Reflection 251: Education!

April 3, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

Last week I showed a PowerPoint featuring eagles, herons, harbor seals, and sandpipers to the afternoon program at a local grammar school. All the photos of wildlife I showed had been taken within a mile of the school. I told the kids that they had the same opportunity to see what I saw if they’d get outdoors and look around. They were a great group, paid attention to every slide, and asked excellent questions.

On my way to the school, I’d seen first one great blue heron take off from the shallows along the river river, then another right behind it. Typically, great blues arrive from the southland on the first of April, but they were early this year. Driving home afterward, I saw an adult American bald eagle fly over the road just ahead of me. My message in the talk was that in order to see such sights, you have to take the initiative to look around and engage your surroundings right where you are.

The one question that really got to me (even though I didn’t field it very well when I heard it) came during the sandpiper section from a soft-spoken boy who asked, “How can you tell the difference between all those kinds of birds?” I said something to the effect that I worked at it because knowing my wild neighbors was important to me, and I’d kept my eyes open for opportunities to get to know them better. But driving home, that boy’s question stayed with me. We learn the names and characteristics of things that are important to us—things we engage with—such as tools, super heroes, makes and models of cars, brands of ice cream, TV shows, celebrities, singers, and as in my case, birds and other forms of wildlife. I engage with every bird I see, and try to get to know it by name.

I had set up a teachable moment in that boy’s mind, and, driving along, I thought about how I could come up with an answer worthy of the question. We get good at doing things we pay attention to because they matter to us. Paying attention is the key, noticing in this case how birds are similar to one another, and how they are different. And having names for the different groups we can sort them into. The trick is to build on skills the kids already have and work from there by refining and expanding that foundation. Every student in the room knew the difference between, say, a robin, a crow, and a chickadee when they saw one, though they probably hadn’t thought about how they came to know what they already knew.

That’s what I could point out to them, how they already knew how to tell a crow was a crow and not a robin or chickadee. Size mattered, color, voice, habitat, way of moving on the ground and in the air, what they ate, who eats them, where commonly seen. Once they had grasped that, they could make a list of things they’d like to know about a bird to be able to identify it. They could move on to other common birds in the vicinity, and then to ones they saw only occasionally, like migrating warblers and hawks. Then they could pore through bird guides that set down the kinds of things we want to know in systematic order, and the kids could come to understand that order so they could make easy use of it.

I telephoned the woman who’d set up the afterschool program, and asked if we could have a follow-up session to address the question of how to provide a framework that would help kids learn more about birds on their own. She thought that was a great idea, and would speak to school administrators about how we might fit it into the schedule. Or if not that, how we could cover it in the summer camp offered by a local nonprofit. The wheels are turning, trying to build on a challenge a particular student wanted addressed.

That, to me, is how true education takes place. Adults rising to the occasion of addressing issues that students feel are important. Which requires teachers to listen to students and not strictly vice versa. Learning is a matter of give-and-take, making educated guesses, learning what the possibilities are, trial and error in the field, with as much practice as you’re willing to put into studying a guidebook and watching birds.

We learn about situations we get ourselves into, and in which we want to do better the next time. Enjoying the effort as a kind of adventure helps us improve our skills over time. Which is very different from completing homework that others assign to us. It’s the homework and fieldwork we assign to ourselves that really matters. If we want to get good at identifying birds, we first have to set that as our goal, then carry out projects and exercises that help us grow into the skills we want to learn.

If we want to learn how to use chopsticks, we have to be willing to work at learning that skill by actually eating—poorly at first—with chopsticks. It helps to eat food that comes in small chunks suited to being levered into our mouths. Learning to feed ourselves has strong survival value, so we’ll eventually catch on, particularly when we see others modeling the skills we’d like to get good at. In learning to play the guitar, it helps to admire those who can play the kind of music that we like.

In learning new skills, motivation is essential, close observation of others performing those skills, willingness to practice, and patience in keeping at it until our skills match theirs. Slowly, we grow into the person we’d like to become. That is, we make ourselves happen as who we’d like to be.

Self-transcendence is driven by urges inside every one of us, different in each case. The lives we create for ourselves are proof of the effort we put into being who we are moment-by-moment. Being the person others want us to be is a form of service to them. Being who we want to become fulfills the most basic freedom we are born to. We didn’t ask to be born, so can only rise to the the occasion of our birth by setting goals worthy of our human potential.

The job of educators, as I see it, is to engage with their students very closely in order to support their setting worthy life goals and choosing projects to enhance their development while, at the same time, making sure they explore the full range of their options, and become aware of possible dangers and limitations. Then to speed them on the course they set for themselves—and get out of their way.

Learning is always personal and experiential. Teachers can promote and encourage the process, but they cannot deliver it to their students via books, lectures, videos, or presentations. Teachers can be guides and models, but not passers-on or imparters of wisdom. Experience is something we reach-for and live, not get as a gift. When I was in basic training, my sergeants did their best to turn me into a killer, and I gave them an A for making the effort—but they failed. They set me up to poke my bayonet into a straw dummy while yelling, “Kill! Kill! Kill!” but I recognized the exercise as metaphorical and that I was only going through the motions. I became a still photographer in the Signal Corps and spent my days lugging a camera, not a rifle, which was the best use the Army could have made of the skills I brought with me when I was drafted.

Education by command, authority, and fear is always a failure because it entails mind control, not learning. If any vestige of understanding is achieved, it is only a thin layer that will quickly rub off. I think of all the capitals I memorized in school, the national imports and exports of every country in South America, the Presidents in serial order, the differential equations. Now gone with the wind. Since getting my first camera for a box top and a quarter when I was four, I have worked at developing my visual skills, and made a living at it. Now that kind of film photography hardly exists any longer, so I’ve had to go digital, which I’ve done on my own.

Self-directed learning always morphs into the next big challenge, and the challenge after that because we keep growing into new versions of our selves until we die. Lifelong learning is directed by our self-governing loops of engagement. Those loops serve as our primary means for following our bliss. Once we figure out what resources are available, and how to make use of them, we can learn anything we put our minds to. We don’t need teachers, schools, or colleges; we simply live our own lives.

That’s my second take on the grand topic of education. I’ve barely scratched the surface, but the essence of my argument is that schools need to teach to the inner student, not the external demands of a society built to satisfy the views of a ruling elite.

Thanks for listening. And for being yourself to the hilt. –Steve


3 Responses to “Reflection 251: Education!”

  1. The First (and Only) Law of (Environmental) Education Is:


    • Corollaries:

      All Education is Environmental Education. (One of the things we learn in school is that we’re never going to run out of paper.)

      All Environments Educate.

      • All environments educate the educable; those who don’t pay attention receive nothing. I’m offering an adult education class this winter on Being There, that is, opening up to our surroundings to discover what they have to teach us. Which is pretty much how I have learned everything I know. — Being There sounds simple, but it’s the hardest thing we do. Thanks for checking out my posts. –Steve

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