“Lessons for Teaching in the Environment and Community” is a regular series that explores how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula.
Part 21: Where Brains Learn
Some cognitive particulars about learning in the real world
by Jim Martin, CLEARING guest writer
he crack, a river, flows from the upper left corner of the wall, spreads into branching riverlets as it nears the window. That sentence was written in metaphor. The next sentence has no metaphor, but carries the same information: There was a crack in the wall which branched as it neared the window. Which will you remember? Which brings recallable pictures to your mind? This is like engaging in science inquiry in the real world. Compared to reading about the results of science inquiry in the real world. Each gives a visual clue, but which will come most easily to mind?
This is like science made vs. science in the making. The place of Assimilation is learning for understanding. When you engage your students in the real world, it acts like a metaphor, clarifies concepts and rectifies them with experience.
When you use the conceptual structures which underlie learning, they act as metaphors to clarify what you and your students are doing and learning. These structures are like the mirrors in a kaleidoscope which always generate the underlying structure of the image you see, and the pieces, ordered by that structure, are what you respond to. Can I add a little more to this?
We’ve been examining the conceptual structures that underlie learning, and how concrete experience in the real world encourages our brains to engage those structures. They reside in the architecture and processes of the brain. A picture of how they work to build understanding began to clarify itself to me during my teaching years. The brain is the organ of learning, and its structure and function does facilitate learning, especially when the delivery of the learnings recognizes how the brain works. Just as knowing the structure of color facilitates painting with water colors. When you dip the brush and apply it to paper, you know and anticipate what will happen. The underlying structure determines, to a large extent, what emerges.
Many of us carry an image of the human mind as an entity disembodied from our brain, an ethereal thing that goes where we go, and does our thinking for us. And no wonder. We can’t see the brain work, even in our classrooms. It doesn’t move the way muscles do, and it makes no sound. The best we can do is to know what the work of the parts of the brain are, and look for evidence of what they do in the things our students do and think.
Take Assimilation. The concept of Assimilation has varied descriptions, depending on who’s doing the describing. They generally carry this piece: What the learner personally experiences in the world about is incorporated into the world within our mind or brain. Its strength lies in the interaction between our brain and objects in the world outside ourselves. These are concrete interactions, and they work perfectly with the way our brain is organized to learn. Our brain learned to learn in the real world, where engaging concrete objects led to the kinds of abstractions that emerged as spear throwers and paintings on rocks, sticks, and cave walls. That is what makes metaphor such a powerful writing and rhetorical vehicle. It clarifies a subject with visual, tactile, olfactory, aural, and taste details that engage our senses, and make complexities open to understanding. A brain which developed in a concrete world is able to soar. Marvelous!
I often mention concrete vs. abstract referents. You can do the following as an experiment if you teach the same thing to two classes. When we are presented with new material in an abstract form, like a paragraph of information, we can put it into long term memory by using the information several times. Think of the end-of-section questions, where students answer questions by reviewing what they have read about particulars. Like Procedural Memory, which helps us carry out actions, it may stay with us, but different but related pieces won’t be stored as one concept. When we actually engage concrete referents, a thermometer in a stream, we engage Declarative or Distributed Memory, episodes and facts that can be brought to mind consciously, where new learnings are incorporated into concepts already residing in the brain. Let’s look at some of the parts of the brain involved in these processes.
When a student holds a thermometer in her hand and immerses it into the cold waters of a glacier-fed stream, her eyes send visual information about this to the visual processing areas in the Occipital Lobe of her brain, at the very back of her head. The Parietal Lobe, between the Occipital Lobe and the middle of her head, processes the feeling and temperature of the water on her hand. It also keeps track of where her person ends and the rest of the world begins, then gathers the visual, tactile, and coolness information, and passes it to other parts of the brain which carry memories of all these things.
You can get a sense for how this functions when you sit down to enjoy your favorite beverage, say a latte. (Now, you have to tell yourself that you’re here to learn. That sets things up in your brain.) As your fingers move toward the cup’s handle, you become very aware of the shape of the handle just outside your skin, and the round shape of the cup. You may have brief perceptions of other cups, perhaps a favorite that is still in the dishwasher. You can see the foamy latte part of the beverage near the top of the cup, and anticipate its flavor. Certainly you’ll be aware of its texture, fine bubbles, color, pieces that your tongue loves to discover. And the coffee itself. You’ll know what kind it is, where it was grown, color, anticipated taste, texture, and the bouquet it always leaves in your mouth after you’ve sipped it. You may even be aware of the brands of the latte and coffee, and other facts of these ingredients of the beverage. You may have brief recollections of other places you’ve had this particular blend, who was there, and what you were doing.
These things happen very quickly, but they are perceptions perceived. Each piece of information came from specific parts of your brain, and these were processed together in your prefrontal cortex, at the front of you head, as what is currently called Working Memory. The prefrontal cortex is also the place where you engage critical thinking. Nice.
So, by doing something when you’ve told yourself that you’re doing it to learn, you suddenly have all of the things you’ll need to help you learn brought together in the part of the brain that can do the learning. Why shouldn’t we use the structure and function of the brain to enhance the delivery of our curricula? Let’s take this idea back to the young woman immersing her thermometer into the waters of a stream.
As she picks up the thermometer, positions it in her hand so she can see its graduations, she becomes very aware of its shape, its use, her expectations for what it will tell her, the particular reason she is picking it up, the memories she already has about streams, and thermometers, and, because she’s here to learn about salmon, some thoughts about how salmon like the temperature of their water.
She is on the first hour of a one week unit on watersheds, so doesn’t know a great deal about water temperature, salmon, and watersheds. None the less, what memories she does have of these things come together with all the rest in working memory, ready to learn.
So, she measures the temperature of the water, and it’s twelve degrees celcius. Her working memory doesn’t know where to fit this in, what I call a Need to Know. So she looks for the reference book that is part of the contents of the box she helped carry down to the streambank. Finding it, she looks for information about salmon and temperature, and finds they prefer waters with a range of temperatures between 4.4 and 14.0C. Then her prefrontal cortex, the site of critical thinking, begins to use the information she has gleaned and memories stored, to engage the prefrontal cortex’s functions of perseverance, self-monitoring and supervision, problem solving, orchestration of thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals, compare and contrast, working toward a defined goal, expectation based on actions, extract and reconstruct sequences of meaning from ongoing experience.
That’s a long list, a partial one, of the functions of this site of human learning that current US curricula generally overlooks. Contrast this with the teacher telling students about salmon and water temperature, the student reading in the text about it then answering questions in the back of the chapter about these things. Compare and contrast (using your prefrontal cortex!) this with the rich texture of meaning in the young woman with the thermometer.
Next time we’ll look some more at this underlying structure of learning.
This is the twentyfirst installment of “Teaching in the Environment,” 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.”
ne of my favorite nature quotations comes from the Japanese conservationist Tanaka Shozu who said, “The question of rivers is not a question of rivers, but of the human heart.”
I wanted to touch the hearts of my middle school students with the beauty of nature as well as inspire them to take care of the local environment. I found the perfect spot for a nature experience less than an hour away from our school campus in the Sierra Nevada. (more…)
“All anyone really needs is a coal bin and a friend.”
By Jim Martin
A storm of children, shouts, swirling bodies, and dust swept me out of the yard. Up the street, neighborhood kids whirled around some coal bins between two wartime shipyard houses. I can see and hear them now, the kids, a bicycle, the coal bins, the houses and trees behind them, the noise. Propelled toward them by their intense energy, I became madly aware that they were riding a bicycle. I wanted to ride too. This was 1947; kids didn’t have bikes during the war, and few had them now, two years after the armistice.
Nor were there such things as training wheels. Getting onto a 26-inch bike with a running start was so intimidating that I had shrunk from attempting it. But this day was different. Kids were riding the bike by balancing themselves between two coal bins which were set about three feet apart, making a narrow chute. They would put the bike in the chute, climb onto a coal bin, lower themselves onto the pedals, scoot out to the edge of the bin, push off, and ride! This, I saw so clearly, I could do.
I ran up the street and begged for a turn, mounted, scooted out, pushed off and rode in a large circle in the driveway, lost my balance, fell sideways, caught myself and the bike before we both fell to the ground, stood up and wheeled it to the next kid in line. I had done it! You could, too, with a little help from a coal bin and encouragement from your friends.
The coal bin gave me just that bit of support and encouragement that I had lacked. With it, riding a 26-inch bicycle became something I could do. And I did.
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The thought of teaching science can be as intimidating for many teachers as the thought of riding a bike was for me. We all experience a sense of uneasiness when we try something new. This is how we overcome inertia in the face of what we perceive as difficult. I call these hesitations in the face of something new “twinges of doubt.” When I first began teaching, I had a twinge of doubt that I’d understand the biological concepts I’d learned well enough to teach them. Doubt dissolved as soon as I engaged a familiar content; but the fact that the twinge was experienced is significant. If, having a strong background and interest in biology, I felt it, what must an elementary teacher, with little or no background or experience feel? Science has so much content, so many facts. How can we possibly master the subject well enough to teach it? Well, we don’t need to master science in order to teach it. What we need is to experience how science works. Knowing how science works, believe it or not, makes teaching science doable, it builds a sense of self confidence, a sense that this bicycle is not a formidable adversary; it can be ridden, it is fun to do. How do you gain the confidence it takes to enjoy teaching science? First, climb the coal bin; learn what science is. Science isn’t books of facts; it is a cognitive kinesthetic process, a way of knowing, a way of organizing our thoughts and action. Science as process produces facts, but it is not the facts themselves. Here are four basic pieces of process science that you can try today: 1) ask a question, 2) decide how to answer it, 3) follow through on this decision, and 4) compare the results of following through with the question you asked. This is manageable, and, with a little support, you can do it. Here’s how:
1. Find the coal bin (a question). Take a first step; ask a question answerable by an observation. No one will see you or know that you are taking a personal risk. Our environment is more familiar to us, so let’s try it first. Go outside and try one of these:
Pigeons – where do they spend most of their time? How do they spend their time?
Ants – where do they go? Do they all travel in the same direction? Do the same thing?
Squirrels – how close can you get to them before they run away? (Notice that you can answer these question just by looking, which is making an observation). Pick one of these simple questions, choose one of your own, or substitute the subjects of your observations for, say, pill bugs, potato bugs, spider webs, weeds, and so forth, then continue reading.
2. Scoot out to the edge of your question. First, make a guess about what you will find out. If you are looking at ants, make a guess about where their main door is, or in which direction the majority of those near the door are traveling. Decide what you will look for. For instance, the number of ants who enter and leave the door. Rite this down. We don’t write enough. Humans clarify their thoughts by writing, acting, or drawing them. Our written expressions become records of the thoughts we all too easily forget. This is important; you must articulate your simple plan of action. Science is a wonderful vehicle for delivering critical thinking. Critical thinking happens best when we write out our thoughts. It is a formal commitment of our thoughts to paper. Now, put this article down and go out, follow your directions, and observe for ten minutes. Write down what you see, one minute at a time. Just ten minutes. Easy
3. Push off (follow up on your question). Go back to the classroom and put the results of your ten-minute observation on the board. Do this as a visual: a picture, a graph, a diagram, etc. Mak it into a representation of what you saw, and which makes sense to you. Ask yourself how to put the results up so they tell you whether you’ve answered your question. Discuss these results with yourself, or call in a friend or colleague. Better yet, discuss your results with a student. Did your observations answer your question? What did they tell you about the animals you observed? What did you learn about the process of observation itself? Did you find it necessary to change your observational plan? Did you find you had to change what you meant by, say, moving in a particular direction? Think about this and thin about the phrase, “science as process.”
4. And Ride. What questions or ideas does the information on the board raise? How about your observations; did they raise any questions or ideas? Pick one of these to follow up. Write it down. Decide how to organize your observations, then go out again. (This time, you might invite your students. Dangerously close to curriculum now.) Make your observations, post and review your results, discuss their implications, raise questions. If your review the list in the previous sentence, you will notice that the words in the list name processes. Do you recognize any pattern in how these processes are applied? Can you add any to the list? Notice that, in seeking an answer to a question, you end up asking more questions. You’ve been paid compound interest on a small investment in critical thinking! What an investment opportunity for your students!
Nail down what you’ve learned so far. Describe to yourself what you can do now that you couldn’t do before. Describe what you know about the subject of your observations. Did you acquire new facts? (These are the facts of your science curriculum. These facts your students should, and will, remember because they make sense.) Describe how your experiences and understanding might fit into an integrated curriculum. Write these descriptions out. If you have done this with your class, then you can look back and recognize that you’ve generated a piece of your own curriculum. Go to the standards and see if you have addressed any of them. Did you address any in Mathematics? Social Studies? Language? Art? Music? Share your experiences by submitting an article to Clearing. Make a presentation of your experiences at the next science teachers conference. Nentor another teacher. Celebrate. You’ve begun a process which has no end.
This article is reprinted from Issue 96 of Clearing Magazine, and is also found in The Best of Clearing, Volume V.
—Jim Martin has retired from a long career as a science educator in which he taught at every grade level from elementary through college, and as a teacher trainer for the Center for Science Education at Portland State University. He also served as president of the Environmental Education Association of Oregon.
by Jude Curtain
The sun was shining. There was just a hint of fall in the September air. Twenty three fourth graders were hunched over their white dishpans, excitedly sorting through their samples of forest litter. So began a series of lessons designed to guide students in generating questions, creating investigations, and ultimately finding answers.
Lesson #1: Noticing Details
My experience has been that children need training to be good observers. My first lesson engaged students in examining a container of forest litter, sorting all the things they discovered in their samples, and recording each item in their science journals.
Lesson #2: Open vs. Closed Questions
We defined closed questions as those that had a simple “yes” or “no” answer. Open questions were those that required an explanatory answer. Examples of both types of questions were generated first by me, then by the students in a class discussion. (more…)
Preparing Teachers for Environmental Education
by Louise Conn Fleming
Abstract: Our teacher education team at our university teaches the junior year methods and assessment to preservice middle grades teachers. Starting Spring 2003 we began using “The Projects” as part of methods instruction. In this paper I will review what educators say about how middle grades students should be taught, why environmental education meets those criteria, explain our program, and share our results.
Most adults in the U.S. have grown up out of touch with the environment, and it appears that the generation in schools today is growing up that way as well. The middle grades, grades four or five to eight or nine, are a time when children are beginning to see themselves as they relate to their world at large. This is a crucial time to focus their attention on how their actions have an impact on other inhabitants of our planet. However, most middle grades teachers, having grown up without experiences in nature, lack both the understanding and enjoyment of the environment and the knowledge of why or how to teach about it. (more…)