3. Areas of Educational Reformation: Guiding Passion, Connection, and Wonder
Katie Hargus, Climate Action Youth Ambassador. July 5, 2019. Victoria, BC.
Over the last couple weeks, I’ve discussed the challenges and importance of providing children with relevant and meaningful education, particularly considering the disconnection pervasive throughout many of our systems. As follows, an understanding has arisen amongst researchers and teachers alike over the last couple decades that traditional education systems require drastic reform. In his 1994 book Earth in Mind: On Education, the Environment, and the Human Prospect, David Orr identifies three “dangers” of these traditional, or ‘formal’ education systems. Although I disagree with the rhetoric of ‘danger’ as a productive framework for change, I do acknowledge the utility of addressing the drawbacks of traditional education systems in order to point at place for reformation to occur. For this reason, I will from now on substitute the word ‘danger’ for ‘areas of reformation’. These areas will be discussed in-depth in the following sections in order to outline the importance of children’s accessibility to education that empowers passion, connection, and wonder. The CAYAC program actively aims to prioritize these values through its place-based, experiential, and hands-on approaches to engaging young children with their natural systems.
Reformation 1: Exploring Passion
The first area of reformation of traditional education that Orr articulates is that it “encourages young people to find careers before they find a decent calling” (p.22). Indeed, these traditional education systems – from their very foundations – can be considered to serve the ultimate purpose of advancing children along the purportedly linear ‘career pathway’ – from primary school, to middle school, to secondary school, to college, to university, to career, and to eventual retirement. It is worth noting that the careers deemed most ‘valuable’ by these systems are those that are high-paying and ‘society-advancing’ (lawyers, doctors, engineers, or programmers); schools therefore operate largely on math and science-based frameworks of speed, success, and output, which can be easily evaluated by exams and test scores. The absolutely crucial components lost in the (faulty) emphasis on these values, however, are the truly remarkable areas of growth enabled by allowing children the time to be children – to explore, adventure, slow down, make mistakes, breathe, ask questions, muse, create, and get dirty. Without these spaces for exploration, children are never given the opportunity to ask themselves which roles they care about, rather than the ones they think they should pursue. They are therefore barred from understanding that as constantly learning and growing individual, their lives are capable of flexibility, multiplicity, and adaptability. Without this they are isolated from the trajectories of their own futures.
Reformation 2: Connection as Basis for Understanding
The second area of reformation of traditional education Orr discusses is that it will “imprint a disciplinary template onto impressionable minds, and with it the belief that the world is as disconnected as the divisions of the typical curriculum” (p. 23). When children are traditionally taught, their education is separated into subjects; literature, environmental science, history, economics, and math are neatly defined and differentiated by class bells and teachers - each responsible for a different area of focus. Little, if any, integration of subject-matter occurs, and children are implicitly taught that the knowable world is inherently composed of isolated chunks of material. I, along with countless others, argue that the knowable world cannot actually be compartmentalized as it is in schools, and should rather be regarded and taught as a dynamic, tangled, and contingent jumble of events, experiences, and explorations. Logistically speaking, this ‘entanglement education’ is challenging to plan and to execute, particularly considering that the vast majority of teachers have only ever learned how to teach material as linearly-defined blocks. However, without being taught how to comprehend the webs of connection that tie together their class material and their worlds, children are trained to be blind to the fantastically intricate, wonderful workings of the world and its spectacular systems.
This blindness is particularly relevant within studies of the natural world, including biology, botany, and ecology. These fields are predominantly taught as ‘universal practices’ under the umbrella of Western Science, which require students to separate themselves from their focuses of study – be it trees, food webs, or watersheds. Thus, students unknowingly subscribe to an understanding of natural systems as disconnected from both themselves and from other political, economic, ecological, and social systems. It’s important to note that this disconnection is primarily due to Western scientific fields themselves functioning on foundations of isolation, objectivism, and rationalism, which have historically worked incredibly well at fragmenting the natural world into small, digestible components for human extraction, consumption, and understanding. These values are then replicated in traditional approaches to natural systems education, and students are barred from understanding the importance of synergy, complexity, and connection between themselves and all systems they are part of.
Reformation 3: Finding and Feeling a Sense of Wonder
The last area of reformation that Orr speaks to is perhaps the most profound, and builds on all ideas discussed in the sections above. This danger is that education will “damage the sense of wonder – the sheer joy in the created world – that is part of our original equipment at birth” (p. 23). Through heavy emphasis on career-building and the frameworks of disconnection that permeate traditional education systems, children's learning is reduced to memorization of facts; abstracted and irrelevant subject material; subscription to universal rules and laws; entrapment indoors with little activity; general lack of experientialism and hands-on approaches; and little forgiveness with mistake-making. Children are pushed forward on their ‘pathways to greatness’ without being granted the time to pause or wonder what greatness actually means for them.
As Rachel Carson so aptly posits, “it is not half so important to know as to feel” (A Sense of Wonder, 1984, p.45). With all the emphasis placed on knowing (facts, material, etc.) in traditional education systems, children are never taught how to feel. This can only occur if children are allowed the space and time to bury their hands, minds and hearts deep in the muddle of fascinations that they long to ponder over. To do so, however, most children require some guidance. The role of a teacher should therefore be to coax and encourage these ponderings, and to propel children down their own pathways of exploration and discovery. In my (albeit limited) experience, this is the most profound task a teacher could possibly undertake for their student. If a child is able to develop and have the freedom to explore their own unique sense of wonder early on, they will be inclined towards a lifetime of curiosity, critical exploration, and adventure. In the process, they will be more likely to develop strong capacities for care, adaptability, and resilience within their surroundings and among their communities. Nurturing these abilities in children is what will enable our next generations to question, respond, and engage meaningfully with their local and global systems, co-creating healthier collective futures.
Next time, I’ll share some thoughts on classrooms and societal conceptions of nature as separate from society, to give background before I talk about the importance of nurturing wonder and curiosity in children, and how these can be actively fostered in park settings (including Marigold) Looking forward to hearing your comments!