Paying attention: how important is it for learning? How can education in the environment help?

“Attention is the holy grail…everything that you’re conscious of, everything you let in, everything you remember and you forget, depends on it.” says Professor David Strayer, a psychology prof at the University of Utah.  Strayer took four neuroscientist colleagues on a trip into the wilderness to talk about and feel the differences between the digitally-connected and -disconnected world. A central debate was about the value of uninterrupted time in nature as a way to rest and restore the information-overloaded brain. This debate is not new to environmental educators. Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods  has had a large influence on the movement to reconnect children and nature (like Evergreen in Toronto!). 

What are the elements that make up ecological literacy in the classroom? Through the year I will be on the lookout for answers to this beguiling question. This past week I observed a lesson on writing a Tanka poem.  What is the connection with the neuroscientists debate about nature’s ability to influence our brains?

The grade 6 students in Anne’s class had spent time the previous day in their school’s Nature Garden immersed in the plant world, with each student taking a picture of one tree or shrub. The picture was then pasted into their poetry books and became the focus for writing a Tanka poem (5 lines with 5-7-5-7-7 syllables). But first came the class co-creation of an example. Line 1 was a “Unicorn prancing.” When line 2 popped up as “Sasquatch dancing in the night,” the class was on the road to having fun with writing poetry. As the poem was completed and the hilarity subsided, the focus came back to the task, with the teacher having students remember the words they’d found to describe their experience in the Nature Garden’s grove of trees. The explosive imaginative power of the Sasquatch never disappeared, but it was gradually displaced by the photograph in each person’s poetry journal. For a while the room grew very quiet, with some students silently tapping out the rhythm of each trial line to see if it met the requirement of the form.

What are the ingredients of this lesson? First, it exists in the context of the child’s other personal experiences in nature and with words. Its rich classroom context is not only other lessons in language, writing, poetry, but likely some science classes as well—all somehow nestled within earlier experiences outdoors.  Another valuable addition was the students’ tapping, anchoring their learning in their own bodies. Who knows how much that one small integrated act can help the developing brain pay better attention?

And this brings me back to “attention” as the holy grail of learning, and to wander sideways to the debate about the role of nature vs technology in aiding or distracting the attention of the developing brain that was being debated by those five neuroscientists in the wilderness.

For almost all the students I observed, their attention was grabbed by the well-laid out task, and by their own photo. Would the quality of attention have been as high if instead they were gazing at their own photo of, let’s say, the CN Tower? Is it possible to argue, credibly, that the memory of that short time observing “their” chosen tree in their own school ground, and recollecting that quiet moment through the photo, helped these students’ brains to focus? And hence to better “hold on” to that complex piece of learning (as well as completing the task)?

Elements of ecological literacy in the classroom—a rich design!

Every classroom lesson has a “history” for the child and for the teacher. The pursuit of ecological literacy is one strand in the classroom web of teaching and learning. The teacher’s job is in part to make that history as richly woven with ideas and accompanying feelings as she can, to encourage ongoing connections that happen both consciously and unconsciously. This one has layers in abundance—the recent outdoor experience, the classroom mini-lesson on the form and function of the Tanka poem and the high-spirited fun with the Sasquatch model poem, the tree photograph as a prompt to memory, and the photo itself—a piece of ‘nature’ chosen by the child.

Tanka poemThis poetry lesson was superb in its interweaving of the students’ contact with the natural world and the classroom experience that artlessly blended teacher-direction and student-focussed learning. The Sasquatch is an important reminder that we have to honour the other interests that our students have, that engagement and enthusiasm are preconditions for paying attention. Just like adults, students’ strong engagement is likely related to their having some choice in what they learn and even, sometimes, how a lesson proceeds.  Often, the richer the lesson in both content and pedagogical style, the richer the learning.

This is a much longer discussion, isn’t it? I haven’t even touched on the role of the school’s culture, influenced by the nature that is “right there,” and seen as part of the whole learning environment. Or the teacher’s long-standing practice of including the environment as part of students’ discovery of the world.

“Education in, about, and for the environment”

Education in, about, and for the environment is our short form for talking about different entry points into building ecological literacy. Writing a Tanka tree poem is clearly the fruit of education that has happened in the environment, but has blossomed into so much more within this classroom. Such a lesson may become a stepping stone to a science lesson about the environment—habitats in grade 4, diversity in grade 6, ecosystems in grade 7, and beyond! Or it might some day lead to an exploration and campaign—locally, education for looking after school ground trees by better mulching and watering, or on a bigger scale, for investigating how to become a protector of Ontario’s boreal forest.
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What the five neuroscientists on the Utah wilderness trip agreed on is that becoming disconnected from the digital world did change their experience—and functioning—of their own minds. It seems possible that something similar can happen with small doses of nature, even right on the school grounds, or in a nearby park, or at an Outdoor Education Centre. Like a tonic, we need that contact with nature regularly. It is the accumulation of such experiences that can settle the mind and lead to paying better attention.

Thank you to Anne and her students for sharing their Nature Garden Tanka Poems
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Additional resources: Instructional Leaders Pam Miller and Annelies Groen highly recommend two books for teaching and learning outdoors,  Outdoor Inquiries by Patricia McGlashan, Kristen Gasser, and Peter Dow and Herbert W. Broda’s Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning.

– ED