“Timeless Learning” on the Biodiversity and Terroir of Learning

When learning is allowed to be project, problem, and passion driven, then children learn because of their terroir, not disengage in spite of it. When we recognize biodiversity in our schools as healthy, then we increase the likelihood that our ecosystems will thrive.

Source: Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools

The right to learn differently should be a universal human right that’s not mediated by a diagnosis.” This book gets that. This is equity literate contemporary progressive education compatible with neurodiversity and the social model of disability. The book describes the already implemented policy and culture at the authors’ school district in Virginia, USA. Very cool.

Selections from “Timeless Learning” on biodiversity and terroir:

To be contributors to educating children to live in a world that is increasingly challenging to negotiate, schools must be ​conceptualized as ecological communities, spaces for learning with the potential to embody all of the concepts of the ecosystem – interactivity, biodiversity, connections, adaptability, succession, and balance. These concepts have become a lens through which we consider and understand the schools we observe and what makes learning thrive in some spaces and not others.

The problem is that standardization becomes the antithesis of creativity in schools. There’s no “follow the questions” inquiry or problem‐ and project‐driven assessments in standardized classrooms. Covering the standardized curricula means rejecting the biodiversity of communities that have the potential to generate new ways of thinking based on their own unique environments. Those statistical norms that drive much of standardized practice seem to be built for mythical school communities, model neighborhood schools where we expect students to succeed in the same way. Using “teacher‐proof” assessments and programs makes a lot of sense if the goal is one‐size‐fits all schooling. The programmed learning of today—moving through curricula paced to finish on time for testing and using filtered pedagogies designed to maximize standardized testing results—is just twentieth‐century efficiency and effectiveness, carrot and stick, management by ​objective, modernized through contemporary technologies and infused with algorithmic monitoring systems.

But in our work, we have learned that no average human exists, no median community does either. And we have learned that human learning is messy and complex, and that childhood, especially, is very messy, and very complex. Authentic opportunities for learners to create, design, build, engineer, and compose cannot truly coexist within the standardization model. That’s why tinkering around the edges, adding a “genius hour” to an otherwise unchanged school day, accomplishes nothing except to highlight all that’s wrong with our schools for this century.

A school cannot change without system change. Nothing can.

It is reckless to suppose that biodiversity can be diminished indefinitely without threatening humanity itself.

– E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation (n.d.)

It doesn’t take long to figure out when observing the natural world that biodiversity creates pathways for organisms to not just survive, but also to thrive within ecosystems. Unlike the cornfields of Michigan where row after row of hybrid plants are identical to every other one, nature seems to appreciate differences among species. It’s a way of foolproofing longevity that stretches back generations across millennia, and the variety within and among species tends to support an entire ecosystem to sustain balance and thrive. In the scientific world, geneticists worry about our dependence upon crops that have been standardized genetically. The hybrid tomatoes keep longer in the grocery store, but the scientists know they are subject to potential blights that can wipe out the entire crop in a short period of time. It’s happened before – with corn, potatoes, and citrus crops. It’s why plant geneticists recommend never becoming reliant upon a single hybrid. It’s why ecologists know that biodiversity matters in an ecosystem. It’s the opposite of what we are doing inside the human ecology of our schools.​

We need variety and biodiversity in schools, too. The walls of schools are a contrived barrier that keeps kids and teachers apart within the system. The walls of schools keep new practices, tools, and strategies out and traditions in. When we think about creating a biodiversity of learning, we turn to new ways of thinking about how systems change. That doesn’t happen without removing barriers that wall off the potential for change. We have found that breaking walls is best interpreted through the ecological lens as defined by the work of Yong Zhao and Ken Frank, who framed the problem of introduction of a new species in Lake Michigan as having similarity to introducing a new practice, tool, or strategy into a school (ETEC 511 n.d.).

We also believe in the concept of terroir, used so beautifully as a metaphor by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze in Walk Out Walk On – that the soil and climate of two different continents produce variations in crops even when the seeds planted are the same (Wheatley and Frieze 2011). Schools are like that, too. Two schools may be situated in different terroir even though children work and play similarly no matter where we visit. However, those children grow up in different cultural contexts that shape what they bring with them into school. Educators do the same. Because of that, each school represents a unique identity, one shaped locally, not by the federal government. While school communities certainly benefit from cross‐pollinating of ideas and resources, allowing them to localize their identity makes a lot of sense when it comes to figuring out what children need to thrive as learners.

Together the concepts of biodiversity and terroir combine to support the idea that schools in different localities need the freedom to be different. It doesn’t mean that neurology research shouldn’t drive educators’ understanding of how children learn and the pedagogies they need to use in response to that understanding. It doesn’t mean a curricula free‐for‐all instead of a ​coherent focus developed locally. It doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be any sense of standards at all for what’s important to learn in and across disciplines. It does mean that broad parameters should allow children who need to learn about simple machines to do far more than simply memorize them for a test. It means that if a child or class is obsessed with simple machines, they don’t need to stop immediately to begin studying phases of the moon. When learning is allowed to be project, problem, and passion driven, then children learn because of their terroir, not disengage in spite of it. When we recognize biodiversity in our schools as healthy, then we increase the likelihood that our ecosystems will thrive.

Four Actions to Increase Learning Biodiversity in Your School Community

  1. “We need more than a genius hour once a week to build learning agency” (Genius Hour n.d.). Analyze how covering content standards for a test at the expense of creating a deep context through exploration of integrated content and experience impacts students in your class, school, district. Write this down and share your perspectives with colleagues. What can you together do to begin to tackle the problem of coverage at the expense of learning?
  2. Add a small makerspace in your room or school. It can be anywhere and it doesn’t need to have a lot of expensive technology to get it started. Our librarians say that glue sticks, cardboard, and duct tape are a great start to building a makerspace. Ask students “What do you want to make?” Watch them and see what happens.
  3. When you use project‐oriented learning, break the parameter rules by reducing your own constraints on what students can do. Give choices. Get kids to ask questions about what they want to learn. Teach kids the McCrorie ISearch approach and let them construct projects in first person versus third person (Zorfass and Copel 1995). Accept different media submissions from videos to websites, not just a poster or a written report.
  4. Unschool your projects. Abandon an “everyone does the same project” approach. Make more white spaces in your day to move beyond the standards. Begin by asking learners what they are interested in. Grab inspiration from their responses and find connections from their interests to questions they might pursue. Look for curricular intersections as you support them to collaborate with each other in pursuit of learning that’s intrinsically interesting to them. If you are tethered to standards, creates spaces every day for students to explore outside of that box using technology including ​devices, books, maker and art supplies, and experts in and out of class. Teach your children with their intrinsic drive in mind. Get them talking with each other. Record their questions. Make opportunities to share their work with their parents, the principal, and others in class. Invite parents into the community for learning exhibitions that represent biodiversity.

Source: Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools (Kindle Locations 761-766, 1500-1513, 4999-5009, 5066-5086, 5435-5453). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

More selections from the book are available on my commonplace book.

3 thoughts on ““Timeless Learning” on the Biodiversity and Terroir of Learning

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