Summer: A Time to Learn for All


Smilkstein’s Diagram of a Neuron

In Canada, we are well into the period where we cut off the formal learning process within schools and learners are released into the wilds for a two-month holiday. This tradition harkens back to the days when young boys and girls were beckoned back to the fields, at a time when more than half of the country’s population lived in rural communities.

But in 2016, the research points quite clearly to the fact that this two-month hiatus can often be detrimental to learning in many areas and that it can stifle the educative experiences and processes which educators have worked tirelessly to design throughout the previous ten months. The research suggests that if we were to test learners in June and then re-test them in September, that the retention rates would be pretty pitiful. The curve of forgetting demonstrates this phenomena:

The Curve of Forgetting

The Curve of Forgetting

On a more positive note, the summer holidays allow many parents the opportunity to reconnect to some degree with their children, if they are privileged enough to be afforded vacation themselves. Those with limited means, who are marginalized, and/or who suffer from the effects of poverty often do not have the time or ability to rest — a fact barely mitigated by exceptional programs like CSI and other camps.

But for those of us who are lucky enough to have some time off in the summer (and teachers hit the jackpot), summer is a time to learn about and from our children. Today just happened to be one of those days, where my kids reminded me of the learning process and how the brain is designed to learn. My eight-year-old daughter, already a learned and avid cyclist, was in the process of coaching her five-year-old brother in the art of spinning. I was astounded by how patient my daughter was, but also at her innate ability to read the experience, temperament, and stages of learning my son was in.

It was almost as though my daughter had been reading about the stages of learning, as proposed by Rita Smilkstein. Smilkstein, a brain-based educator and scholar, has been able to succinctly explain how the brain learns and the stages involved. (Take a look at the Youtube video below, as someone has summed up these stages quite nicely.)

These stages include:

  • Motivation – Perhaps we watched someone else ride a bike, or we have to, or we have been shown, or we are really interested in learning.
  • Start to Practice – This is where we begin to practice, where trial and error take place, and we begin to ask questions.
  • Advanced Practice – This is perhaps where we seek out additional lessons, where we read about bike riding, and where we develop some confidence.
  • Skillfulness – This is where we have some success, where we experience enjoyment, and where we begin to share our ideas.
  • Refinement – At this stage, we see substantial improvement, where things become natural, where we might plateau and become creative.
  • Mastery – This is where we begin to teach, where we might receive some recognition for what we do and where we seek out higher challenges.

As Smilkstein argues, “we learn through these stages because this is the how the brain learns — by constructing knowledge through sequential stages.”

My daughter had demonstrated these stages of learning and read them well as she coached my son. My son was certainly motivated to learn how to ride a two-wheeler, but he needed practice, a chance to fail, and the opportunity to ask questions in order to have some success. This was an educative experience for me, as it reminded me of what actually happens in the brain and how neuroscience relates to theories of experience as espoused by the likes of John Dewey and Paulo Freire.

Not only does this mean that I can enjoy bike rides with both of my kids, but it also speaks to the need to understand that our learners are going through a process, that their brains are physically changing when they learn, and that the task of the educator is to design experiences whereby neural connections are nurtured, built, and strengthened. This experience also has forced me to reconsider the purpose of summer holidays and that perhaps this two-month period away from school creates a further gap between those who are privileged and those who are not. Do summer holidays inhibit learning for some and do they create an imbalance in educative opportunities? In other words, do they do more harm than good? If they answer is yes, perhaps we need to rethink the status quo.

Criteria of Experience for an Ecological Literacy

Over the paMatt Hendersonst few years, I have been in the process of creating a Criteria of Experience for an Ecological Literacy to help guide my design process. I have borrowed from the Centre for Ecoliteracy, Dewey, and Freire to help me reflect on how I design educative experiences for learners. Please feel free to share, modify, or disregard altogether.

As educators, how do we equip our learners with the skills, abilities, and literacy necessary to close these two gaps? My inquiry has led me to two hypotheses. First, learners need to be immersed in educative experiences which reveal how they are interconnected and interrelated with all systems on Earth. Second, These experiences need to lead towards learner-driven action, transformation, and a new ecological literacy. 

By ecological literacy, I offer this definition: To understand one’s connectedness to all systems, to appreciate the finite carrying capacity of the Earth, to predict consequences of human activity, and to ultimately create sustainable communities through action. Literacy refers to the skills and abilities to create new knowledge and ecological literacy relies on not only knowledge of the natural world, but also the drive to take meaningful and informed action — namely the notion of praxis.

Given the need to foster this ecological literacy in order to close the knowledge and the knowledge-action gaps, I set out on a journey to try and design experiences which might lead to this goal. With my hypothesis in mind about closing these gaps, I needed to seek out other people, schools, and programmes which had already traveled down this path. Some of the schools I visited, some people I have connected with on Twitter, and others I have simply known about through the literature. Some of the schools are public, some are independent, and some are charter schools. But all have a commitment to learning and fostering this sense of ecological literacy through the design of educative experiences. Here is a sampling of some of the schools I explored:

The Met

Eagle Rock


Forest Schools

Hobsonville Point

Riverpoint Academy

High Tech High

Northwest Passage School

Punahou School


Experience: Is Place Essential to Learning and Transformation?

Walking in the Bird Sanctuary at Phillips Academy in Andover - A place.

Walking in the Bird Sanctuary at Phillips Academy in Andover – A place.

This week I have had the extreme privilege to share time and space with outstanding educators from all over the world at the 2015 ISEEN Institute. ISEEN is the Independent Schools Experiential Education Network. Most educators, it would seem, are coming from places where outdoor, service-based, and/or global education are imperatives and are integrated into various curricula.

I am struck, however, that all three silos are based on one fundamental principle associated with experience — place. Place tends to be the common denominator when we have discussions about learning, growth, and transformation. Learners are going somewhere, are at a place, or are hanging from a mountain. David Orr spoke of place as a means to achieve an ecological literacy, as evidence through his Meadowcreek Project.

But I think experience does not have to exclusively relate to the external world. We can be transformed and become better people and agents of social change outside of this notion of place. My question then is can this type of learning happen without being grounded, rooted, or connected to geography, buildings, or nature?

Yesterday morning, Eric Hudson of Global Online Academy, presented to our group on the idea of creating educative and transformative experiences for learners through technology — where time and space are annihilated. Learning communities, according to him, were rooted in relationships, ideas and the creation of new bodies of knowledge. This understanding of experience moves away from place-based education and the lived experience and focuses learning communities on moments of disequilibrium or cognitive dissonance based on difficult concepts, conceptualizations of humanity, and our purpose on this planet.

As an educator at a university prepatory school where we are the largest consumers on the planet, I am uneasy about creating experiences which pack students up into planes and drop them into developing communities for 15 minutes. I am uncomfortable with events like WE DAY which are perhaps manipulative and a platform for corporate sponsors.

The emphasis on place might limit the experiences we attempt to foster as we are relying on only certain modes of understanding and contextualization. The emphasis on place, as it is often conceived, often requires a certain socio-economic status of our learners. Place might often exclude the vast number of learners who simply do not have the resources to leave their urban neighbourhood, First Nation reserve, or rural community.

Freire suggested that experience, and simply put learning, should be emancipatory and fundamentally based on dialogue with peers and elders (as Illich would posit in Chapter 6 of Deschooling). In many of our contexts, the majority of our students are quite affluent. The transformation, or experience in this case, must fundamentally be an emancipatory one as learners must understand how their actions, both individually and collectively, contribute to the oppression of others within their own communities abroad. (I might suggesting reading Jay Roberts’ Beyond Learning by Doing as “chapter 1” in experience.)

Experience, and educative experiences based on growth and a change in attitude and behaviours, is fundamentally about ethics and moral reasoning. We know that there are massive knowledge-action gaps pertaining to the crises of our time, and as such the transformation to what I speak arguably needs to based on dialogue, relationships, the creation of new bodies of knowledge, and Socratic self-examination. If our desire is to cultivate learning environments which produce global citizens, cosmopolitans, and an ethic of Umbuntu (I am human because you are human…), then the experience is not necessarily phenomenological; rather it can transcend time and place and transformation can occur in spaces we don’t anticipate as educators.

It has been really fascinating to speak with educators from all over the world this week, including my good friends Thomas Steele-Maley, Rebecca Powell, and Becky Anderson. I thank all participants for making me think about my philosophy of education. You are amazing educators and people. I also wish to thank all the organizers of the Institute and specifically the board members of ISEEN. Bravo.

Claudia Ruitenberg is far more eloquent than I could ever be, and I am intrigued by her metaphor and her understanding of experience and place. I leave you with her thoughts:

If one wishes to educate students to have a commitment to their social and ecological environment, one needs to start with an emphasis on commitment rather than on locality or community. Despite the commonly used metaphor, human beings do not grow actual roots on which they depend for their physical, intellectual, or ethical nourishment. Instead, nomads who have learned the ethical gestures of hospitality and openness to a community-to-come will bring nourishment to any place in which they land.

Kornelsen: Stories of Transformation



In an era of ubiquity when it comes to positioning, conferences, and subsequent books on the notions of experiential education and global citizenship, Lloyd Kornelsen, professor of Education at the University of Winnipeg and former acting head of the Global College, offers a breath of fresh air and an impressive conceptual analysis of both concepts.

In Stories of Transformation: Memories of a Global Citizenship Practicum, Kornelsen describes a School Initiated Course and learning experience from 2003 whereby he accompanied a group of high school students from the University of Winnipeg Collegiate to Costa Rica. Several years later, with questions in mind regarding the utility and transformational power of such excursions, Kornelsen interviewed the participants to examine how these practicums line up with the theoretical underpinnings provided by likely suspects: Dewey, Freire, Kolb, Illich,  Nussbaum, Appiah, and more.

The power in Kornelsen’s journey is the questions he raises about the efficacy of these trips — where affluent youth truck down to the South for the purposes of Socratic self-examination, transformation, and to gain insight into this idea of a global citizenry. Kornelsen pulls no punches and offers several pitfalls of such learning experiences, but fundamentally asserts that two critical capacities are required for educators.

The first is what he refers to as teachers needing to take responsibility for their teaching selves. By this, educators need to be global citizens, defined principally by Nussbaum and Appiah. Teachers must be critical thinkers, and examine that jumping on a plane and living with local families may have its limitations and ethical uneasiness. How do we as educators provide our students with the support and experiences necessary to overcome these limitations? Are we simply sending students on trips and hoping for the best?

The second capacity refers to something that I fail at often — that is the need to relate to our learners as Korenlesen suggests, “inter-subjectively.” Educators must foster and facilitate learning communities whereby the experience of each learner is honoured and respected and where the elders provide nudges and insight for further educative experiences and dissonance.

This book is well researched, painfully honest, and a window into what excellence in teaching looks like. Stories of Transformation is a must read for all teachers who truly seek to engage learners in meaningful conversations about who we are as a species and our purpose on this planet.

Experimental Lakes Area Field Research: Experience & Ecoliteracy

This summer, students from SJR will be traveling out to the Experimental Lakes Area in Northwestern Ontario to take part in a unique learning experience.

This learning experience is inteela-locator-mapnded to introduce young learners in Manitoba to the notions of ecological literacy and systems thinking through a direct experience with nature. By using the experience of the learners, educative experiences will be fostered in order for participants to gain an understanding of how they are connected with systems and species on earth and how human activity can negatively affect ecosystems and ultimately the biosphere itself.

This curriculum is not only based on the conceptual pillars of ecological literacy systems thinking, and experience, but has been created to adhere to the following twelve criteria:

Change in Direction
Interaction Between Inner and Outer Conditions
Develops Empathy for All Forms of Life
Embraces Sustainability as a Common Practice
Makes the Invisible Visible
Anticipates Unintended Consequences
Understands How Natures Sustains Life

The first three criteria, those of democratic, growth, a change in direction, an interaction between inner and outer conditions refer to Dewey’s understanding of experience. Firstly, is the experience we create for students democratic? Are there opportunities for the learner to participation in the creation of his or her own learning experience? Secondly, does growth occur? Is there a shift in the attitudes and behaviour of the learner and have they changed direction in terms of their previous understanding of the world? Lastly, is there a connection between the internal experience of the learner and the experiences fostered by the educator?

The subsequent three criteria are a reflection of how Freire characterizes experience. To avoid the Banking System of education, or a top-down approach where knowledge is banked into the hard drives of the learner, Freire suggest that there needs to be a dialogue between the educator and the leaner and within the learning community itself. Secondly, Freire insists on the notion of praxis –the application of the creation of new knowledge for the purpose of liberation. Lastly, the learner needs to be able to reflect on this new knowledge and his or her place within the world.

The last five criteria are taken from the Centre for Ecological Literacy as outline in Goleman, Bennet, & Barlow’s Ecoliterate (2012). In it, the authors outline the Five Practices of Emotionally and Socially Engaged Ecoliteracy. Ecologically literate learning communities will be able empathetic towards all species and systems, will accept sustainability as a common practice, will make the invisible visible, will anticipate the consequences of human actions, and will understand how nature sustains all life.

Based on these 12 criteria, the following experience has been created to create ecologically literate citizens.

The Experience

For this learning experience, the site of the Experimental Lakes Area in Northwestern Ontario has been selected. Students will spend two weeks, from August 3rd to 15th, on site, working with scientist on freshwater ecology experiments. Students will also be able to conduct their own experiments. Through this scientific process, students will be able to gain scientific skills as well as the ability to see how they are connected to all systems on earth and develop policy based on this new literacy.

The students will be supported and guided by Manitoba educators who have a keen interest in facilitating learning communities through experiences that connect the learner with nature. Over the course of the two-week period, educators will provide students with guidance and scaffolding so that they can begin to use their experimentation and experiences as a means for dialogue pertaining to how we can create sustainable communities and societies

Presently there are three ongoing whole-ecosystem experiments at ELA. The following are brief descriptions of activities taking place for the 2014 season (Text from the IISD):
IISD-ELA core research
Understanding Lake Eutrophication
ELA was created in 1968 to study the problem of eutrophication or excessive algal growth in lakes. Despite improved understanding of the causes of eutrophication, this continues to be one of the greatest water quality problems world-wide.
For 44 years, researchers at ELA have continuously added phosphorus to a small lake (Lake 227) in conjunction with different amounts of nitrogen. In recent years, this research demonstrated that efforts to control blue-green algae should focus on the control of phosphorus and that treatment for nitrogen is unnecessary. Other studies on Lake 227 have examined the potential effectiveness of fish introductions for remediating eutrophication, and interactions between eutrophication and atmospherically deposited contaminants such as PCBs and mercury. Lake 227 is among the most intensively studied lakes in the world. Continued eutrophication and monitoring of Lake 227 will continue to yield important insights into long-term nutrient dynamics in eutrophied lakes. For example, the lake has still not reached a new steady state following the cessation of nitrogen inputs in 1990, and debate exists about the relative importance of these long-term changes for assessing recovery. Continued eutrophication of Lake 227 will provide an important platform for future studies of eutrophication remediation and recovery. For example, Lake 227 provides an ideal location for assessing why lakes vary in their potential to recycle nutrients from sediments. An understanding of these factors is essential for predicting the recovery of lakes from eutrophication. The enormous amount of data available from Lake 227 makes it an excellent location for testing new technology for assessing eutrophication and for examining the effectiveness of proposed remediation techniques.
The effects of changes in water inputs to lakes and their watersheds
Future scenarios predict a warmer climate with varied rainfall for many areas in Canada. Inland lakes and their watersheds will be affected by reductions in the amount of water available, as well as through reductions in the delivery of essential nutrients that may limit production of recreational and commercial fish species. Drier conditions will affect downstream development and production of hydroelectric power. Direct manipulations of water inputs to lakes also occur as a part of many industrial developments, such as mining.
A direct manipulation of water flow to a lake is being conducted to assess impacts to Lake 626 at ELA. After three years of background study, water inputs to the lake were reduced by 80% by redirecting upstream water inflows. Preliminary data indicate initial modest increases in water clarity and increased heat penetration into the lake. Continuation of this study is necessary to determine ecosystem impacts, including habitat alterations and population changes to lake trout, a cold-water top predatory fish. This study will demonstrate how climate-induced change may affect Canadian lakes, and produce predictive models for the kinds of adaptation that will face the organisms in the lakes and the people using them. Researchers from the University of Waterloo and the United States Geological Survey are examining impacts to wetlands downstream of Lake 626 and the diversion channel.
Impacts of Nanosilver on Lakes
Although nanotechnology promises to greatly improve our lives, the health and environmental hazards are not fully understood. Nanosilver is currently the most widely used engineered nanomaterial and is used in hundreds of products as a bactericide. Silver nanoparticles are found in socks, baby bottles, cutting boards and washing machines. Although silver nanoparticles enter the aquatic environment through wastewater discharges, its fate and impacts on whole-lake ecosystems and food webs are not yet known. Researchers from Trent University (Project lead: Dr. Chris Metcalfe) are currently adding nanosilver to a small lake at ELA in very small amounts to better understand its ecosystem impacts. This is urgently needed because there are no specific policies for managing nanomaterials in the environment. Environment Canada supports the continuation of this research for the 2014 field season.
Recovery monitoring
One aspect of research at ELA involves monitoring lakes where experiments have taken place to ensure they recover from the experimental treatments. Parameters to be measured vary, depending on the manipulations occurring in the study lakes and their anticipated impacts. A suite of unimpacted reference lakes will also be monitored to establish baseline conditions. Monitoring of these lakes will consist of data collection required to maintain the historical data set. These include monitoring of meteorology, hydrology, water chemistry, and major components of the food web.
A 2013 review of data collected from lakes at ELA indicated that most have fully recovered from past manipulations. Several, however, have not yet returned to background conditions, and ongoing monitoring is providing crucial information on recovery.
One of these is Lake 658, which is recovering from a whole-ecosystem mercury addition between 2000 and 2007. Fish from remote lakes around the world have become contaminated with methyl mercury, a neurotoxin and endocrine disruptor. For example, more than 80% of the lakes listed in the Guide to Eating Ontario Sport Fish currently have mercury consumption advisories. This elevated mercury comes primarily from precipitation and the burning of coal. The United States Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada have proposed regulations that would require power companies to reduce mercury emissions, with a potential cost of billions of dollars. An important question for policy and management is: will these costly reductions in mercury loading to the atmosphere reduce methyl mercury concentrations in fish and other biota?
To test this question, from 2000 to 2007, researchers from Canada and the U.S. added uniquely identifiable mercury (as stable isotopes) to Lake 658 and its watershed at ELA using boats and a small aeroplane. These additions simulated levels of mercury deposition previously seen in the eastern United States and Scandinavia. Since 2007, no mercury has been added to Lake 658 and researchers are following recovery. The experiment has demonstrated clear linkages between mercury in fish and changes in atmospheric mercury deposition, providing support for proposed legislation. Information on recovery is required to estimate how long it will take for reductions in mercury emissions to the atmosphere to affect mercury concentrations in fish. This information is crucial for understanding the potential effectiveness of proposed legislation and for managing expectations by the public and industry.
Another lake in recovery is Lake 375, which was the site of a whole-ecosystem aquaculture project between 2003 and 2007. Most parameters have returned to background conditions in Lake 375, but monitoring of the lake trout population continues. Because lake trout have long lives, their response is much slower than other components of the ecosystem.


We will be providing updates throughout the process and we welcome feedback from everyone. The intent of this pilot is to build it into a full summer program whereby students from Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario can gain their Grade 12 Biology and Global Issues credits. We still have  couple of spaces available for any students in high school who might be interested.