This morning’s New York Times carried an excellent op-ed by Aaron Hirsh about the need to connect education to real world experiences. Hirsh, chairman of the Vermilion Sea Institute and the author of “Telling Our Way to the Sea: a Voyage of Discovery in the Sea of Cortez,” begins with a story.
Hirsh and the students were floating on their backs in the sea, each with an ear under water.
“If you put your head underwater in the Sea of Cortez, you will hear a crackling sound,” he wrote. “In my summer field course for undergraduates, there were two students who noticed it before all the others. One was a young man who was blind; the other was a precocious musician…The blind student described the sound as ‘footsteps on kindling.”
To the students’ surprise, Hirsh told them that the sound was made by pistol shrimp that, by shooting jets of water from their claws, create popping bubbles that stun their prey and help the shrimp communicate.
There’s a lot more to Hirsh’s pistol shrimp story — and it’s worth reading every word — but the point isn’t about shrimp; it’s about the students.
Higher education, he explains, is in a major transition: “Colleges are moving many courses into an online environment, doing away with traditional classrooms and labs.” The shift offers many advantages, including a wider reach and more a new source of tuition dollars. But several studies have shown that some online students are more likely to drop out than students in traditional classrooms (and, probably far more than students in schools that emphasize experiential learning — as in Hirsh’s floating classroom). The even larger risk, he argues, is that students will increasingly see higher education as a doorway to accreditation, a means to a job. Higher education shouldn’t only lead “to a richer bank balance, but to a richer existence.”
I’d argue, too, that a richer bank balance is ultimately linked to a nature-rich life.
Long ago, Robert Michael Pyle, the esteemed nature writer, warned us about the “extinction of experience.” In his book The Thunder Tree, he wrote that our disappearing intimacy with nearby nature “can be as significant as the total loss of rarities.” And, he added,
People who care conserve; people who don’t know don’t care. What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never seen a wren?”
The loss of connection with the rest of nature not only undermines our experience outside of our bodies, but also our inner lives, our personal resilience, and our ability to create.
Last week, at the Children & Nature Network’s annual Grassroots Gathering, Mary Roscoe, an especially thoughtful writer and advocate, offered this reminder: “Our movement is about reconnecting people to nature, but people are part of nature, so we are also about connecting people to people.” In any movement, she reminded us, leaders and activists can grow weary, and their effectiveness can wane. As we’ve witnessed every year since 2006, last week’s Gathering, which brought together movement leaders from around the country and overseas, restored us in ways that are difficult, perhaps impossible, to quantify. That human restoration occurs every year.
I’m a fan of meeting-by-Skype or Google Hangouts. They’re more energy efficient than air travel. New technologies help C&NN communicate with people around the world about the latest news and research on both nature-deficit disorder and the health and cognition benefits of nature experience.
Making that information available is essential, but it’s all just data unless good souls also come together and learn from each other, face-to-face.
In an era when too many school boards are overloading schools with computers, iPads, even video games, Hirsh doesn’t reject communications technology. Rather, he urges education to adopt another approach, the hybrid online-field course. He explains: “In the online environment, students read text, watch lectures and solve problems. They then meet their professor in the appropriate field setting — a museum; a nature reserve; a certain city neighborhood — and actively apply their newly developed disciplinary perspective….This approach might give us the best of both worlds.”
Indeed, that approach would nurture what I’ve called, in The Nature Principle, the “hybrid mind” which maximizes the benefits of technology and ignites the human senses in the natural world.
From preschool to grad school, developing hybrid minds should be one of the central goals of education.
In fact, every legislator, school board member, college dean, parent and student should internalize a new mantra for education: For every dollar spent on the virtual, another dollar must be spent on the real — especially on learning environments immersed in the rest of nature, like Hirsh’s sea of sound and wonder.
Richard Louv is chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network. He is the author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” and “The Nature Principle: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age.” Photo: R.L.
Resources and other reading:
How Nature Can Nurture the Hybrid Mind — an excerpt from “The Nature Principle“ in Outside Magazine.
Thoughts Following the First White House Summit on Environmental Education: It’s Time to Redefine Green Jobs