YARN - From the (shorter) Oxford English Dictionary:

Spun fibre of cotton, silk, wool, or flax.... fibre prepared for use in weaving, knitting...a fisherman's net...any of the strands of which a rope is composed...a (usually long or rambling) story or tale, especially an implausible, fanciful, or incredible one.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Educational Influences, Educational Choices

Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons. It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.

Walt WhitmanSong of the Open Road

Discussion and decisions about school are both simple and confusingly complicated. It makes sense that our present thoughts and actions are reactions to our own past experiences and can be influenced by what sort of schooling options our friends and family have chosen for their children.  While trying to clarify thoughts about how much we base our decisions on wanting to recreate for our children what we valued in our own childhoods, or trying to give them what we wished we had experienced as children the discussion can easily move into politics and economics.

Wanting what is best for our children is in part about wanting to spare them some of life's harsh realities, or at least postpone them. But it can also be about feeling the need to help them confront life's pressures by giving them a head-start in life.  Next thing you know the discussion is about supporting our community, elitism, anti-elitism and class.  Complicated!

Most of my school life was spent in pretty run-of-the-mill middle class suburban institutions. I have been fortunate to have had a few rich and transformative learning experiences, or experiences in rich and transformative environments.  These have shaped my life and my understanding of what education can be. Each raised the bar a bit higher.

I attended an elementary school that was modern in the late 60s and early 70s - it was an open concept school and bright and alive, freeing. My switch in grade 5 to an old school with individual classes and long institutional corridors was harsh; the teachers felt as old as the building and the approach to learning was as oppressive as the architecture. I had no vocabulary for it at the time.

My most formative education occurred outdoors, where our motivation to learn was real and intrinsic.  We learned together in what educators might now call a community of practice, but it was summer camp. It was it's own little world and the generations were 4 or 5 years between campers and counsellors so the history of the place developed rapidly and the stories have been told and retold on canoe trips ever since.  

Since that time, after each of my too-many-to-count moves, this book On The Loose has been given a place of honour on my book shelves.  It's status speaks to the book itself, but also to the time of my life when it validated the experinces I was having - learning independence, competence, interdependence, doing things that had real consequences, feeling the weight and the thrill of responsibility. " Crazy kids on the loose; but on the loose in the wilderness. That mades all the difference."

My professional education was a complete immersion in the group experience. The assessment strategies were primarily formative, focused on direct feedback, group work, honest self-assesment and skill development.  The evaluation scheme was satisfactory/unsatisfactory.  The freedom that came from this is hard to describe.  It made me realize how difficult it had been to write all those essays to try and please the marker and how I cowered in the face of competition.  I experienced how the traditional approach to marking and exams had hindered my learning, how my focus had been on passing and not on learning. 

There was an anxiety with this new way of learning, a fear of not knowing enough, a fear that other students elsewhere were learning more and that we would all be publically humiliated when we entered work life.  But mostly we learned because we wanted to and because we felt the responsibility for our own educations - we were actually able to seize the experience as a great opportunity to learn from one another and from the faculty who dedicated such a large part of themselves to the school and our learning. Unfortunately it was indoors.

Having had good experiences in education I am looking for these elements for my children - nature, intrinsic motivation rather than external evaluation, a grounding in some sort of community and real learning situations with real consequences.

I see many people wanting to make sure their children have the skills to get ahead, to stay with the pack and eventually to be able to excel. This is a time of enrichment and remediation outside the school, of families devoted to an exacting schedule of extracurricular activities.  I, too want life to be as rich and as pleasant as possible for my children. I want to give them all the help I can.   The educational enrichment I seek for my children can be found outdoors.

From time outdoors will come:
  • a sense of peace and connection with the earth and ones classmates
  • the experience of adventure and the development of competence
  • independence and interdependence

"It feels good to say "I know the Sierra" or "I know Point Reyes". But of course you don't - what you know better is yourself, and Point Reyes and the Sierra have helped." On the Loose

So, what's happening outside in education?  Next post will be: Forest Schools and Outdoor Classrooms!

Walt Whitman image from: 

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