Lessons for Teaching in the Environment and Community Pt 1

“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 1: Where classroom learning meets the real world…

by Jim Martin, CLEARING guest writer

jimphoto3Hello. 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. From my place in the clouds, it took awhile before I slowly became aware of the fact that most students didn’t know much about cells, in spite of the fact that they had studied them in high school, and many in the lower grades. I started to work with K-12 teachers to see what they were doing in their classrooms. To my surprise, about half of those who taught science had no college-level preparation for the concepts and processes they were charged with teaching. They used the teachers’ manual, student texts, and publishers’ handouts to deliver their science. (As a friend said, “… that’s like teaching auto mechanics without a shop!” Would you be satisfied with a career in your field where you simply read what others had written, then answered questions about it? I’d be bored to death.)

MartinquoteScience is a way to know what’s in the universe, and how it works. It’s a very active, verbal, hands-on, communal activity. And it ought to be that way in our classrooms. So, I slowly began to do workshops, etc. for teachers. The last fifteen years of my career were heavily into this. And I still am, eleven years into retirement.

In spite of the work of a lot of people, science education in 2011 isn’t much better for most students than it was in the early 70s. There is some light. Some schools which focus on student-centered inquiry in ecosystems report that all or nearly all their students pass the science standards, and nearly all pass the math and reading standards. Community and Environment Based Learning works, but mainstream American education doesn’t know it yet.

Here’s where you can help. Going into the real world for some of a teacher’s curriculum works well. This is something most teachers learn about in the Psychology of Learning courses, but forget as soon as they’ve passed the test on it. Assimilation is a process in which students manipulate real world objects, associate the new learnings they represent with knowledge and concepts they already possess, and incorporate, integrate, assimilate the new learnings as amplifications of what they already know. The secret is the manipulation of real world objects. This activity entrains the parietal lobes of the brain, which connect with the rest of the cerebrum to set up places to process this incoming information, and mobilize and transfer relevant conceptual information stored in other parts of the brain to these places. (The brain is the organ of learning, and all educators ought to know something about it. I’ll bring it up from time to time.) And, here’s the good news, real world objects are what environmental educators work with every day.

So, there’s an interface between two classes of educators, environmental and classroom. Each may work in very different-looking places, and may see one another only on rare occasions, but those occasions are momentous. Both groups can help one another, and both can gain from one another. That’s called Win-Win in game theory lingo. Community and environment based learning does work to improve children’s educations, especially those in the bottom 25th percentile; those we tend to forget about. The place where a child’s hands touch a piece of the natural environment is the place where we can all make a positive and certain difference in the quality of education in America. That is the place where real learning happens.

And here’s what I’d like to ask you to do this week. The real world is what we’re supposed to be educating students about. It doesn’t matter what the discipline or curriculum, it’s all about the real world of people, places, and things. Find a piece of curriculum that students learn. (If you can’t come up with one, try either fractions or alliteration.) Think of how you might get them to explore a natural area and stumble upon that curricular piece. If you can do that, then you’re on the way to improving education in America.

My focus in this blog is going to be on that interface, the place where classroom learning meets the real world, and the real world meets the classroom. We all do wonderful things; we must add one more wonder – improve education in America. It’s doable; just needs to be done.