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MSPnet Blog: “Learning on the land in the city or out of it”

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posted May 1, 2018 – by Brian Drayton

Nature-study, then, is not science. It is not knowledge.  It is not facts  It is spirit.  It is an attitude of mind.  It concerns itself with the child’s outlook on the world.   (Liberty Hyde Bailey, The nature study idea. pg 6)

In the early years of the 20th century, a widespread “Nature-study movement” arose, from several sources.  Its advocates included  both teachers and scientists (for example, the great botanist LH Bailey);  its most famous text is still available, the Handbook of Nature Study, by Anna Comstock, and I have referred to it often over the years — even for work in subjects not embraced within Nature-study — precisely because of the outlook — the pedagogical outlook, which see such importance in the outlook of the child. 

It has been suggested that Nature-study arose in reaction (conscious or not) to the increasing urbanization of American life — though in the early 1900s, fewer Americans were urban  — about 35% — than now (according to the Bureau of the Census, 63% of the US population in 2016 lived in cities on 3.5% of the land area).   But sensitive observers 100 years ago were seeing the trend, which included more rapid transport, more mobility (and therefore less stability and a change in place-identity), more ethnic diversity with immigration — there was a general sense of big changes under way, which was costly in terms of spirit and morale.  Already by 1877, Gerard Manley Hopkins could write

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wear’s man’s smudge, and shares man’s smell:  the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

In the early 1900s, John Dewey was advocating an approach to education that embraced children’s engagement with ideas and skills in authentic contexts that had meaning for them, not as preparation for some future envisioned by adults.  Children’s knowledge and skills were stretched and enriched by purposeful, context-rich inquiry, and Dewey recommended that such inquiry be situated in meaningful life activities, such as building, or the growing of food.  The Nature-Study advocates were well aware of this philosophical approach and argued that the whole child (the whole person) was educated by Nature-study, which responded to something deep and fundamental in the growing, learning human. (See here for a nice overview of the history and current relevance of the movement).  Bailey again:

Nature-study will endure because it is natural and of universal application.  Methods will change and will fall into disrepute; its name will be dropped from courses of study; here and there it will be incased in the school master’s “method” and its life will be smothered;  now and then it will be over-exploited; with some persons it will be a fad;  but the spirit will live. (pg. 6)

So the important movement recently stimulated by Richard Louv (The last child in the woods), who diagnosed “Nature deficit disorder” as a characteristic malady of our times, has deep roots.  With all the passage of time, new questions have been asked and some answers found, about the benefits of getting “more green” into children’s (and other humans’) daily lives.  E.O Wilson “thickened” the story with his “biophilia hypothesis.”    People are inquiring into the existence and mechanisms of “nature” for well-being on many levels — health, stress, cognition in young children as well as aging children, and more (the links provide links, and this is far from an exhaustive survey!  For more, just go to Science Daily and search for e.g. “cognitive benefits of nature.” )

The movement in its current form, as in the past, is a response to social developments that its advocates (count me in!) see as deeply and systemically harmful.  It’s not only things such as the intensification of urbanization, with the accompanying intensification of resource exploitation and waste production.  There are also the many drawbacks to the last several decades of public education policy, often seen as kicking off with A Nation At Risk (whose anniversary is attracting some comment in the blogosphere, as here with links).

I recommend two interesting stories on aspects of this current surge.

First, Valerie Strauss’s Answer Sheet blog has a story about the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, which has been included as a “school of opportunity,” a program that seeks out encouraging progressive models of school innovation;  Strauss often features stories about such schools in her blog.  Strauss writes,

The Schools of Opportunity project started in 2014 as a pilot in New York and Colorado, and went national in 2015-16. Several dozen schools have been honored in the program, which assesses a range of factors, including how well the adults in a school building  provide health and psychological support for students as well as judicious and fair discipline policies, and broad and enriched curriculum.

Kevin Welner and Linda Ann Molner Kelley,  guest bloggers, write

CHSAS is a public school operating on 72 acres of Chicago’s last working farm, and it offers its entire diverse student body a first-class college-preparatory curriculum that integrates learning with a solid career-technical education.

Students at CHSAS choose between six agricultural pathways grounded in rigorous learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). These include animal science, food science, agricultural mechanics, horticulture/landscape design, agricultural education and agricultural finance. Well-resourced laboratories and facilities mean students have access to real-world tools and practical applications of their studies.

The whole post is good reading.  You can find out more at the school’s  website.

I should mention that this Chicago project presented a video in the STEM for All 2017 video showcase (you can see it here) which won a “public choice” award and engendered a lively discussion during the event (archived on the conference site).  Allow me to plug this year’s STEM for All Video Showcase, coming up May 14th-21st.  Find out more here

The other story I wanted to recommend to you is this article in The Atlantic, on “the perks of a play-in-the-mud educational philosophy.”  (h/t to Hackeducation again).   The author starts off with one of those simple, “Emperor has no clothes” questions:

Why is it odd for 4-year-olds to spend the bulk of their time outside? When did America decide that preschool should be boring routines performed within classroom walls?

This sets the stage for an exploration of the benefits and critiques of an educational approach that —true to the Nature-study vision that LH Bailey predicted was indestructible — stands in marked contrast to current favored trends in early childhood education:

There [at the school Conor Williams visited], every day, dozens of children ages 3 to 5 come to have adventures on Irvine’s more than 200 acres of woodlands, wetlands, and meadows. These muddy explorers stand out at a moment when many American pre-K programs have become more and more similar to K–12 education: row after row of tiny kids, sitting at desks, drilling letter identification and counting.

Sounds good to me.  We spend so much time, within the confines of school walls and progressions and tests, seeking to find ways to support “authentic learning” in “authentic contexts,” when there is, after all, a world out there, which is itself our context. Curious.

NOTE:  Opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.