Teaching and Learning Ecologically

Teaching and Learning Ecologically

Cultivating Ecological Teachers and Learners Using Project Learning Tree



by Jaclyn Stallard
from The Branch, Project Learning Tree’s E-newsletter Summer 2014

“Ecological teaching and learning is not just a matter of pedagogy, but also philosophy. Ecological teaching and learning represents a new life-affirming mindset that all teachers—and, to a larger extent, all citizens and all Earth’s human inhabitants—must adopt for a sustainable future. This philosophy embraces interconnectedness and systems thinking, challenging the Western notion of separateness. This type of teaching and learning develops and fosters an individual and collective ecological consciousness as humans move through life and relate to themselves, others, and the world around them.”

Read the full article here

Are economies the only things that expand and contract?

Are economies the only things that expand and contract?

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.”

Community-based Science Teaching: A Journey of the Mind?

Community-based Science Teaching: A Journey of the Mind?

FreshwaterTrust2By Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor

T3he young woman carefully pours hydrogen peroxide into a graduated cylinder, presses a key on a computer keyboard, then measures ten drops of liver homogenate into the cylinder.  The surface of the hydrogen peroxide seems to leap at the first drop of homogenate, then the drop begins to froth and spin as it is carried deep into the cylinder, trailing a growing, spinning plume of bubbles.  Each drop increases the frothing turbulence in the cylinder until it seems enveloped in a pulsing explosion of bubbles.  Meanwhile, the young woman’s glance moves from a developing graph on the computer’s monitor to the activity in the cylinder and back again.  Science is being done.

If we could see into her mind, what kind of thoughts must we find there?  What must she have done and thought to get to where she is at this moment?  How will her thoughts change when the reaction has gone to completion and she reviews the data?  One thing is certain:  this young woman has a history of doing process science.  Another thing is certain; her work presents her with conceptual schemata which require filling out with specific facts; the work she does generates a need to know. This need can drive her into the books and the web to find out. Can we capture this kind of science in our classrooms?  Can we accommodate her experiences into a model of science pedagogy?

How might this scenario play out in a stream, where the young woman is measuring water quality, collecting and identifying macroinvertebrates, and entering her data into an iPad? Is there any substantial difference in her experiences in the two environments? Certainly there are logistical differences, but I submit that these are an emergent phenomenon which arises from our traditional concept of what school is. Is school a journey of the mind, or is it a place with boundaries, where we learn to pass tests? In both places, she is engaging similar mental concepts, and procedural processes. Our bodies and brains are able to work in both environments. The significant thing is that what the mind and body are doing has to be meaningful. In the case of this young woman, what she is learning is related to what she knows of other knowledge; it is being learned within a familiar context. If she were learning for a test, she would learn the facts, but they wouldn’t necessarily be learned in order to understand. The kind of learning this young woman is engaging is active learning, in which she is constantly comparing her experiences with what she knows. Whether she is consciously aware of it, she has learned how to learn. That’s a powerful skill.

In school, we tend to move from one topic directly to another as if this is what education is about. Many of us do this in our personal world, racing through life, leafing through it as we would a magazine in the doctor’s office, never pausing to contemplate what it is, what it means. We should take the time to absorb life so we can live within it. The same goes for school. Instead of zipping on to the next topic as soon as we’ve covered the current one well enough to test on it, we should probe for students’ attainment of the concepts embedded in the topic to see if they’ve nailed them down. We ought to give students a chance to think about what they’re learning, and design a repeat investigation to nail down their understandings. We need to explore ways to transition what we have just learned to what we will be learning. Even though they can parrot words we’ve used, they may entertain misconceptions and may well not actually understand what we assume they know.

This applies also to teachers. Our pre-service preparation and most of our in-service learning was done with this industrial assembly line model, zipping us through a ritual that eventually placed us at the head of a classroom. About twenty years ago, I was doing a wetlands ecology institute for teachers, and a question came up among the staff about what to do after the teacher participants’ first afternoon in a local wetland. One opinion was, “Okay, they’ve done their first study. Let’s get them ready to go to the coast for their second study.”  The other opinion was, “They’ve done what amounts to a casual observation, which might have raised some questions they could follow up with a second investigation.” Fortunately, the second opinion won the day; the participants asked questions which arose as they processed their observations, and they used these to design the following day’s study at the same wetland. Having done that inquiry, once at the coast they hit the beach running, the well-oiled machine, and they nailed down what they had been learning about wetland ecology. It took time, but it moved them further up the learning curve.

After their original casual observation, we could have left them where they were, some in the Acquisition phase, some entering Proficiency. This is what many in-service educators do. We assume the teacher will move to Mastery, but only a few have the self-confidence to do so. Instead, we leave them knowing that they could know, but not ready to take the next few steps. Dryas and I had a mutual friend, who was in late middle-age. Let’s call her Sarah. Sarah had decided to leave an emotionally abusive relationship, but had no idea what to do, nor did she have the confidence to try. A few of us located a place where she could stay, and I agreed to meet with her once a week to help her develop a business plan for using art to explore relationships as a way to earn a living. Over a period of three or four months, we’d meet once a week, and she’d bring out what she’d accomplished on the plan. Her Acquisition phase was long, about six weeks, but then she started accelerating into Proficiency. Sarah had been making collages to express her feelings then interpreting them. This is what she planned to teach others. After moving into Proficiency, each week her collages portrayed a bird, first totally enclosed in a sealed room becoming a bird looking out the window, seeing life outside the window, perched on the window sill, and finally freedom – soaring in the air toward the Sun. The slow but steady movement from locus of control far outside the body, to deep within and freedom to live her life. It takes time, but moves us up the learning curve. We need this in our emotional life, but also in our cognitive, conceptual life.

What’s the difference in insecurity about living in a relationship and insecurity about teaching in a content area? You could leave the relationship because the other isn’t likely to change. But, understanding the science means you’re in a win-win situation, and don’t have to leave, much as you would be in the relationship if the other decided to go into counseling. The young woman pouring hydrogen peroxide obviously understands what she is doing and why. She’ll continue this relationship. That’s what we want.

Are we adrift now? The point is that, like all things we do, they’re done by humans. We bring our small, effective human arsenal to bear on a large number of issues, all manageable with what a well-understood arsenal contains. In school, the secret is your confidence in your capacity to teach, just as in your personal life, the secret is your confidence in your capacity to manage a relationship. Likewise, a student’s confidence in the content and concepts determines her ownership of her learnings. We need to bring them to confidence, then we’re all ready to move to the next topic. How do we do that?

Working with Meredith, the middle-school teacher who takes her class out to the creek at the edge of the school yard, we’ve seen how she has learned to have her students repeat investigations to move along the learning curve. Like a booster rocket, they’ve got altitude and velocity; just need that extra push to get them into orbit. The first time through their work on the creek, they figured out how to do it. Setting up more than one station per group, one at a riffle, at a glide, and at a pool, would ensure students had ample opportunity to move to Mastery. At each trip to the creek, students might repeat their observations more quickly, and could move in to explore new curricula in the time saved. While moving their understanding of, say, macroinvertebrate collection, identification, and interpretation to Mastery, they could be moving their understanding of the roles of the rest of that ecosystem in generating a healthy habitat for the animals they are studying through Acquisition into at least initial Proficiency. That puts Meredith in charge of her curriculum. Which is where she should be; on the road to building competent, empowered 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.”

When you empower students, you teach more than content

When you empower students, you teach more than content

by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor

W3e left the teacher we have been following as she was planning a project she and her class will do on a creek at the edge of the school property. What she is doing, as well as her plans, appear to approach what the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards proposes as five important characteristics of competent teaching. The last time we saw her, she was getting ready to plan the first steps in what could become a long-term project. (By the way, her name is Meredith.) Let’s see what the main pieces of the project are, and get some idea of how they look to her so far. The first step is to provide her students with background information which will help in the Acquisition Phase of this new learning. She plans to do it by using some standard curriculum delivered more or less as usually taught, but with students working with it in groups which may or may not become the work groups who do the particular jobs at the creek. This way, they might be more likely to transfer those learnings to the field. Topics they will study are food webs, water quality, and the riparian.

Her initial plan is to use published and on-line resources to provide background on riparian areas, then move to riparian food webs, and after that to how to measure water quality, and what the measurements mean in terms of the riparian and its food webs. Her hope is that, by learning something more dynamic than an array of facts, her students will approach the creek with more nuanced expectations than if they’d simply learned some nomenclature that applies to creeks.

Next, her student groups will visit the creek site. Her plan is to prepare work groups to assess the site to decide their stations. To this end, she supplies them with tape measures and rough sketch maps of the creek and its banks. Their job is to locate the best stations for doing their work, and measure the station’s dimensions. Then, in their work groups, they will decide how to go about making their observations. The Meredith knows that these plans will probably be modified by experience.  Then, each work group will posit questions they think may help them know their part of the creek. This is most difficult for the macroinvertebrate group, because they won’t be collecting on this first trip. However, they will be asked to assess the makeup of the bottom of the creek, where the macroinvertebrates live. This completes the second part of her plan.

Designing inquiry questions takes quality time, so they will do that in the classroom. After they have posited good inquiry questions, they’ll use them to design their investigations. Meredith’s plan is to start this process while the class is making their visit to the creek site. She’ll prep this by asking them to keep track of things they notice while they’re doing their work on their particular station. As part of this prep, she suggests that they will use these things they notice to write inquiry questions to investigate. When the class returns to the classroom, they will do a quick debrief and go on to other things. (Meredith has been incubating an interesting thought that, by carrying out investigations, the class might develop a useful knowledge base about the creek and its banks. She is even contemplating using that base to drive a language arts unit and part of a math unit.)

The next class day, students will meet in their work groups to begin writing a report of their observations and decisions about locating their work stations, and a list of the questions about things they had noticed which are most interesting to them. Afterwards, each group will report its findings and questions. Then, Meredith will review the broad areas that each work group will investigate. She will ask each group to review relevant thematic information she has collected for them, and use it, along with their on-site observations, to design a plan for doing their work. As part of this work, students will be introduced to the equipment they will use, and will practice using it. After they have done this, they will meet with Meredith to review the work, receive suggestions, organize jobs within the group, and develop a fine-tuned work plan to follow when they are on the site. This is when she’ll suggest that students in each group pair up to work on their own inquiry projects. Then, she will start a discussion of inquiry questions, have students practice their own, then have students, in their pairs, write and assess an inquiry question of their own.

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.”

Details, Details, Details…

Details, Details, Details…

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? (more…)