Photo courtesy of Mike Brown.
Not One More Cute Project for the Kids:
Neal Maine’s Educational Vision
by Gregory A. Smith
Lewis & Clark College, Professor Emeritus
(see Part One here)
Sustaining Neal’s Place-Based Vision of Education: Lessons Learned
Despite the power and attractiveness of these educational practices, few of them remain in evidence after the close to 20 years since Neal retired and started devoting his time to land conservation and nature photography, one of the reasons he sought me out to document central elements of his work in Seaside and the north coast. He is thus well aware of the difficulty of institutionalizing teaching approaches that run contrary to the direction embraced by most contemporary schools. Part of the reason behind this outcome might be related to the way this dilemma is framed in dualistic terms. Rather than seeing the implementation of Neal’s vision as an either-or proposition, a more productive strategy might be to adopt a both-and perspective and then find ways that more of the kinds of things that Neal encouraged could become part of the mainstream educational agenda, not replacing what is now familiar and widely accepted but balancing this with an approach capable of generating higher levels of student engagement, ownership, and meaning. To that end, here are six lessons I take from what I’ve learned from Neal over the years:
- Give as much priority to student questions as to required standards.
- Value excited learners as much as competent test takers.
- Make as much time for community and outside-of-classroom explorations as the mastery of textbook knowledge.
- Create organizational structures that encourage creativity as much as accountability.
- Encourage teachers to partner with students as co-learners as much as they serve as their instructors.
- Develop teachers as alert to unexpected learning opportunities as they are to curricular requirements.
Give as much priority to student questions as to required standards. Human beings are intellectually primed to investigate questions whose answers are not immediately apparent. Think of the appeal of mystery novels, movies, or television programs, our attraction to riddles, the appeal of crossword puzzles. Although these formats involve no ownership on the part of readers, listeners, or players, they still are capable of eliciting attention and time commitment. Even more powerful are the questions we come up with ourselves. Part of the power of the educational approach Neal encouraged teachers to develop lay in the way he tapped into this human desire. Here’s one more story from the tour as an example of the possible. The students who had been involved in the Pompey Wetlands project at one point got ahold of a tape recorder and oscilloscope and began recording one another’s laughter. They had been studying the sounds and images (on the oscilloscope) of whale songs. They wondered whether their individual laughter would have some of the same recognizable visual features on the oscilloscope as what they had observed with whales. They found that they did and after a time could associate different visual patterns with the laughter of specific students in the classroom. Imagine their fascination at having made this discovery. Such fascination is the stuff of serious learning.
Value excited learners as much as competent test takers. Making time for student questions Is one way to excite learning. Another is to provide the opportunity to do things as well as hear about them or meet people as well as read about them. Part of that doing can be as simple as taking a walk in the woods or planting a garden. Part of it could involve designing an experiment to see whether moss really does only grow on the north side of trees. Part of it could involve participating in a group that sees what’s on the river bottom across a transect of the Columbia River. The possibilities of the doing and the investigating are nearly limitless. Such learning opportunities take advantage of human curiosity and the pleasure our species takes in gaining new skills and competencies. I can imagine some of the stories that children who had learned to keep a boat on straight course across the Columbia must have told their parents when they got home that evening—or what students who participated as photographers in the Day in the Life project shared. Not all learning experiences in school will be as memorable or as exciting as these, but some of them should be and not only on an infrequent basis. Things should be happening in school that fire students’ imaginations and intellects, things that instill in them a desire to learn more. Mastery of information for tests of one sort or another is one the requirements of life in modern societies, and it is a mastery we desire from the experts we turn to when in need of medical, legal, or mechanical services. The demand for such testing is not going to go away. But what ignites deep learning is an emotional connection with different topics, the personalization of learning that Neal sought to spread throughout the Seaside School District, something much more likely to happen by getting kids into the thick of things and engaging them in projects that demand their involvement.
Make as much time for community and outside-of-classroom explorations as the mastery of textbook knowledge. The knowledge found within textbooks is not without value; it is, after all, one of the central tasks of education to transmit culture to the young. At issue is whether this culture is being linked to the lives of children and youth in ways that communicate its significance and meaning. In the past, the authority (and fear) invested in teachers, ministers, and older relatives was enough to ensure the attention of many children to these issues. This is no longer the case in part thanks to the media, to mass culture, and to the weakening of traditional institutions like the family, school, and church. Place-based educators argue that one way to address this issue involves situating learning within the context of students’ own lived experience and the experience of people in their community. When this learning also engages them in the investigation of important local issues and provides them with the opportunity to share their findings with other peers and adults, so much the better. One of the strongest motivators for human participation is the chance to engage in activities that are purposeful and valued by others. Experiences like the health fair described earlier can both encourage involvement and strengthen students’ mastery of the knowledge and skills their teachers are attempting to convey to them. More students, furthermore, seem likely to produce higher quality work when they grasp its social significance and know it will be viewed and examined by community members as well as their teacher.
Create organizational structures that encourage creativity as much as accountability. One of the consequences of the standards and accountability movement since the 1980s has been the tendency on the part of many educators to teach to the test and for their administrators to assess their competence on the basis of students’ scores. School administrators have also become more likely to require teachers to justify the activities they bring into the classroom on the basis of specific curricular aims or benchmarks. Given the degree to which schools, for decades, have failed to adequately prepare non-White and lower income students, accountability structures are clearly needed, but the way they are currently being used has resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum and a reduction in teachers’ ability to respond to learning opportunities presented by either students or community members. Place- and community-based education requires the capacity to improvise and make use of instructional possibilities that present themselves during the school year; these possibilities can’t always be anticipated. Embracing them demands the willingness of teachers to follow interesting leads while at the same time looking for ways that curricular requirements can be addressed by doing so. When schools impose both constraints and reward structures that inhibit this kind of flexibility, fewer teachers become willing to experiment in the way teachers who worked with Neal were able to. School districts can go a long way to encouraging creativity by inviting innovative teachers like Neal to share their expertise with others, either as teachers on special assignment or as members of within-district teams responsible for professional development. Addressing policies that affect daily schedules, the school calendar, and transportation requests can also do much to make learning in the community both possible and accessible.
Encourage teachers to partner with students as co-learners as much as they serve as their instructors. It is not surprising that teachers feel uncomfortable about venturing into unfamiliar intellectual terrain with their students, something that gaining knowledge about what may be a new or minimally examined place and community will necessarily require. The same thing is true of pursuing questions that aren’t going to be answered by the textbook but demand data gathering and analysis. Teaching in this way involves a certain relinquishment of control and the willingness to trust students to be engaged participants in a process of collective learning. This doesn’t mean that a teacher only becomes a “guide on the side” completely following students’ lead and offering assistance only when needed. The teacher instead becomes a “model learner,” the person in the room with more expertise in knowing how to frame questions, seek out information, assess its credibility, locate appropriate experts, create experiments, organize data and analyze findings, and prepare presentations. There will still be a need for mini-lessons about specific content tied into students’ investigations, but the primary task of a teacher with many place-based units will be—like a graduate school advisor—to demonstrate what it means to be an independent learner committed to uncovering the truth inherent in different situations—just as some of the students attempted to discover whether moss always grows on the north side of trees when they began asking questions of the watershed. Moving into a role like this will be disconcerting for many teachers, but the rewards can be worth their initial discomfort as they find themselves no longer teaching the same thing every year but joining their students in a process of intellectual discovery and knowledge creation.
Develop teachers as alert to unexpected learning opportunities as they are to curricular requirements. Enacting the previous five suggestions involves cultivating teachers who feel competent enough about their capacity as educators–drawing upon an analogy from the kitchen–to invent new and healthful dishes from ingredients at hand as they do following recipes. Recipes are certainly useful, but the test of an experienced cook is found in what they can create from scratch. Toward the end of our day together, Neal told a story about a storm-felled Sitka spruce in a park just across the street from a local middle school. Neal and a teacher there recognized the learning potentiality of this fallen giant and were able to forestall city employees for a couple of weeks as students conducted a tree necropsy. Especially valuable was the possibility of seeing at ground level the biological activity that goes on at the crown of a mature tree. In many instances, this learning resource would have been seen as no more than a mess to be cleaned up rather than an opportunity for an in-depth and unique scientific investigation. Novice and even experienced teachers need to be exposed to stories like this one that invite them to consider possibilities they may have never or rarely encountered during the course of their own education. Neal recognized that teaching in this way might be more of an art form than something that cab be easily taught but still offered the following guidance: “Don’t sleep on the way to school. Have your brain engaged. Always be looking for opportunities to make it come to life, especially if it’s community based. That really makes it work!”
Paying It Forward
My day-long journey through a partial history of Neal Maine’s work in Seaside deepened my understanding of his vision of the possible and at the same time his frustration with how difficult it has been to get many of his good ideas to stick. Early in our conversation he spoke of the way our society’s conventional vision of schooling constrains the education he believes needs to happen if young people are to grow into responsible citizens able to bring fresh and potentially more appropriate ideas to the challenges of living in the 21st century. Rather than asking students to be the passive recipients of information passed on to them by others in an effort to prepare them for adulthood and citizenship, educators need to give children the chance to participate now as data gatherers, knowledge producers, and community participants. As Neal put it, “You ought to exploit someone who is uncontaminated with having the same old answer. . . . How much could you exploit them, so to speak, in a positive, productive, humane, and sincere way? The irony of it is that the effort to exploit that capacity becomes the most powerful preparation possible for a later point in your life cycle which is what we should call adulthood.” This, not the creation of “one more cute project for the kids,” was Neal’s aim when he attempted to stimulate educational innovation in districts along the Northern Oregon and Southern Washington coast and influenced the thinking of rural educators across the United States as a board member of the Annenberg Rural Challenge.
He found that institutionalizing changes like the ones he enacted is not easy. A similar lesson was learned through the Rural Challenge, as well. As a board member of the Rural School and Community Trust I had a chance to be in touch with a number of the schools or districts that had received grants from the earlier Rural Challenge. Without the added resources and the network of support provided by that well-funded effort, it was difficult for teachers and administrators to sustain the work they had accomplished during that five-year period.
Regardless of these difficulties, ideas set in motion during that time are continuing to evolve. One of Neal’s Oregon colleagues, Jon Yoder, played a significant role in shaping the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative in Michigan that has sought to make environmental stewards out of the state’s children and youth for over a decade. Much of the work done there bears the stamp of Neal’s efforts, affecting over 115,000 students since the program began in 2007 (https://greatlakesstewardship.org/). Across the United States, a survey of place- and community-based educators completed in 2016 surfaced over 150 schools that are retooling their curriculum and instruction in ways that advance the aims Neal pursued in the Pacific Northwest (https://awesome-table.com/-KlsuLBGU0pYWpjFH1uh/view). Many other schools were also surfaced through a project sponsored by the Getting Smart website that has created a blog where teachers have been able to post their own stories about place-based education (http://www.gettingsmart.com/categories/series/place-based-education/). Finally, well-established institutions like Eastern Michigan University (https://www.emich.edu/coe/news/2016/2016-05-10-a-new-wave-of-urban-education.php) and the Teton Science Schools in Wyoming (https://education-reimagined.org/pioneers/teton-science-schools/) are creating teacher education and professional development programs aimed at preparing teachers able to embrace and then deliver learning experiences likely to lead to the forms of participation, citizenship, and community change Neal hoped to engender.
Whether schools on their own will be able to support and sustain innovations like these remains an open question, but the persistence of these ideas and the possibilities they are stimulating seem hopeful. Believing as I do that cultures change more through the telling of stories than bureaucratic manipulation, I encourage readers to have conversations about the work of Neal Maine and his educational vision. Going even further, for those of you who are teachers, try some of these possibilities out in your own schools and communities and see what happens. Then share your experiences with others—both the things that work and those that don’t. Learn from one another. As a tribute to Neal and the future, let’s see how long we can keep these ideas alive and how far we might be able to spread them.
Greg Smith is an emeritus professor who taught for 23 years in the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis & Clark College. He’s keeping busy in his retirement serving on the board of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative in Michigan and the educational advisory committee of the Teton Science Schools in Wyoming; at home, he’s co-chairing a local committee that is seeking to develop curriculum regarding the Portland-Multnomah County Climate Action Plan. He is the author or editor of six books including Place- and Community-Based Education in Schools with David Sobel.
Maria’s Eye: How do we empower it to engage and understand her world?
by Jim Martin
CLEARING writer and contributor
f I could imagine the best possible classroom in the world, it would be one in which each student is empowered to look out into the world, see something which catches her attention, then know what to do to find out about it. Students engaged, involved, invested, and empowered in their world. My mind’s eye expresses this dream as one of a salmon fry darting quickly into a thick growth of periphyton on a fist-sized cobble, as Maria’s eye turns up and the corner of her mouth sets its sails toward a smile. That, not checking off a cell in a table, is the moment of learning that we teach for. That tells us that all is going to work out; we’ll accomplish this unit, and be ready for the next; empowered to accomplish whatever comes down the road.
How do we recognize that moment, and what do we follow it up with? So far, all of the work on science standards hasn’t clarified an answer to that question. Go to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) website (http://www.nextgenscience.org/) and look for teachers’ resources. And for teachers’ in-service opportunities. What do you find that is cognizant of how teaching and learning actually happen? That offers in-service training on using active learning to engage students in self-directed inquiry. Perhaps we need to work on this ourselves.
How did Maria’s eye get to the place where it turned into anticipation, and an incipient smile expressed a clear message that she was on the way to understanding? Something in her environment invited Maria to explore a concept, and her brain did the rest. Something her teacher anticipated and organized within her students’ work environment so they would engage it. Not a simple thing to do. It takes knowledge, time, confidence, and experience to do this well. And competent mentors. (For about twenty years, I did science inquiry workshops for teachers which began with a casual observation that I hoped would lead participants to notice something. Each time, to the very last I did, this is the moment I felt that this time, it wouldn’t work. Each time it did, and my experience was the thing I relied on the most to trust it would. Takes courage! And experience.)
When students engage the real world, the one outside the classroom, and discover questions embedded in what they find, that process turns on their brain, engages the prefrontal cortex (pfc), and real learning begins. When they do this in partnerships or groups, the medial pfc adds to that learning power by engaging the negotiation of meaning with its power derived from the social interactions involved in exploring, then recognizing a question. Quickly, the whole brain becomes actively involved, and new conceptual understandings are reinforced in long term memory. Can teachers learn to use this wonderful, built-in resource?
How can environmental educators help get them out here? How do we get departments of education (unwieldy bureaucracies) and legislators to recognize the need and support it. Perhaps we can pilot a project which first describes what teachers need in order to appreciate and understand how active learning works, and why. Then provides the in-service support teachers need to feel confident with the content they are teaching, and comfortable with all aspects of delivering content via active learning.
There are educators who routinely use active learning to deliver content – environmental educators. They teach in places which are interesting, and where students can initiate learnings with real-world, concrete objects. A good way to start a learning activity by engaging the brain, especially the pfc. A nice five-to-ten day summer workshop, followed by mentored field trips to nail down specific learnings. What might this pilot look like?
Some teachers are already delivering content via competent active learning. A large number of environmental educators are doing the same. What if we could gather a few of each for a few hours to discuss the idea of helping teachers become comfortable with active learning, and comfortable integrating and aligning their deliveries to their state’s content standards? There are large regional environmental education learning centers which have the infrastructure to support workshops. A collaboration between teachers, environmental educators, and environmental learning centers might have the capacity to deliver a pilot project. I like to think in terms of the long run, so add a comment that this would be a three-to-five year pilot in which initial participants would, where feasible, mentor new teachers each year, periodically review progress and tweak the project, and present their work and findings at annual teacher and environmental education conferences.
It doesn’t take many people to make positive change. I’ve learned over the decades that they simply have to start.
This 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.”
Arts and Humanities in the Sciences? Is that incongruous, or what?
By Jim Martin
Have you ever ‘felt’ the weather as cloud formations began to change? I love to watch Mares’ Tails form; multiple long extensions of a cumulus cloud that race out ahead, then turn up and curl back. They signal a change in the weather; an eye-catching choreography in the sky; a dance students could perform to learn about weather. I started teaching biology to college students in 1970, and had no thoughts about using the arts and humanities in my delivery. I was open to them; my childhood and youth were infused with them. But I saw no way to employ them because it seemed to me that they were an adjunct, a vehicle I would have to tack onto an already overloaded syllabus.
Then, a few years later, concerned about the quality of my general biology (Bio 101) students’ understandings, and wondering what they were learning during their K-12 years, I accepted an opportunity to teach a 7th grade self-contained classroom. Before the first day of school, I decided not to use the school’s language arts texts and workbooks. They were utterly boring; pages to go through so you could answer a few tedious questions. So, I organized my own curriculum. In one part, the delivery vehicle was drama. We stretched sheets across the length of the classroom, and began to write and perform scripts.
I used these scripts, and their repetitious deliveries to teach topics like DNA and protein synthesis, natural selection, and more. While doing that, I discovered that certain pieces of the science were learned well with this method, so this integrated way of teaching started to become a vehicle I used to teach multi-disciplinary units in language, performance arts, and science.
This is beginning to sound ominous! Don’t despair. I did these things because I was comfortable with them. For one thing, I was teaching both language arts and science to this class. Since we were in the same classroom all day, it was an easy thing to do. I can tell you this: If you can find the courage to try to use one piece of the arts and humanities in one science activity, you might discover the strength of this method in helping students understand the concepts they are studying. And, developing critical thinking and executive functions you might not have noticed they carry with them.
Be patient. Let me finish this reminiscence, and we’ll get to the pragmatic details of how you might try one small activity; and assess it. Not long after, I found myself learning what I could of the human brain; how it learns, how it expresses these learnings. This set me on a journey I still travel. An interesting viewpoint on that journey was one where I could see the parts of the brain, and their connections (critical piece there) that were used to conceive a visualization of a piece of art, then execute its expression in the finished piece itself. Contrary to what I’d always assumed, that art and science used different parts of the brain for their work, both used nearly the same parts and their connections. No wonder my tentative attempts to teach art and science together seemed to work! While we isolate and jurisdict the disciplines, the brain does not.
It’s challenging to meet science standards and benchmarks by using the arts and humanities as vehicles for teaching to these standards. The main reason teachers who do this continue the practice is that students’ learnings stay with them. After they take the test, they don’t forget what they have learned. The Seeking System, as described by Jaak Panksepp, is a coordinated effort between the limbic system and the cortex which can lead to conceptual learnings, encourages conceptual learning by engaging learners in an active learning inquiry which builds on students’ curiosity. It’s this state of expectant curiosity which keeps students on-task, seeking an answer, finding out. Like observing paramecia flitting about among algae on a microscope slide. What are they? What are they doing? Where are they going? Curiosity a fair wind which drives their sails, students will devour the books and internet for information they seek.
While this state is initiated in the limbic, a part of the brain which does little thinking, it engages, via prompts from the limbic to the prefrontal cortex (pfc), which processes students’ thoughts, engages critical thinking, brings to working memory in the pfc other relevant information, and performs the executive functions which keep learners on task, following their plan. Learnings there then move back to the cortical regions brought on line, where they become connected; long-term memories, which can be called out via any of the neural circuits brought to the pfc to deal with this new experience.
Let’s look at an activity which incorporates the arts and humanities to drive a science unit in weather. Teachers have used dance to help their students learn the meteorological processes that cause phenomena like Mares’ Tails. You can do the observation any time in the year, then recall it when your class does meteorology. Or, start the dance when you make the observation, and finish in the appropriate unit. When students observe Mares’ Tails, then build a dance around what they have observed, they follow an interesting trail into meteorology to discover the processes involved in producing Mares’ Tails. And, even better, their connection to subsequent weather. Then, students and the teacher can use this newly learned information to better inform the choreography they are constructing.
As they observe and find out about Mares’ Tails, the fact that they are also observing for the clouds’ dynamics will engage the Seeking System in many students; the quest to find out. Engaging the idea of dance and Mares’ Tails will pique the curiosity of others. And, a very nice coincidence, both alert the prefrontal cortex and initiate the critical thinking and executive direction capacities of the brain as they build an abundance of routes to relevant memory, which your students use to move effortlessly through the landmarks delimited in Bloom’s Taxonomy.
While relatively simple, the teaching and learning in an activity like this is challenging for teachers. It is definitely not part of most of our pre-service and in-service professional educations. We all want to teach well, and to understand what and how we are teaching. If, like most Americans, the arts and humanities aren’t an integral part of our teachers’ developmental experience, incorporating them into our teaching is uncomfortable at best. In spite of this, in time, this sort of integrated teaching will have wider acceptance, but just now it seems like an adjunct to most education. I say this: The education establishment in America is woefully unfamiliar with the brain and its processes in learning, and its relationship with the rest of the body currently being described in the area of embodied cognition; the close coupling of processes in the brain and processes in the rest of the body. We need to have the courage to begin to explore this lucrative, brain-based teaching modality. The brain is the organ of learning.
By actively participating in the process of using dance to begin to learn about Mares’ Tails, both teacher and students incorporate the learning in long-term conceptual schemata they will carry with them. This is because the conceptual information they have learned is available via multiple neural pathways; much better than being accessed only by reading a question stem. Both the dance and the science inquiry follow similar trails through the brain. This is in contrast to the effect of relying on what Panksepp terms the limbic’s Fear System; the anxiety of some degree which is associated with learning science facts in order to pass a test. In this case, the information is stored by itself, un-connected to other relevant conceptual information stored elsewhere, and with no connection to the real-world memories produced during active learning. If students are to carry what they learn into their lives, they need to learn it in authentic ways. Seeking’s learnings are remembered; Fear’s are forgotten after the test. This means that the teacher has to be committed to this learning modality. And, committed to taking on only that which she is comfortable with. Should you want to try, but are unsure, you can contact a dance teacher to help, or a colleague who has taken dance. Lots of them around. You could even check a dance studio. Most people who work in the arts and humanities are open to help.
Here is a breakdown of planning steps a hypothetical teacher might take in preparing to deliver the Mares’ Tails meteorology/dance section of a unit on weather. As you read each step, ask yourself if you could do it now. You might surprise yourself.
1) Observe Mares’ Tails; either a serendipitous observation, or consult a meteorologist to find out when to expect them. Difficult until you’ve positively identified one; fun and easy after that. Students can do this as homework, or as a whole class if Mares’ Tails occur during a class. (You may have noticed that weather doesn’t program itself to coordinate with school schedules. Or their needs.)
2) During the observation, have students note any dynamics in the clouds. This is a good time to suggest the idea of clouds dancing.
3) If their interest is piqued, raise the idea of a Mares’ Tail dance; otherwise wait.
4) First approximation of the dance. Note questions which arise within groups.
5) Ask the class what more can they find out about Mares’ Tails. Give them time to find out.
6) Incorporate this information into the choreography. Name the dance’s sections from meterological learnings. (Note: I was feeling creative, in Seeking mode, by this time, and that’s when my pen wrote, “. . . (n)ame the dance’s sections from meteorological learnings.” Words and a visualization just popped up. Evidence my prefrontal cortex was coming on line. One of the things Seeking does.)
7) Perform the dance for an audience, and explain the meteorology; perhaps by dance section.
8) Two assessments or tests: Yours, based on their work; and a standard test from your publisher or the web. Compare results.
9) Assess the project: you, your students, their audience.
10) Write an article for Clearing and send it in!
This 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.”
Do We Learn As Our Students Learn?
by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor
We propose that an essential feature of learning is that it creates the zone of proximal development; that is, learning awakens a variety of internal developmental processes that are able to operate only when the child is interacting with people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers. Once these processes are internalized, they become part of the child’s independent developmental achievement.
– Lev Vygotsky
Vygotsky continued, “. . . (f)rom this point of view, learning is not development; however, properly organized learning results in mental development and sets in motion a variety of developmental processes that would be impossible apart from learning. Thus, learning is a necessary and universal aspect of the process of developing culturally organized, specifically human, psychological functions.”
t is the words, “properly organized learning,” that are key here; at least to me. When we initiate new learning by asking a question of objects in the world, we set in motion a set of processes which heighten our awareness of the world outside our bodies (parietal lobes), set up working memory to deal with what we find out (prefrontal cortex), tie relevant memories to the objects outside and working memory inside (associative cortex), and heighten our awareness, interest, and excitement about the new learning (limbic system). We are ready to absorb new learnings; others’ thoughts influence ours, and we incorporate learnings we may have been ready for, but hadn’t achieved; and, altogether, move to a higher and broader developmental level. When we use care and insight in planning the delivery of our curricula, we directly influence our students’ development in a positive way.
Fine words, but how do we go about it? Let’s start with something familiar, students working in groups. The work they will do is organized around vegetation mapping along a new path the city’s Bureau of Environmental Services (BES) is developing to connect two relatively natural areas within your school’s boundaries. The school has been notified about the project, and has been offered a BES liaison if teachers are interested in using the project to engage students in their community. (Interesting how such a sensible project is alienated from most people’s concept of school.)
You decide to contact BES and meet with its liaison. Let’s see how this might pan out. Hopefully, in a developmental way. The class will set up vegetation mapping as the thing they’ll do. You tell the liaison the class will all go out and map the site together. The liaison suggests BES does it with crews in particular areas. You’re not quite ready for this, so agree to start with the whole class working together, then build in groups as you become familiar with the work. The idea of groups does ring a bell, and you decide that, when you do organize the class this way, you will call them, “crews.” While you’re not working in groups yet, you have taken that first step – visualizing what it might be. That’s developmental.
The BES liaison asks you how much experience you have in mapping, and you reply, a little nervous, “None.” She seems pleased with that, and says that a good way to start is to lay out a simple grid, and use that to organize your mapping. Talking about doing this, you both decide to organize the grid with one axis parallel to the path. Then, you’ll label units on that axis with letters, and the other axis, stretching away from the path, with numbers. You and the liaison pause to talk about what the students will be doing within the grid. Then, at your request and her hint, you decide that, over the next two years, the class will move from the physical grid laid out with stakes and twine, to one designed with compasses and tape measures. The project covers two years, and you can continue working there after that, if you wish.
Now you feel comfortable enough to let your class in on the plan. You’ve also, with the liaison’s help, moved through Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. You brought with you all of your previous knowledge and intuitions about learning, lined them up at the threshold for fully engaging this new way of teaching, then talking with and being quietly coached by the BES liaison, crossed the threshold (Vygotsky’s zone), and entered a world broadened by your new understandings, vision, potential, and capacity. You could have made this journey on your own, but it would take longer, and might have become discouraging. Instead, you entered this new place as if it had always been there. The catalyst was the liaison mentioning “crews,” and your previous experiences and understandings about the relationship between groups, the structure of work, and the dynamic which exists between the two. This new, incipient capacity is now part of who you are; one of the ways in which our professional lives evolve.
(The process was facilitated in part by your brain, its parietal lobes, prefrontal cortex, associative cortex, and limbic system. We talk about the structure which underlies teaching and learning – inductive:deductive, hierarchy of cognitive function, science concepts, science processes, etc. These are important to know, understand, and use. I say that it is also important to understand the brain’s role in these processes. The brain is the organ of learning; the brain working together in partnership with the rest of the body. All have evolved as a wonderful, autonomous learning machine. Don’t shy away from it.)
On to the project. When they hit the ground, and you observe them in action, groups seem more real and realistic to use. In the end, you decide on groups, or “crews;” next year, working with compass and tape measure. And you also begin to recognize the work’s potential for the mathematics embedded in it. You hadn’t considered mathematics until you saw the grid going up, students making measurements, and problems they had locating various trees and shrubs. When they finished laying out the grid, you began working with the embedded mathematics by having them calculate the surface area defined by one cell in the grid, then extrapolate from that to the project’s total surface area.
Next, you ask the groups to describe the plants in each cell of the matrix, and to map their location within the cell. As they work, they learn to identify plants, check their biologies, and recommend further plantings. You’re on your way. In future, your eyes will be on planting, with mapping the first step. Eventually, you might cross the threshold to restoration.
The following summer, when your mind is fully functioning again, you return to your transition from classroom teacher to classroom teacher who uses the world outside the school for context and curricula, and begin to see how it was like the transformation described by Lev Vygotsky that you’d read about years ago. You were ready for the new learning, had all of the pieces together in your mind, but needed a small catalyst to bring them together in a developmental whole. This, and the way students became more involved and invested in their learnings as they began to develop into effective work groups. Could they have also been entering, and moving through, Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development? Would they have experienced it if they had remained in the classroom? How do you find out?
Ultimately, you realize that you needed to recognize that zone first, and understand its potential. Understanding that, you think you can exploit its potential in any environment. And, you think you might explore this next year. How might this play out in a developmental way? How might you use this with your class? Your crews? Think about how you felt as you moved through the zone, and visualize how this might be felt by your students. These insights are as important to effective teaching as knowing and understanding content. It is that person moving through the zone that we are teaching. Not a name or classroom seat, but an actively developing, becoming, person. We play a huge role in those lives.
This 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.”
Holding the Space: Supporting Our Children’s Innate Sense of Wonder
By David Strich, M.Ed.
“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”
— Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder (1965)
When the boys were exploring the side of the creek last week, I couldn’t help but think of Rachel Carson and her words of wisdom. I watched as my twelve nine-year old mentees took to Whatcom Creek like it was their birthright. The next thing I knew, I was diving off a rock with seven boys into the refreshing water. Three others used dip nets to catch water striders while another mentor was showing them the three crawdads he caught. The last two were running along the banks in their own little worlds, ducking under tree limbs and splashing along the edges.
The work I’ve done as a nature connection mentor for the Boys Explorers Club program of Wild Whatcom has changed my approach to environmental education and to being a teacher. Over the past two years I have moved from an objective-based model to simply being a supportive guide. I still have goals for my participants and I still assess their learning, but I have come to realize that it is not my instruction that teaches them.
My role is to simply hold the space for them to learn on their own. Their first-hand experiences in our local Bellingham city and Whatcom County parks develop unique relationships with the watersheds, amphibians, trees, birds, and plants. And it is THOSE natural elements that are their teachers.
Recently Explorers’ curiosity led them to inquire about Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) growing on the forest floor. They wondered if it was a plant because it isn’t even green. I started to pontificate about rhizomal relationships with conifers, habitat considerations, and that the plant has been used as medicine. But the boys will undoubtedly remember this ghostly plant more because it is said that Indian Pipe grows where wolves have urinated. That made them laugh.
Later in the week, when an Explorer accidentally broke open a clam shell while digging in the mud, he learned about shellfish biology and how delicate those animals are. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, he practiced compassion for another living being and the skill of forgiving himself for hurting that creature. He might have learned about clam biology if we had dissected some using a scientific investigatory approach that I prepared for them. However, he’d have missed a chance for vital interpersonal growth that came from his own exploration and experience.
So I have to let go of my objectives to teach the boys about plants because I never know what will spark their interest as we wander through the forest together. I can share knowledge from my adult perspective and perhaps nuggets of information will root into their heads so they can recall it later. But by just being there alongside them, as Rachel Carson encourages, l am rediscovering the mystery with them, fostering their sense of wonder and ability to learn on their own.
Our afterschool program called Neighborhood Nature is another opportunity for students to get outside with adult companions, as boys and girls explore natural areas near their schools. One second grade girl’s words speak clearly to the importance of this work. When we walked to the nearby park one Monday afternoon she told me, “I’m bored.” After a day of stimulation in school her nervous system was very amped up. She was ready for the next entertainment or thing to do. When she said it again, I replied, “Good.”
“No, I am not supposed to be bored,” she said, implying that as an adult it was up to me to make sure she had something to do. I just smiled and told her that I thought it was good that she was bored. She dismissed me with a huff and then sat down in the dirt. And there the magic happened.
In previous years I would have given her a task and helped her to accomplish it, having some objectives for her growth in my head. It would have been a contrived way for me to teach her something that she may or may not have wanted to learn. Instead, I observed her physical response to boredom and the subsequent transformation.
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She sat down in the dirt and then her nervous system slowed down. Naturally her hands fidgeted with the dirt. Soon she looked up to see another girl digging a hole in the ground near her. She watched for a moment and then asked to join in digging a tunnel and then creating a burrow and home for an unknown animal. The girls connected and laughed together while playing in the dirt. They too practiced compassion in making a home for another living being in the forest, one they hadn’t even seen. They practiced intrapersonal skills and learned how to work well with one another.
Had I gone into my previous teacher mode and tasked her with something to do, then this authentic learning would have been lost. Once her body slowed down and her amped-up nervous system relaxed, her curiosity took over and her social tendencies took over. This girl had to be “bored” and I had to let it happen. As a supportive guide the best course of action for me was to deliberately take no action. When it was time to head back to school to meet the parents, it was all I could do to cajole her into leaving so the groups wouldn’t be more than 10 minutes late.
This is a reminder to all of us that we have to let go of the adult agenda in education. Our children know how to learn; they simply need the space to do so. They need us to let them be bored so their curiosity can show up. And it is us who ought to be present and engaged with their curiosity. We may have scientific and logical answers to teach and share but we may have forgotten the mystery that our children are exploring for the first time.
Like Carson says, a child needs an adult with whom to share and discover the joys and mystery of this world. But we adults should recognize that we need the children to remind us of the magic and mystery in our natural world. We have to be OK with slowing down, being bored and being present with our children so we can rediscover what we learned as children.
David Strich is the Program Coordinator for the Boys Explorers Club program of Wild Whatcom. He lives in Bellingham, Washington with his wife and can be reached at email@example.com