Embedded Curricula: Environments hold a treasure of effective curricula we can learn to teach

Embedded Curricula: Environments hold a treasure of effective curricula we can learn to teach

SalmonWatch1790-72by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor

Embedded curricula. The curriculum that you can find just about anywhere you go: Fractions, transportation, velocity, acceleration, centrifugal force, metaphor, alliteration, poetry, drama, communities, transportation, and on. Topics we study in school, complete with real examples. Everywhere. We need to learn how to find it in natural places, and how to help our students use it in meaningful, empowering ways. Using it means we have to pay close attention to how we teach.

The way we teach directly affects the way we learn, and what we learn. Let me illustrate two poles of learning with a real-life example, two teaching methods that affect how and what students learn. This is a true story about two field trip station leaders, one who engages a centuries-old teaching paradigm, another who engages a paradigm based on the current state of knowledge about the neuropsychology of learning. One field trip leader stands ankle-deep in a stream, and tells eight students lined up on the bank about dissolved oxygen, its importance to life in the stream, and the range of dissolved oxygen concentrations which contribute to a healthy stream habitat. Then he measures the actual dissolved oxygen level where he stands, compares its value to the range for a healthy stream, and declares this stream healthy. After that, he moves on to do the same with turbidity.

salmon9altAnother leader shows her eight students how to measure dissolved oxygen, and has them do two practice trials, one in each working group of four. Then, she has them combine to do a third test on their own. The students talk about the numbers they derive, and decide to calculate their average since all three are similar. The leader congratulates them on their careful work, and sends them to reference material on the stream bank to find out what their average dissolved concentration means in terms of stream health. Students scramble, pages fly, eyes and mouths communicate, and the group returns to announce that their average dissolved oxygen concentration is healthy. They attribute that in part to the riffle just upstream, and in part to the cool temperature of the water, phenomena which they learned about while reading. Based on their readings, they think that, in addition to the oxygenation of water by riffles, the cold water holds more oxygen than warmer water. Which group learned most? Best? Will recall what they learned next Spring? Will always see riffles as oxygenators when they view them in passing? Which station would you prefer if you were learning? Why? Teaching?

Think about the last word in the previous paragraph. We won’t all respond to it in the same way. When I first began to confront the realization that how I taught affected how and what my students learned, I eventually asked, “Am I an automaton who simply clerks what I receive, telling my students what I have learned, at least the part that was in the texts I used, and asking them to tell it back to me, or am I a professional educator who can build my own effective curricula?” I began to ask myself about the excitement of science, my own personal thoughts about it. And about the topics I was teaching; some were pertinent, others rather meaningless space fillers in a section that needed more lessons to make it seem complete. Could I transmit the joy of science to my students? The natural interest in science that we’re all born with? This posed a problem for me, something I found I needed to resolve, and slowly led to better teaching and more involved and invested students. Doing this, I learned two things: I have to be the person who decides what and how I teach; and I really have to understand how brains learn.

brainHow does our brain learn? There is good evidence that we learn best when we begin new learnings by handling real objects in the real world. Do we really need to be physically involved in a learning to master it? Shouldn’t we simply be able to listen, write, and recall what is taught? Do we have to engage objects in the world to learn about them? I say that the answer to this is yes and no; there is a place for a didactic:deductive delivery, like that of the first station leader, and a place for a constructivist:inductive delivery, like that by the second leader. For instance, if the students in the first group had previously done inquiries in which they measured water quality and discussed the results of their inquiries, there would be no need to help them learn how to make the measurements, and the relationship of the station leader’s observations to a set of water quality standards would make good sense, and they could move on from there to new learnings. Once we have engaged content and concepts in the real world, we can enhance our learnings by reading, listening, and writing. And they can be extended in the real world via homework assignments that place students there. There is an appropriate time for reproducing knowledge and one for creating knowledge. Each way of teaching engages particular parts of the brain, and generates a particular kind of learning.

Ftemp_mon2or instance, a teacher has his students identify trees along a riparian transect, and they use this information to assess that small piece of watershed. Students are shown how to start a transect at the water’s edge, and carry it, perpendicular to the stream, 100 meters up the stream bank. When they start at the water’s edge, they record this as Meter 0, and use a manual to name the trees within a 5-meter diameter and their trunk diameter and heights. Then, they move 10 meters up the transect, and record the same information within a 5-meter diameter centered on the tape measure’s 10-meter mark. They continue until they have assessed the trees in this way along the entire 100 meters, then use this information to determine the ranges of each tree species, and formulate questions based upon their distributions. When they return, they will carry out inquiries based on their questions. (They started by being told what to do, how to do it, and why. In the end, they were telling themselves what to do and how to do it because they were becoming capable of working on their own. Are they transitioning to the teaching model illustrated by the second field trip station leader?)

Back at school, they discuss their results and formulate questions they will attempt to answer the next time they are in the field. Here, they will engage the real world and try to make sense of it in terms of what they already know, and what they will find out. The next day, their teacher has them start a new unit, a street tree inventory in which they will count trees by species, height, diameter, and distance from the corner of the block they are on. So, now their transect is the block the trees are on; a transect determined by the block face and tree locations rather than 10-meter intervals on a tape measure. They’ll use this information to make inferences about CO2 absorption by leaves, but the teacher’s plan includes using the work to transition their math class into the study of ratio and proportion. He does this by establishing the protocols for measuring the distances of the trees from the corner. Students will measure their stride, then count steps as they walk from the corner to tree to tree. Before doing the work, each student carefully measures her or his stride to the nearest inch. When they make their measurements on the block, they’ll attempt to consistently walk with the same stride. They’ll use the ratio of one step to feet and inches to convert their steps walked on the block to feet and inches of its length. They make the calculation by multiplying feet and inches per step by the number of steps. In math, students will use the steps they used to convert their stride along the block to feet and inches by developing ratios and using them to make the distance calculations.

So, they start at the edge of a corner, pace to the center of the nearest tree, and record the number and fraction of a pace to get there. They continue this way to the end of the block. He’ll have them continue the work until they’re comfortable, then start the ratio and proportion unit in math. He’ll also assign them to do the same study on the block they live on, or one with trees if theirs has none. They’ll do this as a homework assignment. Now, he’s identified and used an example of embedded curricula in the real world. The curriculum is out there; we have to learn to find it.

Embedded curricula is effective curricula, probably because the student has to discover and exploit it, something our evolved brain is very good at. (I say, ‘brain,’ but I mean ‘central nervous system,’ the total set of nerve cells in the system that is coordinated by the brain.) If the brain is where we learn, then why not use it in designing the ways that we learn, both in school and on-site?

By the time the class goes out to implement the investigations engendered by their inquiry questions, they will be in charge of their learnings. The teacher has transitioned his delivery from didactic:deductive to constructivist:inductive. He started with an activity that he thought might generate students’ interest, then used that interest to engage them in self-directed learning that met his curricular objectives in science and mathematics.

Environmental educators can help teachers engage their students’ brains in effective ways. It doesn’t matter what the environmental educators offer, their sites contain embedded curricula, just waiting to be mined. They also know the classroom teachers who are serious about what they do. Put two of their heads together, and they can locate and describe curricula available on site. A team like this would be invaluable to Meredith. We have the power to bring them together, and might do that.

Here’s an anecdote to illustrate how curriculum discovered on site empowers students. Several years ago, some teachers in a middle school decided to exploit some man-made ponds and a ditched creek adjacent to the school to develop the curricula embedded there. They did this for most of the school year, then participated in the school’s Parent Science Night. That evening, the halls were filled with students who manned tables exhibiting science projects they had worked on. Parents and other adults wandered around, checking out what the students had done. The students whose projects were developed in the standard science classes used their texts and lab books to explain the experiments they were displaying. When asked a question, they inevitably read either from their books, or from notes they had written; often with a finger moving along the words. Students who worked on the ponds and creek spoke from what they knew, from what was in their heads. They answered questions, sometimes after quiet thought; always with confidence, with ownership of the learning and personal empowerment in their eyes. I’ve observed this often, but never in such fortuitous mixed company. We can learn for understanding and empowerment, but we have to do it using our brain’s evolutionary history to guide the ‘how’ of the learning.

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.”

Ear to the Ground – Saul Weisberg, North Cascades Institute

Ear to the Ground – Saul Weisberg, North Cascades Institute


This interview is the first in a series that will be a regular feature in Clearing. Check back each month for a new interview with a leading environmental educator in the Pacific Northwest.

Saul Weisberg is executive director and co-founder of North Cascades Institute. He is an ecologist, naturalist and writer who has explored the mountains and rivers of the Pacific Northwest for more than 30 years. Saul worked throughout the Northwest as a field biologist, fire lookout, commercial fisherman and National Park Service climbing ranger before starting the Institute in 1986. He authored From the Mountains to the Sea, North Cascades: The Story behind the Scenery, Teaching for Wilderness, and Living with Mountains. Saul serves on the board of directors of the Association of Nature Center Administrators, the Natural History Network, and the Environmental Education Association of Washington. He is adjunct faculty at Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University. Saul lives near the shores of the Salish Sea in Bellingham, Washington with his wife and daughters.

Clearing talked to Saul on April 12, 2010:

You were the co-founder of the North Cascades Institute in 1986 and have been its executive director ever since. What changes have you seen in the field of environmental education over the years? (more…)