Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Many Ways of Learning

It was 1979; more than 30 years ago, that I started what later would be called the “Nature Under Stress” program. Today I still continue to support the same idea, learning through experience, though a number of programs that embrace the same ideas of my first program “Nature Under Stress”.

I grow up with the old theory of teaching, from a podium and in a classroom of four walls where lectures and learning were based on a text book. No free dreams, no personal experience, no interchange of ideas, no hand on approach, and all based on that the teacher is the gods that knows it all and the student is quiet and memorize the lesson to later spit it out on a test.

Nature under stress was based on giving the opportunity to students to learn from an experience,  and provide these students with a platform -where we could talk about what we saw, what we learned on our own by poking around in nature-. Later on we called that inquiry and hands on, but in 1979 I called it “Learn on your own”.

“Nature Under Stress” was simple. My students, most of them from the inner city, came on a bus to my park. Their councilors were already tired from the heat and the noise on the bus and with no intention of doing anything for the kids. The kids were all woundup and ready to explode after spending one hour sitting on a bus. My park was a shore park in the Long Island Sound with more than enough nature to keep anyone busy. I would take them out of the bus, and then I told them to “follow me”. At that moment I started to run as fast as I could in the direction of the salt marsh and wilderness and the kids would follow, not their councilors. Ten minutes later, the kids were in my game, far from civilization, surrounded by nature, with no chance of turning back and at my mercy. I took them out of their environment and put them on mine.

After jumping over mosquito ditches, walking knee deep on mud, sweaty and out of breath, I asked them to hold hand and then I entered in the shallow waters in the back marsh. Slowly they discovered nature; they saw crabs, fish, big and small, worms, and shrimp and became interested in what they were seeing. Their inner-city inhibitions were gone and their most intimate human nature was turned on,  watching “nature under stress”.

Throughout the day and after they spent hours on a discovery trip of their own, they opened their eyes to realizing that they were learning from an experience and that I was nothing more than a guide. There were so many questions to ask, there was so much to see and admire. They were not frightened anymore, they had learned that there was nothing to be afraid off but their own unfounded ghosts fed by lack of understanding and ignorance. They were also stuck with me not knowing how to get away.

There is a difference between something you learn by reading or by a teacher that tells you and something you learn by having an experience. A sentence, when you think about it is nothing but a phrase made out of words that have a meaning, a story, content but no substance. An experience is part of your life, something you have had a physical interaction with and that has provided you with part of the world around you, a part that you own. Real inquire only start here.

Later in life I started other programs based on the same idea. SEARCH, State of the Sound, Summer SEARCH, Project Periphyton and other programs were based on providing high school students the opportunity to interact with nature by doing research or monitoring and at the same time learn from the results. How many times did I ask the teachers to skip the lectures before the trip? Do not teach them until they ask for it! Let’s wait until they have a question so that they really absorb the lesson.

Students do not need to know that they are learning, because in reality we are all learning every day and at every moment. The key is to separate the students from their everyday life and surround them by the experience. You and the student, no one else, so that the experience becomes special, mystical, just like a fantasy, a fairy tale. Learning is beautiful. Sit with the student, give them a dissolved oxygen kit and show them how it works and then tell them to discover how dissolved oxygen makes a difference in the life of so many aquatic organisms in this stream. What are the results next to the rocks? How about at the center of the stream? Go check it out! And at the end tell me the story. You can invite more than one student to play together. To think how they should do this. Do not give them the answer. This is their game, and they need to think how they should play it. Testing methods is part of the learning experience. Do the same by testing pH, Alkalinity or collecting macroinvetrerates or Diatoms.

This is the order of the best learning. Discover – inquiry – more discovery – list of questions – maybe more discovery – WEB searches – Story telling. No teaching, to textbooks, no lab book or report no school walls, no test. To make learning happen you need to take the students out of their world of their problems, their friends, and their iPhone and immerse them on an adventure. You are not just a teacher but a magic act, a guide.