Touch the earth: The case for learning outside the box

Many, many years ago I developed a book while being a writer for the Individualized Science Instructional System (ISIS) which was entitled Touch the Earth.  It was a geology mini-course, part of a large collection of earth, life, and physical science mini-courses for middle and high school science.  Although the title was a play on words, I was trying to build a teaching unit that would bring the students in contact with the earth.  We were trying to not only design a strong cognitive oriented mini-course, but we also wanted to create affective experiences for the students that were entwined with the content.  Affective learning was to be just as important as cognitive learning.  Students were to be involved in activities in which they went outside and touched the earth: learning outside the box.

So, At the New Orleans NSTA conference, I read on the NSTA Conference Blog that Dr. Cheryl Charles gave the Brandwein Lecture, and the title of her presentation was: The Ecology of Hope: Building a Movement to Reconnect Children and Nature. Dr. Charles is President and CEO of The Children & Nature Network (C&NN).  She was also director of two of the most significant environmental education curriculum projects: Project Learning Tree and Project Wild.  Cheryl Charles is an educator that has been thinking outside the box for many years.

If you go The C&NN website you will see the case for teaching outside the box of the classroom.  In my own experience visiting and working with thousands of teachers, and visiting tens of classrooms in several countries, most teachers try and create an interesting learning environment within the classroom.  Many have brought living things into the classroom, added interesting displays, and bring lots of hands on materials for students to experience.

But there is nothing like the real thing—the real thing being the world outside the classroom. The Children and Nature Network is committed to reconnecting students to nature.

There is much to learn from the C&NN website.  I think one of the most important is the documentation of research and literature that provides the evidence that students should be involved in learning activities outside of the classroom.  In “research” link you will find three volumes of research which consist summaries and syntheses of studies and reports that we can use to support the implementation of environmental education activities. Some examples of these syntheses include:

  • Direct Experience in Nature Is Critical and Diminishing
  • School Achievement Is Enhanced When Curricula Are Environment Based
  • Schoolyard Habitat Projects Bring Natural Benefits to School and Students

What you will find here is research data to support teachers and parents who are working toward involving students in outdoor learning, moving their students out of the box.

Earthday as a metaphor for a paradigm of informal learning

Informal learning as a paradigm for classroom learning suggests that learning is holistic, and is steeped in inclusiveness and connectedness.  As I suggested yesterday, John Dewey wrote about the importance of an “experiential education” more than 100 years ago, and his words are just as relevant today, as they were then.

For many years I co-taught a university course on environmental science and geology.  However, the course was a three-week “field” trip from Atlanta, Georgia to the Colorado Rocky Mountains.  In addition to fossil hunting in Kansas along our bus route, visiting museums in Denver, exploring the rocks and strata in the Rockies, observing wildlife at 10,000 feet, we spent several days in the backcountry backpacking and camping.  We couldn’t have provided a more informal science experience than three weeks in the Rocky Mountains.  During those trips, incidental learning was in greater supply than formal lessons—in fact, I am hard put to recall any formal lessons during these explorations of the West.  But I do remember returning and teaching courses in the Fall semester at Georgia State University and longing for the informality of learning that ignited the students (all teachers) in their quest for understanding environmental science and geology.

A hummingbird in the Colorado Rockies
A hummingbird in the Colorado Rockies

Although a month away, I want to bring to the attention of readers of this blog that Earthday is an important aspect of informal learning.  Here is how.  Earthday is the result of a grassroots environmental movement that began in 1970, and has grown to become a world event.  Yes, there is the formality of way in which the media “covers” each Earthday, but at its heart is the paradigm of informal learning.  Individuals join with others to create a sense of community to try and solve serious environmental problems.  At first, the movement was to bring environmental awareness to the general population, and bring to the fore the need for government and industry to do something about the environment.  A lot has changed since the first Earthday.  Take a look at who heads the Office of Science & Technology.  His name is John Holdren. I wrote about his work last year on this blog. To get an idea of his thinking, here is one of his talks that you can view: Holdren’s Powerpoint presentation.

Earthday is an informal way that humans have invented to focus on the natural environment.  Some years ago, Fritjof Capra wrote a groundbreaking book entitled The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism.  In Capra’s view, the natural world is one of “infinite varieties and complexities; a multidimensional world which contains no straight lines or completely regular shapes, where things do not happen in sequences, but all together.”  Capra viewed the Eastern philosophy as a new paradigm, one that was holistic and integrated, rather than a dissociated collection of parts.  This paradigm is in essence what environmental educators have based their work on, and is indeed, what informal science learning fosters in the classroom.

Earthday: a metaphor for a paradigm of informal learning.  As the media begin to report on events related to Earthday, reflect on how these impinge on our understanding of learning in informal settings.

Dusk looking west in the Colorado Rockies
Dusk looking west in the Colorado Rockies