Martin 13

“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 13: Concrete to Abstract

by Jim Martin, CLEARING guest writer

learningcurveIn 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. And their replies raise further questions.

The cambium I questioned told me it wasn’t doing anything in particular just now. At least in terms of working on maltose or corn starch. So, I answered by placing the twig the cambium came from into a vase with water in it, and said I’d wait until May, then check again. In the meantime, our conversation raised questions in my mind. For instance, I didn’t examine the vascular fibers in the twig. These are metaphors for our arteries and veins; they carry food and water from one part of the plant to another. I also revisited the way I prepared the cambium for examination. Plant cells have cell walls, relatively hard tissue. Perhaps I should have prepared the cambium in a food processor or blender. Or, a mortar and pestle. I know I have one somewhere in the basement. Other questions involved changes in sunlight that penetrates the atmosphere over the seasons, and its involvement in entraining enzyme systems.

All this thinking has been done in the abstract, with no concrete referents before me. But it emerged from my manipulation of concrete things in my world: a twig, a knife, a small bowl, water, iodine, Clinistix, a spoon, maltose, corn starch. That’s Assimilation at work. It brought knowledge, skills, and concepts from various parts of my brain, put them in a place where they could work together, and incorporated some new material into concepts that are already part of my cognitive library. My brain, my body, and the world, working together. (If you’re interested in concepts that elucidate the connections between the real world and learning, google embodied cognition. You may be surprised at what you’ll find, and possibly wonder how we learn anything at all in school as usual.)

Since these new thoughts make sense in terms of what I knew before, it’s an easy thing to contemplate them with some degree of confidence. And that means my thinking may become productive. Not an iron-clad guarantee, but a comfortable feeling that I’m willing and able to try. This is where we all need to take ourselves. Assimilation is the first landmark on the path to doing an effective job of enabling our students to learn for understanding. And that means that we have to visit the real world at least once or twice a year. And give some serious thought to what and how we are teaching.

So, we have some things to talk about between now and May. (The main reason I keep referring to Assimilation, the brain, the body, and the real world, is for you to become comfortable with these concepts, and to begin to recognize them in your own teaching. If you’ve ever looked at a hypothetical learning curve, it’s sort of a stretched-out S-curve, with a longish lead-in line toward the bottom, where you are introduced to new learning. Then there is a transition, and the line moves upward as a diagonal, eventually plateauing when you’ve mastered the new learning. The steep portion of the curve is called the proficiency phase, where you are catching on, and with continued feedback, move more or less quickly to mastery. Most instruction treats the acquisition phase, and the initial part of the proficiency phase, then stops, assuming you have or will achieve mastery. Actually, we need feedback until we are well into the mastery phase of the curve. (This curve, by the way, is a standard process curve. Making cell phone screens is a process. What if manufacturers stopped at initial proficiency? Likewise for community and environment based learning. Or any learning for that matter.)

We’ve experienced the concrete, and need to set up a transition from there to the abstract. Here’s what I can harvest from the work so far. Because we started in the concrete, we can use that as the starting gate through which the abstract becomes interesting to know. We can tackle complex topics like carbohydrate metabolism: Photosynthesis, Respiration, carbohydrate storage, conversion of carbohydrates to other products. Or, we can begin the transition with simpler topics: learn more about kinds of plants, plant parts and plants’ responses to the seasons, plant movement (they do move!). The cambium itself – its composition, function, importance. More complex: Cells in the cambium – their jobs, life cycles, enzymes they use to do their work (Note that each of these can go off into areas of their own. Just start with the twig, remind them, and move forward.)

Moving away from the cambium itself, we can study topics from simple to complex: sunlight and seasons – the earth’s tilt, sunlight’s penetration of the atmosphere, photo systems in plants and animals, our own pineal gland and its responses to seasonal changes in sunlight, plants and their hormones, properties of the seasons, shadows and the way they move in the seasons. All of these can be done without leaving the classroom. The concrete interactions we began with generate needs to know, and these needs drive students into the reference materials; start with the concrete, move quickly to the abstract. The important thing is to plan the work, do it, and see what it tells you.

It looks like I can move from the concrete to the abstract, even though I’m waiting for May to continue this particular work. You can use two or three activities that start with real things as slices of bread to build a humungous sandwich of knowledge, skills, and conceptual understanding that are tied together, reside in long term memory, and can be called upon at any time. That’s one of the things we’re supposed to do as teachers. And, it’s all based on a simple concept contained within the psychology of learning: Assimilation.

jimphotocroppedThis is the thirteenth installment of “Teaching in the Environment,” a new, 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.”