Martin 14

“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 14: Learn where we learned to learn

hunter_gatherer_cartoonby Jim Martin, CLEARING guest writer

O2ur 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.

Our hunter-gatherer brains are organized to coordinate themselves with our bodies and the environments we lived in. You can think of this schematically as a triangle with the apexes titled Mind(Brain), Body, or World, each title connected to the others by double-headed arrows. All of our lives, our brains, our bodies, and the world about are in nearly constant interaction. This is how we, and all mammals, have adapted to survive in the particular environments (call them ecosystems) we have inhabited.

One phenomenon emergent from this process is the capacity to learn. Think of trying to build a raccoon-proof compost container filled with food scraps. If you’ve ever coexisted with raccoons, you’ll know you’d have to build successive iterations of your original design, leaning heavily on engineering thinking. Or, squirrels and bird feeders. Likewise, students asking a question of turbidity in a salmon stream. We’re built to do this, but our current culture’s paradigm of learning doesn’t allow it. Walk into most U.S. classrooms and you’ll see this very clearly. We ought to learn as easily as raccoons and squirrels, but don’t.

It’s unfortunate that most U.S. teacher preparation departments are unaware of our propensity for autonomous learning. Rather, they focus on particulars of publishers’ materials, control in the classroom, etc. (Go to any inservice day conference, and the rooms where the topic is classroom control will be packed, and those where the topic is expression through poetry will be practically empty – but interesting!) Why such emphasis on control? Could it be that we’re forcing our students to learn by handcuffing the parts of our brain which are organized to learn without being disruptive?

Here’s something I experienced often. My courses were always lab or field based, with students asking the questions and organizing their investigations. A significant fraction of the straight-A students would be very uncomfortable when they first experienced this, and some even asked if they could go to the library and write a paper on the topic instead. They could memorize an enormous number of facts in order to ace tests, but had never thought their way through a problem on their own, with no help from an authority. Thinking is hard work, but becomes easy with practice. Within a short time, they discovered they could do it, and began to think for themselves. To get there, they had to allow themselves to do it.

We’re teachers. We can allow ourselves to learn. We need to be able to design our own curricula rather than following the teachers’ manual instructions. That way, we direct the use of publishers’ offerings rather than the offerings directing us. The information in their materials has worth, but it has to be approached by the students’ needs to be effective. Here’s a developmental progression of activities that can give you a clear idea of what the real world offers and how you can exploit it. Don’t turn off your brain. It’s a wonderful learning machine, if you allow it.

Classroom: Who lives here? Look in the nooks and crannies of your classroom for any signs of living things, or where they might be able to live. Sometimes this turns up nothing, but there are usually corners, spaces behind shelves, etc., that turn out to be interesting.Grow seeds and draw what emerges. Let these emergent things lead you. Then pick one thing to find out about.
School Grounds: Ants: Where are they? How do you know? What are they doing?Plants: Where are they? How do you know? What are they doing?

What grows on sidewalks? Next to the building? How can you turn them into a question?

Neighborhood: Street trees: Starting on a corner, have a student pace distances from the edge of the corner to each tree. Measure that student’s pace and convert paces to feet and inches. Identify the trees. Get in touch with your city forester and find out how much CO2 the trees are taking out of the neighborhood’s atmosphere.
Natural Feature: Find a local place, like a trail or creek, and get to know it. Inventory who lives there, where birds perch, what bird sounds tell you. Design your own activities, or partner with an organization or agency.
Natural Environment: Work with Environmental Educators to find a place to investigate. Look for environmental programs which get students into natural environments. Use these experiences to design your own personal inservice to build capacity to do these things yourself.

You can start from no knowledge and within a few years, build a strong program in which students use their brains to learn for understanding. Find a mentor, or just another teacher to talk with about what you are doing, or would like to do. A sounding board is invaluable in this kind of learning. This is developmental, starts you out on the acquisition phase of the learning curve, and moves you toward mastery. If you actually seriously pursue this series, at best, it will take 3-5 years to become comfortable, to have a sense of ownership of the work. With the feedback from a friend or professional you meet along the way, you can do it. In some century, we’ll all learn this way. Until then, we need to bootstreap the process ourselves. Try it.

jimphotocroppedThis is the fourteenth 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.”