Lessons for teaching in the environment and community – 15

“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 15: Knowledge is Power

Knowing the theoretical structure underlying community and environment based learning makes taking your students into the real world doable

by Jim Martin, CLEARING guest writer

fieldtripT1aking 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.

To do it, you have to become familiar with the logistics of scheduling a bus and substitute, ensure students are dressed for the work and have something to eat, you have the tools to do the work, get permission slips back from parents, know where to go once you arrive at your site, organize transportation for adult volunteers, know the terrain and set your stations, know where your students are, arrange for safe rotations between stations, ensure the bus driver knows when and where to return, etc. I’ve seen each of these areas suddenly become a problem that had to be dealt with on the spot. And all of this is outside the work you must do to develop your community/environment based curriculum. It’s no wonder it takes 3-5 years to become the well-oiled machine.

Working with a friend or mentor is the best way to navigate this maze, with assessments after each trip. If there is another teacher in the building you share your thoughts about teaching with, that person would make a good sounding board for you. She doesn’t necessarily have to accompany you on trips, but should be available and open to listening and commenting. Consider it a part of the learning curve: Practice with feedback. Have someone to talk with. It’s important. You’ll find that you get most of these logistical things under your belt pretty quickly, and develop ways to deal with those that either make you anxious, or that you hate with a passion. (Mine were ordering transportation and asking my principal for a sub.)

One of the reasons I spend lots of words on the theoretical underpinnings of community/environment based learning (CEBL) is that they are buoys in the currents of doing and mastering CEBL. They tell you where you are, and whether you’re heading in the right direction. For instance, on your first one or two trips, your main concern will be whether you’ll get all of your students back to school. You probably won’t be able to see the ‘moment of learning’ look in a particular student’s eye. But, knowing that the work on station 1 is structured and station 3 is unstructured will help you decide how often you visit each station, or tell you what to advise the adult or older student at both stations. You’ll find that these theoretical structures will become useful organizers of your thoughts, planning, and execution, sans anxiety. Eventually, knowing about the Inquiry, Structure, and Experimental dimensions of inquiry will enable you to build particular pieces into each station or activity that will move students forward. Rapidly.

Let’s revisit the learning curve for a moment. The left side of the curve starts low and relatively flat, the Acquisition Phase. Then it transitions to a steep upward movement, the Proficiency Phase. In time, it levels off again, parallel to the x-axis, the Mastery Phase. Think of the Structure Dimension of Inquiry. Movement should be from structured to unstructured, with structured on the acquisition phase of the learning curve. As you make your first movements away from structure, say demonstrating something, then having students practice it on their own, you are moving yourself into the proficiency phase of the curve. Knowing these facts of learning, that we learn along a learning curve, and range our activities from structured to unstructured, can relieve some anxiety that attends first forays into the real world. And help to organize your plans for what and how your students will learn.

Knowledge is Power. We’re Teachers; that’s our profession. The more professional knowledge and understanding we bring to our work, the better teachers we’ll be. Compare a guitarist who knows the basic chords and strums them to a guitarist who studies the chords in all their positions, techniques of strumming and fingering, music theory and genres, etc. Knowledge does not impair.

Should you attend a workshop on teaching in the community and environment, and not feel you have moved sufficiently up the proficiency phase of the learning curve, then ask the presenter what you need to do to get there. Most workshops get you to the transition between acquisition and proficiency, then leave you there. That’s one of the reasons that the zillions of teachers’ workshops haven’t improved education in the U.S.

I always assess the workshops I do personally, and act on suggestions. Most of us like feedback but many don’t ask for it. Develop ‘comfort antennae’ about how prepared you feel during a workshop, then listen to them. Couple this with developing better understanding about learning theory, and you’ll find yourself using your community and environment to improve your students’ educations, especially those in the bottom 25th percentile.

Now, think about the dimensions of inquiry. Spread these out in your mind or on a piece of paper. Which entail the most critical thinking? The most personal empowerment? Should you be organizing your delivery so that students routinely engage in critical thinking, and become empowered by the way in which they learn? For instance, do your students engage in critical thinking more if they learn that reeds inhabit a relatively narrow strip of the riparian, then go out and locate reeds on a transect from the water’s edge to a place 100 feet up the streambank, or if they set a transect, identify the range of plants along its length, then predict what they might find a quarter of a mile upstream?

And think of this: How much time will students spend negotiating meaning in each scenario? Are there qualitative differences in the negotiations themselves? The idea of students working in groups also generates a continuum. In some groups, each student is working alone, answering questions. Other groups are involved in assessing a situation, deciding what to do about it, organizing tasks and people to do them, doing the work, then coming together to assess what they’ve found out.

There are times when groups work at each end of the spectrum, and places in between. The important thing to know is that this phenomenon exists, and you can use its internal structure to help your students to learn for understanding. Next time, we’ll visit what I call ‘developing effective work groups.’

jimphotocroppedThis is the fifteenth 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.”