Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Environmental Awareness. From Robert Fried's book 'The Game of School' ( quoting Rachel Carson)

Based on Chapter Three of Robert Fried’s book ‘The Game of School’

There seems to be a worry about the language deficiency that many young enter school with – the technocratic solution is to  test students and then assist students achieve accordingly – this often involves imposing phonic lessons on underachieving children. If are interested in  where we might be taken by John Hattie visit this link.

In contrast there have always been educators that the real solution is to ensure students have experiences from which language facility develops - 'before the word the experience'A New Zealand educator Sylvia Ashton Warner's work with young Maori children in the 1950s comes to mind  with her ‘key vocabulary’  ( involving reading and writing) arising out of the personal experiences of her students. At the same time Elwyn Richardson developed his students writing (and reading) from their ‘felt experiences’
Elwyn Richardson
– encouraging scribing for children who had not mastered writing. Such approaches were integrated into junior classes under language experiences programmes.

Unfortunately the emphasis on reading over the years has replaced the importance of experience.With this in mind chapter three of Robert Fried’s book (The Game of School) reinforces the importance of experience and in this chapter he calls on the writing of early environmentalist the late Rachel Carson.

Fried writes that there is a connection between the sorry plight of education and the failure to ignore the importance of passionate learning- that education actually undermines this evolutionary drive to learn through experience.

‘Exploring nature with your child is largely a matter of becoming receptive to what lies around you.
Rachel Carson
It is learning to use your eyes, ears, nostrils and finger tips, opening up the disused channels of sensory impression.’
– Rachel Carson.

In school, Fried sees ‘kids hooked by an intense curiosity, drawn by an enhanced sensory awareness of the natural world around them, driven by the importance of acting as explorers and scientists motivated by an  irrepressible urge to share what they have discovered.’

It is this innate drive that ought to be a feature of learning in school but all too often this is no longer the case. This is a shame because as Fried writes ‘we are inveterate talkers. We can no more keep information to ourselves that hold our breath for five minutes’. So with children. ‘They are the inheritors of our evolutionary gift of knowledge seeking and information sharing.’

Schools are not Fried writes ‘well suited to nurture the complex drives of children’s curiosity, sensory awareness, self-importance, and talkativeness….in the nineteenth century schools began to construct obstacles a to inhibit these hereditary instincts….. ( schools) where we sit them down, tell them a lot of stuff we think is important, try to control their restless curiosity, and test them to see how well they’ve listened to us.’

In 1956 Rachel Carson wrote a book for her four year old nephew who she often took for walks. She describes her informal pedagogy this way‘I have made no conscious effort to name plants or animals nor to explain to him, but have just expressed my own pleasure in what we see, calling his attention to this or that …. Later I have been amazed the way names stick…..(We) were just going through the woods in the spirit of two friends on an expedition of exciting discovery.

Later Carson writes about this ‘learning experience’ in her book for her nephew saying, ‘A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear eyed vision…is lost before we reach adulthood.’ If she had  the influence she would wanteach child in the world be (given) a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later years’.

Rachel was not referring to school per se as she was talking to parents encouraging them to encourage their children to experience the world, the sky, the stars, the wind, trees, the rain, the cityscape, seasonal changes through their senses. The lesson however is there for schools as well.

Robert Fried
Fried writes about the power that comes from a student sharing a personal experience – the power of sharing knowledge.  This is the power that Ashton –Warner, Elwyn Richardson and creative teachers were, or still are, well aware of. In such classroom classrooms are unified around discovery, sharing and shaping of ideas.  It is the power of children’s ideas, writes educator Deborah Meier that out pedagogy should centre on. She writes,’ all kids are indeed capable of generating powerful ideas; they can rise to the occasion. It turns out that ideas are not luxuries gained at the expense of the 3Rs, but instead enhance them…. All children should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analysers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on this most complex world.’

These are idea that reach back to the learning through problem solving and experience of John Dewey and echo   the vision of the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum that students should ‘be seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge’.

NZ Curriculum
To ensure all students are ‘seekers, users and creators’ has implications for teachers.  It is about empowering learners rather that making them comply with often irrelevant expectations. It is about engaging students in experiences they see the point of, about ensuring all the learning skills and processes are in place. It is about ‘reframing' literacy and numeracy in the service of student inquiry. It is about sharing power by negotiating the curriculum and activities and assessment with the students.

Unfortunately the ‘Game of School’ that Fried writes about is all too often an intellectually and sensory starved environment, ‘one where children’s curiosity, their capacity for sensory intelligence, their desire for heightened self-identities as discovers and synthesizers of knowledge have been blunted by adult preoccupations with the “delivery of instruction” and with the most narrow and constraining of assessment instruments, linked to sate curriculums curriculum frameworks and tests.’

‘This pseudo learning’, Fried writes, ‘mocks authentic learning’ and that’ once locked into such compliance makes the role of the teacher so much more difficult. After all, how can we teach the incurious? How can we awaken those whose senses have been dulled by the monotony of schoolwork? How can we reach those who feel decidedly un-powerful? How can we motivate the silenced youth amongst us to claim their share of the stage on which knowledge is brought to life to be shared?

In New Zealand we have the inspiring examples of Sylvia Ashton-Warner and Elwyn Richardson to call on, the writings of Dame Marie Clay, the all but forgotten language experience approaches of junior teachers, and the work of those creative teachers, past and present, who have had the courage to stand out against the pressure to conform. And of course there is the writing of educators such as Robert Fried.


Anonymous said...

Hi Bruce,
You might enjoy this for a read


Bruce said...

Thank you Jody.

I still have that keruru you gave me in pride of place. I will include that Jerome Bruner link in our next readings - I really like Bruner.
I hope you are enjoying your holiday.


Vicki Sephton said...

Thank you for reminding us of the power of the language experience approach to teaching. I see too many new entrants sitting at tables filling in work sheets, often from a bought "programme", usually around phonics. And then teachers worry that these students have "no oral language" or that the students are disengaged. How do we turn this tide? I think teachers are allowing their professional judgements to be undermined by so called "experts" who are often only interested in selling their product, which they promote as a panacea for
learning difficulties. We, as teachers, need to trust ourselves and get back to doing what we know works.

Bruce said...

Thank you so much Vicki for your insightful comment. Although I no longer visit many classrooms I agree with you that the real world of students and experiences of the real environment are all but neglected. Worksheets, phonics - might as well be in America. Guess you know of Gail Loane? She is worth listening to. In the past junior teachers had a real input into educational thought - developmental approaches, language experience, language arts. I am going to add a link to Marie Clay - if I can find it!