Teaching in the Environment and Community (Series)

Teaching in the Environment and Community


This special feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin explores how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula.



Pt. 1: Where Classroom Learning Meets the Real World
Hello. I’m Jim Martin,  a retired teacher (5th through college) and biologist. I started teaching general biology to college students in the early 70s, excited about the new scientific developments which were coming out almost monthly…

Pt. 2: Developing Capacity
We evolved to survive in wild environments by learning them. Our brain did this learning by finding and exploiting patterns in the world it encountered. In the end, our brain has developed into an autonomous learning machine…

Pt. 3: Emergent Phenomena
If you go to a place in the world outside your classroom – your school yard, a trail nearby, a stream bank – and think about it, you’ll find it is a prism which, oriented effectively, holds the power to involve and invest your students in their educations, and empower them as persons. Simple miracle; takes work to discover…

Pt. 4: Inquiry
We are, indeed, the wonders that we seek. To discover them, we must look deep within ourselves, to that part which can reach out to the world and comprehend it. Then release ourselves to know.
Odd, that we must release what’s within us to know what is outside. Traveling within is a process, best taken a step at a time. Enough steps taken, and your teaching will change…

Pt. 5: Questions are Compasses
Our words, leaves falling from trees, in their numbers can obscure the realities they describe. Writing a clear, succinct inquiry question is not an easy thing to do, but can become relatively easy with practice. We can only think as clearly as how well we use the language we think with, can only travel as far as our thoughts will carry us…

Pt. 6: The Easy Part
We’ve been exploring science inquiry, starting with doing a casual observation in a natural area. In the last blog, I found an inquiry question. What did it tell me to do? I discovered how straightforward the Investigative Design is when it is built upon a clean inquiry question…

Pt. 7: From Hand to Mind
Over the past few blogs, we’ve walked through a science inquiry done in a natural area. First, we noticed something there, then asked a question about it, and used the question to develop an investigation. We did the investigation, collecting data that we hoped would answer our question. We’ve analyzed and interpreted our data, and now we need to communicate it. Most science standards and benchmarks overlook this piece of science inquiry, but scientists don’t. This is the place where you really nail down what you’ve learned. Something we often don’t do in American education.

Pt. 8: Where is Curriculum?
We’ve been talking about our ‘Locus of Control,’ the place where the authority for what we do lies. That authority can be outside ourselves, or within. What determines where we find it? Nothing more than experience.

Pt. 9 Digging Through the Brambles:Locating and exploiting the curricula embedded in the environments outside the classroom
At last writing, I’d decided to explore a place outside for the curricular content which was embedded in it. I planned to do a natural science inquiry, and decided to also look for social studies and creative writing curricula units there based on an area near a dog walk. Now, my job is to turn this place into a lesson that will release and exploit the curricula embedded within it.

Pt. 10 Assimilation: When the world outside becomes the world inside
Starting in the world outside our skin, our personal tegumental boundary, I have claimed, is the best way to learn. By ‘learn,’ I mean integrate new material into old understandings so that they become a part of you.

Part 11 Assimilation Continued
We’ve been talking about assimilation, where we start in the real world, integrate new learnings into old concepts, then use this auspicious beginning to move into the abstract. It’s like building a boat that lets you explore an uncharted ocean.

Part 12: Flirting with Danger — What happens when things seem to go wrong
In the last blog, I – and hopefully you – went out to snap off a twig from a cherry tree. I did that, except that the closest I have to a cherry tree is a prune tree, then began to examine it. Since I don’t have a lab now, I did the dissection with my tiny Swiss army knife. The blade is a little over an inch long, and reasonably sharp after nearly 14 years of use. Here’s what I found.

Pt 13: Concrete to Abstract
In the last blog, I reported the negative results when I tested the cambium of my twig for enzymatic activity. Even though the results were negative, they told me things about the cambium that were informative and thought provoking. This is an interesting thing about inquiry. We ask questions of entities in the community and environment, and they actually reply.

Pt 14: Learn where we learned to learn
Our origins are in natural environments, where we competed with other mammals in small tribal bands. That’s where we learned to learn. Our tribal bands have escalated into communities of hundreds of thousands to millions of people. Even though our actual social and professional contacts, even Facebook friends, remain about tribal band size, our learning environments have scaled up, and changed in a qualitative way that interferes with the way our brains are organized to learn. Perhaps we can take some relatively small developmental steps back into the world we learned in, and assess how it affects learning in our classrooms.

Pt 15: Knowledge is Power — Knowing the theoretical structure underlying community and environment based learning makes taking your students into the real world doable
Taking students into natural areas to do inquiry is one of the many things in life that are simple in concept and complex in execution.You take them out, they do the work, you head back to the classroom. Oh, yes. To exploit the wonderful potential that natural areas have for developing curricula and delivery vehicles which involve and invest students in their educations and empower them as persons is very difficult to do. At least, at first. You do catch on.

Pt 16: Effective Work Groups — When you know them, they will change your world
We left the last blog with a note about effective work groups. I asserted a continuum of work groups from one in which each student is answering questions without talking with other students in the group, to one in which students carried on a continuous negotiation of meaning and organization of work assignments until the job was finished. Let’s return for a moment to the Dimensions of Inquiry to visualize scenarios in which the quality of student interactions experiences a developmental change from isolated work to effective cooperative work.

Pt 17: Discovery of Students as Persons
The discovery and appreciation of effective student work groups often emerges from involving students in community-based learning. Probably because the work, based in and on the real world, is authentic, and entrains central nervous system processes which are already in place. This is an important developmental learning milestone, and can be exploited to move yourself toward community-based learning as an integrated view of how to teach.

Part 18: Starting at the Top — Stand the hierarchy of cognitive functions on its head
Learning to exploit the community and environment for your curriculum can be a confusing process. It can be less confusing if you apply the Learning Curve to the structural concepts we’ve been discussing – dimensions of inquiry, student-centered inquiry, effective work groups, etc. – because learning is a process, a developmental process.

Part 19: Walking Backwards May Get You There
We’ve been looking at inquiries as they go from beginning to middle to end. What might they look like if we start our inspection at the end of an inquiry, and trace it to its inception? Will it sound the same? Are there some insights lurking along the backward path? Retracing a path you’ve walked or driven often contains some surprises.

Part 20: Beginning at the Beginning
In the last blog, we looked at planning an inquiry unit from the perspective of a student display, isolating the parts of the display and tracing them backwards. Now, let’s start at the beginning, and look at the inquiry unit as a scope and sequence.

Part 21: Where Brains Learn (Some cognitive particulars about learning in the real world)
The 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?

Part 22: Use It All: Why settle for simple recall of facts?
We were observing a young woman sampling the temperature of the water in a stream. As she did her work, she would see the stream and its bank and look into the stream itself, see the plants, the animals, other students, the sampling equipment they used, and she would build an integrated perception of the entirety of this situation. She also talked with her partner, negotiated places to sample, told her observations, wrote them down, tabulated readings, interpreted her observations, etc. As she was doing these things, she would be using her temporal lobes for the language and some of the memory parts, the parietal lobes for the orientation and sensory parts, and occipital lobes for direct vision.

Part 23: Notice is a Powerful Verb: Noticing something in your environment entrains your creative powers
You’ve decided to have your class study two water bodies near your school, one  a vernal pond which is dry during part of the year, and the other a permanent pond which has water all year round. During the three years you’ve taught at this school, you’ve noticed the ponds, and wondered what lived in them. You feel committed to this school, and have been thinking of using the ponds as a source of some of your language arts, art, science, and mathematics curricula in your seventh-grade, mostly self-contained classroom.