the thought occurs to me, I might even compare the way their bodies are organized with the work they perform, or learn more about their evolution, their physiology, their life history. And if my teacher assigns it, express my learnings as an art project, poem, play, dance, or children’s story. Whatever I do, it will probably make sense because I started the work by manipulating real world referents.

So, I’ve elaborated lots of details about the animals I observed within the first 10 seconds after I turned over part of my compost heap. The number of details and their conceptual complexity I master determine the level at which I am working. My 3½-year old granddaughter can see and recognize (c)opepods and ost(r)acods in water we take from the bath of an inexpensive, inoperative fountain in the garden. She can tell me where they live, how they move, how large they are, and which are her favorites: copepods, which she calls ‘opepods.’ She can find their pictures in a book, but cannot read their names or information about them. We’re working on that.

Taking her learnings as a rock-bottom set of elaborated details about animals in a small ecosystem, and a complete understanding of all organisms and processes in that place as a mastery set, we can organize a continuum from kindergarten through graduate school, and get a better idea of what students at any level ought to be able to elaborate. This may put using the real world to generate curricula within your grasp: When you elaborate, you entrain critical thinking processes; compare and contrast, analyze, synthesize, and so on. It’s the critical thinking we ought to be teaching for, not the elucidation and memorization of facts.

So, design your own lesson in which your students check a compost heap for the macroinvertebrates who live there, then elaborate details about them. Take that as a starting point, and see what you can do to help them learn to augment that list. If they confer among themselves, and report their group’s findings to the class, this acts like Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, bringing all students’ capacity and understandings to a level above which they would have achieved without the negotiation of meaning that takes place as they engage this modality. Should you give this a try, you may learn as much about teaching as they will about compost macroinvertebrates.

This is an iterative process; not moving from one lesson to the next, like sailing along a freeway. Iterations of learning, in which students do the work once, report their findings and further questions, then go back and nail down the learnings; takes time, the pay off is exponential.
jimphotocroppedThis 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.”