Monday, May 19, 2008

Nature in Education and general Education ideas

I was at a camp near Woodford (where they hold an annual festival of music, arts etc), in the sunshine coast hinterland a few weeks ago.
Nicely setup, with minimal facilities on a large property with ridgelines and bush. Instructors stayed in our own tents and pupils stayed in tents provided by the company. The toilet block was very ecological - low water use by using canvas buckets hung above you in the showers, providing 3 minutes of continuous flow (or more if interrupted) of water. They were filled up from plastic buckets, filled with hot water from a boiler connected to a wood stove, lit up in the evening only.

The food we were served was catered, and excellent. Under a large awning, where students sat on logs. At night there was a large campfire, which was excellent (rare these days of puritanical NAt. Parks regulations, and centers with dorm. accommodation).
Also the stars were easily visible. One of the instructors - jarad, gave talks on the stars, and I learnt some new facts - eg that Alpha Centauri is one of the stars in the "pointers" for the Southern Cross. And that it is the closest star - 4 light yrs away.
I looked it up on wikipedia, and it is also reckoned via computer modelling to have a strong chance of "livable" planets in it's vicinity. Maybe humans will travel to it, maybe in the next century, via some new warp speed travel method ?

The activities were as standard - high ropes, low ropes, Team inititiatives, but all set in bushland, which was nice, plus there was raft-building on a small dam, and a bushwalk.

I picked up a very interesting book the owner had:

The author identified a phenomenon we all knew existed but couldn't quite articulate: nature-deficit disorder. Since its initial publication, his book Last Child in the Woods has created a national conversation about the disconnection between children and nature.
In this influential work about the staggering divide between children and the outdoors, child advocacy expert Richard Louv directly links the lack of nature in the lives of today's wired generation—he calls it nature-deficit—to some of the most disturbing childhood trends, such as the rises in obesity, attention disorders, and depression.

This brings to mind John Marsden’s new school in Victoria: candlebark, which has a huge area for kids to play in, where young children use power tools, take care of animals and plant vegetables:

In October 2006 an article in the Times Educational Supplement said "Many in Britain believe that childhood is in danger of being poisoned by a cocktail of junk food, electronic entertainment and high-pressure education..."

It reminded me of reading “Swallows and Amazons” – about kids playing with small sailing boats around the lake district (where I worked for a year). I was lucky enough to grow up on a houseboat, and see sunrises, ducks, swans, floods, change of seasons… and go on outdoor holidays every year in the caravan with my parents.

When I think of the culture of drugs, sex and violence that too many kids 11 yrs old onwards face these days, particularly in the UK and too much of Australia, I am quite saddened.
Looking at “swallows and amazons”, such hardened-before-their-time kids would be tempted to scoff, initially. But they might think of what it was too have been able to have carefree friendships, to play around in the wild unsupervised… and long for it.

The author goes into this subject, reporting that “stranger-danger” is massively overestimated, and leads to kids being kept away from nature a lot of the time. Certainly, danger to kids has gone up in the last few decades, but statistically not as much as one might think. [ I certainly believe that tougher laws (death penalty for murder ?) – would curtail this in a very short time. the UK is a prime example of the lost insouciance of a whole generation, so violent and nasty the urban env. Has become for adults and kids alike (see the article in my political blog on how a guy from Kent, UK moved to New Jersey , USA , citing it as more family-friendly). ]

Finland's Educational system - one of the world's best:

He also cites the Finnish education system, as producing the highest literacy and numeracy rates in the world …. With one of the lowest money expenditures per student in the western world. Despite this kind of evidence, govmts (such as the Rudd one in aus) keep on upping funding to schools, expecting that this will improve quality. US teachers now have one of the highest salaries in the US professional world, and quality has not improved….

  • Educational spending is a very modest US$5,000 per student per year.
  • Class sizes often approach 30 (high).
  • So long as schools stick to the core national curriculum, which lays out goals and subject areas, they are free to teach the way they want. They can choose their textbooks or ditch them altogether, teach indoors or outdoors, cluster children in small or large groups

Finland topped a respected international survey last year, coming in first in literacy and placing in the top five in math and science. Ever since, educators from all over the world have thronged to this self-restrained country to deconstruct its school system -- ''educational pilgrims,'' the locals call them -- and, with luck, take home a sliver of wisdom.
''We are a little bit embarrassed about our success,'' said Simo Juva, a special government adviser to the Ministry of Education, summing up the typical reaction in Finland, where boasting over accomplishments does not come easily. Perhaps next year, he said, wishfully, Finland will place second or third.

NY Times article:

One thing that would improve quality would be pay rates based on performance… or better still, privatising education completely and issuing school vouchers which could be used by parents. The voucher system has actually been tried in some US states, with good results. Changing teachers from bureaucrats to motivated educators is quite a task though, with beaucoup resistance from those sitting comfortably on mediocre performances, backed by the massive Teacher Unions that exist in most parts of the world.
Thank God Woolworths, Dell computers and my Mobile phone company aren’t run by union workers…. It’s a recipe for sloth, overstaffing and “it’s not my problem, and I don’t care anyway how long you’ve been waiting”.
I think some teachers should be doing another job, but that quite a few (particularly the young ones not yet shackled to the system) would be surprised at the joy of teaching in a free and competitive environment, where they can try out new methods unshackled by education authorities, and be recognised financially if their methods succeed.

Anyway, back to Nature – schools in Finland also have a very strong outdoor education component… Which the author believes is one reason for their successes.

There’s certainly a lot of room for improvement in secondary ed. I reckon that at least 60 % of the time I spent at at school between 11 and 17 was a waste of time – it taught me nothing of value, or that I used in a practical way subsequently….

Schools shouldn't exist to give teachers jobs... they should exist to impart things that will help students succeed, manage life, be aware of their innate skills, and be able to work use them at work : literacy, numeracy, scientific knowledge, critical thinking, opening up new vistas and awaken the imagination (eg by reading the classics of literature), self-confidence via practical outdoor activities, and a knowledge of modern history (WWII, Communism etc) , of modern civilization and its fragility. Very few of these objectives are reached in schools today...

And an incredible amount of left-wing brainwashing /political content enters the curriculum un some schools these days. Not to mention post-modern nihilism which says that there is no such thing as Quality and thus states that Madonna and Bach are equivalent (I like Madonna's music, but I'm not quite so thick or University brainwashed as to deny the timelesss beauty, beautiful complexity and transcendent in-spired beauty in Bach's music). mmm... inspire comes from In-spirited: having the spirit in one.., ie being in contact with the transcendent order. Let's do a test and play Madonna and Bach to an Amazon tribesman or an Afghan kid who has never or hardly heard western music and see which one makes him wistful and entranced....

My comment to teachers: if you want to change the world: vote or join a political party (or if you have the guts, got to Irak and fight on the side of freedom, choice and democracy; or totalitarianism and nihilism, depending on which side you support), and leave your kids alone. They will have plenty of time to make up their own minds re politics when they have left high school and have experience in the real world.

Some ideas: Teaching geography by actually having kids orienteering in the bush, rather than memorising map symbols in a classroom. Would give real knowledge of what a map is, plus real practical knowledge, plus self-confidence and endurance.

Teaching English lit by having kids watch live plays by Shakespeare, or the more modern comical playrights. Then discussing, reading passages, having essays written etc.

Teaching basic anatomy, medecine and nutrition…. I didn’t even know where my small intestine was until last year…


Cecilia said...

Couldn't agree with you more, Jules, about Nature Deficit Disorder in industrialised societies. Gardening, for example, should almost be a mandatory course in schools, for students of all ages. Nurturing living things, watching them grow, eating food you have grown yourself, marvelling at the colours and perfumes of flowers, exercising by wielding a spade... it's all so therapeutic!
And I too loved "Swallows & Amazons".

Jules said...

Thanks for the comment, Celia.
As I said, I was fortunate regarding contact with nature.
When I was 13 or so, I KNEW that a walk in the Pyrenees and a sunset were more satisfying than anything I could buy.

However I have never gardened, And I may try it if I get a chance, after your description.