Prairie View

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Currency of Education--Part 2

In our school, opportunities to acquire information directly from interacting with nature are in short supply also. Walking across a gravel parking lot is about as “outdoorsy” as students normally get in school. Elsewhere, all across our land, children’s access to the natural environment has steadily eroded over recent decades. Richard Louv, who has extensively researched and written about this phenomenon observes that “a growing body of evidence indicates that direct exposure to nature is essential for physical and emotional health.” For children who attend a classroom school, shutting them off from the natural environment during school hours constitutes isolating them from nature during most of their waking hours for most of their childhood years.
Beyond its health benefits, the natural environment presents unparalleled learning opportunities. To illustrate, children can learn about one-celled animals that populate pond water by having the live animals ordered from a biological supply business, placing them on the slide of a microscope and observing their structure and activity. Alternatively, if their school were located close to a creek or pond, students could collect the one-celled animals there and bring them inside to be examined under a microscope. Through the lens of the microscope, the one-celled animals would presumably look exactly the same from either source. However, if a student collected the animals directly out of a pond, many other kinds of observations could be made at the same time. The student might encounter basking turtles, startled frogs along the perimeter plopping into the water, tadpoles swimming along the edges, mosquito larvae whipping through the water, insects skating across the water’s surface, plants growing in the water and along the edge, insects hiding in the vegetation and birds flying overhead, changing weather conditions and cloud formations, and perhaps the tracks of wild animals pressed into the damp soil. If the pond water yielded no one-celled animals, learning why this might be so would prompt learning about the connectedness of various life forms and the consequences of natural processes or man-made alterations. In comparison to students collecting specimens, it seems lackluster and sterile to acquire the one-celled animals by merely signing the UPS man’s delivery confirmation form when the package from Carolina Biological Supply arrives.
When children play organized sports, competition (or at least comparison of competence) quickly becomes focused on physical prowess or athletic ability. Imagine how differently people’s skills would be assessed if the time together during break time at school were spent in nurturing a garden, for example. Or how creativity would thrive if unstructured play time could, at least occasionally, be spent in a pasture or woodland. Compare the different kinds and levels of sensory input on a basketball court or a woodland hideaway. “Cornell University environmental psychologists reported in 2003 that a room with a view of nature can help protect children against stress. . .” (Louv) Many have observed or experienced similar effects informally: a natural environment helps calm, comfort, and heal. This opportunity is especially significant for children who struggle with attention problems or those who carry weighty emotional baggage.
Ironically, the two sources of information I idealize having more access to at school, the internet and nature, are often depicted as being at odds with each other. People have correctly observed that the electronically-equipped child may also be a child suffering from “nature-deficit disorder.” Observation of where funds are focused in public education makes clear that the investment has been heavily weighted on the electronic side rather than the nature side. This, together with factors like urbanization, concerns for physical safety and liability issues, and increasing regulatory pressure to meet assessment standards, apparently drives some of these appropriations.
However, in our school situation, where some of these factors are less pressing, we still have an opportunity to chart a course that will enhance our educational offerings in a balanced way. To focus merely on what we want to keep out seems short-sighted, as does scrambling to embrace whatever the world parades before us. To idealize including only learning environments, materials, and tools that are man-made, to the exclusion of what God made, is unbalanced also. In the end, what matters is that we worship and serve God acceptably while we go about the business of teaching and learning. To accomplish this, each person involved needs a humble, teachable spirit. With that attitude, every learning opportunity, method, environment, and tool used in the acquisition of information, the currency of education, is considered a gift to be cherished for what it offers, and to be received with thanksgiving.


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