The Language of Experience: The role of parents in learning

I would like to offer my most sincere apology in advance to the teachers of my children. My daughter begins her journey through public education this fall, as she will bravely cross the threshold into Kindergarten at our local French immersion school. I apology for my future pokiness, my second guessing, and my general over interest in her education. Perhaps this is a sick joke that karma is playing on me for all the frustration I have caused parents as a classroom teacher.

But what is my role as a parent when it comes to learning in schools? How do I best support my children and their teachers so that we are all facilitating learning throughout the entire day – not just within the confines of the walls of school? Over the past few weeks, as our family is gearing up for the inevitable foray into public education, I have given these questions a great deal of thought and have attempted to answer them based on my role as a teacher. What support do I need from parents? What has worked best when teachers, parents, and learners get together and form a partnership?

The answers, fundamentally, come down to the concept of experience. Often a nebulous term and one co-opted to serve a variety of needs and political outcomes, learning from experience is simply what we do all day. Through many experiences, we learn really important lessons, new skills, and new knowledge. Through other experiences, we learn some pretty negative stuff. When we write multiple choice tests, for example, many of us learn how to write multiple choice tests – perhaps not the intended outcome. Or sometimes we learn that cigarettes make us look pretty cool amongst peers.

So when we look at experience in schools and in learning, we want to focus on educative experiences – experiences that will lead to new experiences and intended and positive learning outcomes. As John Dewey suggested in the mid 20th century, “if an experience arouses curiosity, strengthens initiative,and sets up desires and purposes that are sufficiently intense to carry a person over dead places in the future, continuity works in a very different way.”  As such, educative experiences move us forward, transform us, and ultimately help cultivate and inspire curiosity.

Where do the parents fit into this understanding? From my experience as a humanities teacher of high school students, this often comes down to language in the form of authentic conversations between the learner and the parent, not necessarily as place-based education or phenomenology, but rather as language itself. Derrida suggested that experience is greatly dependant on language, even going so far as to suggest that “there is nothing outside of the text.” How this translates into the relationship between the learner and the parent can be powerful. Whether at the dinner table, in a vehicle, or in a waiting room, having parents and children discuss major, complex, and global issues in an authentic manner can greatly increase the understanding of the concept for the learner, and propel them to create new understandings.

For example, I often ask parents on Fridays to contemplate a key question or understanding we are discussing in the classroom with their kids. What I find is that the students come back with new perspectives that they have synthesized or more questions. Recently, I asked parents and learners to discuss various events and buildings that were related to the Winnipeg General Strike. Students were asked to create photo-mashups of buildings from 1919 and then take contemporary pictures and blend them together. They were then asked to explain the significance of that place. What seemed like a simple and possibly mundane acquiring activity, turned into, in one case, an amazing conversation between a student, a father, and a grandfather.

Here is a comment a father of a student sent me:

“He (the student) frequently asks for my opinion on topics you are covering, such as the Great Depression or the Winnipeg General Strike. Of the latter I knew very little so together we did some research online. Paul (the learner, whose name has been changed), found that the Volunteer Monument, now standing by the planetarium, stood in front of old City Hall and was there at the time of the Strike. In fact, it can be seen in the iconic photo of the mob trying to derail the street car…. The Volunteer Monument commemorated the Battle of Batoche….”

Paul subsequently came into class with not only more questions about the Strike, but about how people in Manitoba, the home of Louis Riel, valued the contributions of Canadian soldiers in the Métis resistance of 1885. This line of inquiry kept our learning community chugging for weeks – simply because of an authentic conversation beyond the classroom. He was also able to connect with his grandfather, who also became intrigued by the monument. Connecting with our elders and their wisdom seems to be a lost practice in the 21st century.

There is also brain research which suggests that language and experience are critical to transformation and positive learning. Dr. James Zull equates learning to the physical development of neurons and their connections to experience. As such, he suggests that learning has four stages:  “We have a Con­crete expe­ri­ence, we develop Reflec­tive Obser­va­tion and Con­nec­tions, we gen­er­ate Abstract hypoth­e­sis, and we then do Active test­ing of those hypothe­ses, and there­fore have a new Con­crete expe­ri­ence, and a new Learn­ing Cycle ensues.”

With this in mind, it is the conversation between parents and the learner that help students with the last two stages of the cycle. Learners, in a meaningful conversation with learned adults, can create their own interpretations of the world and then test these theories out. This is ultimately we have been making sense of the world for thousands of years – bouncing ideas off our elders. This, unto itself, is an experience that can move us and transform us. Educators need to provide parents and learners with the deep questions and the classroom experience that will launch this higher-order thinking at home. Educative experiences at school lead to educative experiences at home with the right language.

Upon reflection, this is how I can support my daughter’s learning and her teachers. I can facilitate and nurture the curiosity that will hopefully be generated at school and allow her to test her ideas on me. I can ask the teachers what driving questions they are posing and make the effort to have these conversations with my kids. My only hope is that I can keep up.

Paulo’s Question: Ecoliteracy & Inquiry

Recently, I was working with a group of Middle Years teachers in Brazil. Throughout the week, we were working on strategies to cultivate curiosity in our students and allow them the space to ask important questions that could drive a learning community’s learning. One morning, I was asked to teach a grade 6 debate class on how to construct an argument (Yikes!).

As a means to engage the students, I walked into the classroom and showed them a map of the world from 1992 which showed where 29 000 rubber duckies made landfall after falling off a cargo ship in the Pacific (A collection of 40 great maps has been circulating Facebook and Twitter). The map showed how these ducks, due to currents and prevailing winds, managed to make landfall on every continent. I then dumped out the garbage can in the classroom, emptying plastic water bottles and cups onto the floor. I asked the students where they thought much of our plastic ends up and why it does not breakdown.

From there, our learning community was able to inquire into the massive oceans of plastic which currently exist and why things are made out of plastic if it does not breakdown. We broke out into teams and began to research the School’s usage of plastic cups and the students decided that they needed to convince the administrators that they needed to ban all plastic cups and bottles from the school. As the teacher, I was delighted with their inquiry and felt pretty good about myself.

Then, Paulo asked this question: “If I am a person who really wants to help the environment, then why do I do things like use plastic cups when I know that it is bad.” Man, did I feel dumb. I had no answers.

The significance of Paulo’s question is based on two underlying gaps in human cognition related to climatic, geological, and ecological changes. The first gap is between the research underpinning the pending ecological crisis. Data from America’s National Snow and Ice Center confirmed the lowest amount of Arctic ice coverage since 1979, when scientists started keeping records. Using this data, NASA scientist James Hansen acknowledged two important things. The first: “We have a planetary emergency.” The second: “There’s a huge gap between what is understood by the scientific community and what is known by the public… unfortunately, the gap is not being closed” (Andrade, 2012). Hansen, along with most within the scientific community, not only articulates the severity of the state of the biosphere, but also implies that humans are not conscious of the reality.

But it is not merely a knowledge gap, as Paulo points out; it is also one of malaise and motivation. The gap is based on what Zizek (2011, p. 352) describes as “agnostic pluralism,” or a lack of political passion. Zizek identifies a major gap in our understanding of the pressing environmental crisis and our motivation to react to it: “The gap…is that between knowledge and belief: we know the (ecological) catastrophe is possible, probable even, yet we do not believe it will really happen” (p. 328).

But equally important to understanding these gaps in human cognition, was my realization how important curiosity and inquiry are in fostering ecological literacy in youth and in ultimately creating a sustainable future.  The ecological catastrophe that lay our feet is well documented. In 2009, Rockstöm et al. created nine planetary boundaries that we could not surpass for human activity to continue. At present, we have surpassed three, including CO2 levels an ocean acidification.  

If we are to foster the skills and creativity needed to attack this dilemma head on,  teachers and parents need to move beyond superficial lessons related to recycling and composting, and move towards an education that incorporates systems thinking, an understanding of thermodynamics, and an underlying acceptance that nature sustains all life.

This type of education will involve a massive disruption in how we conceive and construct school experiences presently.  It will involve ecologically literate teachers, administrators, custodians, and parents. It will require that we get students outside, that they learn science, math, and French at the same time. It will fundamentally require us to transform our schools into ecological think tanks, and not, in some cases, places where we perpetuate the same ideas that got us into this mess in the first place.