Most of you know that there is a group of individuals working on developing a Mason curriculum. I work with that group and find that our group discussions constantly make me grow and learn, pushing me into a richer and more thoughtful understanding of Mason’s educational principles and practices. A recent discussion about avoiding behaviourism creeping in the door of Mason’s work challenged and changed my thinking about one aspect of Mason’s curriculum, Nature Study. Avoiding behaviourism is difficult because we are all saturated with it.
Behaviorism is rooted in matterialism (as distinguished from materialism which means a person who likes many possessions) which is a philosophy of life embedded in much Western thought. It is the view that all of life is only matter and there is nothing truly spiritual. I once read in an encyclopedia (can’t remember which one, I think it was Compton) that Dewey switched his belief from children as spiritual beings to children as behaviourial beings. In my opinion he essentially extinguished their spiritual natures by making this switch in his thinking. Matterialism shows up in education in various ways, one of those being behaviourism.
Behaviourialism in education is the process of teaching a skill and then looking for changes in behaviour because only behavior is what can be observed and therefore acknowledged. One group of college students defined it as “The learner uses low level processing skills to understand material and the material is often isolated from real-world contexts or situations. Little responsibility is placed on the learner concerning his/her own education” (https://www.msu.edu/~purcelll/matrix.htm). Thus in a behaviourial approach to education, the classroom can become technique oriented and a place where the routine of “educational activities” is followed without much regard for contextualised or real-world learning, i.e. learning in relationship.
As our group discussed how behaviourism is hard to avoid because it has so permeated our educational culture (other manifestations of it are: prizes, rewards, grades, treats, smiley faces, etc.), it occurred to me that I was thinking behaviouristically about Nature Study. That is, Nature Study is done as a class activity once a week. Either the adult or the children choose a specimen to paint. Specimens are gathered, brought in from home or brought back from a nature walk. Watercolours are retrieved from their places and the children dry brush their specimens. Or, as I did one year with students, we weekly went to one spot and noticed the changes over the period of a year. The children chose something to paint and back to the classroom we went to paint the specimen. I had mistakenly confined Nature Study to a class activity and a routine outdoor activity; it was not a way of living. As with all subjects in a Mason curriculum, observation is a key point and is certainly very important in Nature Study so that even in a technique-ized way of teaching Nature Study, I am sure children observed and learned a lot and thus benefited from it. Benefiting from Nature Study done this way is not the point however. Education, including Nature Study, as Mason told the young lady whom she interviewed to attend her college, is about living. I have thought about it and I have asked myself the question, “Are these (mentioned above) ways of teaching Nature Study more about “doing” Nature Study weekly or are they about “living” Nature Study. We are to develop the habit of living fully and part of that living is relating to nature and knowing the places where we live, not just doing activities, even Mason inspired ones!
Two situations come to mind to illustrate this. One happened this week at our Mason study group meeting where Cheri Struble shared how she frequently goes with her 7 or 8 children to the Broad River Greenway or South Mountain State Park so they can know the nature and place around them. They take pencils and nature notebooks so they can readily sketch plants or specimens, and then try to find the names to record. She explains that sketching helps attend to detail so the specimen is really known, but what struck me was that she prefers sketching to watercolours because it can be done more frequently and fits into everyday life easier. She found that having to get out the watercolours EACH time made Nature Study too cumbersome and less frequent. Cheri had managed to keep Nature Study living so that it was a constant part of life, not relegated to “an educational activity.” By interspersing Nature Study with sketching, she kept if from being a forced or contrived event, “educational activity” that makes one think something “educational” has been accomplished. Even Nature Study can become contrived and falls into the construct that we call school. School is not a bad construct necessarily, but a Mason education is about living so Nature Study should be taught in a way that encourages children to see nature as part of living, as part of their day to day practice. The other situation was seeing Ivy Young’s nature classroom at Red Mountain Community School. It was filled with so many interesting and wonderful things from nature. It wasn’t just a place to pull out the watercolours and paint a specimen but a room to inspire awe and wonder of the world around us.
Even in a city like Atlanta where cement is everywhere, one can inspire an approach to Nature Study that is an attitude towards living. Deborah Dobbins and HollyAnne seek to inspire wonder in their students even though their school is surrounded by parking lot. They take advantage of the plants around the building, the pond and brings in various specimens from other places. Even in less than ideal circumstances, one can help children develop an attitude towards Nature Study that is living.
Am I saying one shouldn’t use the once a week or once every two weeks approach to Nature Study through painting a specimen with watercolours because it turns into a behaviouristic approach to relating to nature? If this is the only way one does Nature Study, well yes, I am saying that. Nature Study cannot be confined to an educational activity. The point with Nature Study is to think of it as “living,” as something one does day to day. It is a habit and an attitude that we form as we observe and study the world that has been created for our enjoyment. It isn’t just a classroom activity shut away in a school building or in a house. Nor is it a behaviouristic activity. No, Nature Study isn’t just about retrieving the watercolours from their places and painting a specimen. It is about living– living in relationship with nature, God’s gifts to us.
The moral of this story: Get out there, be in nature, observe, feel, touch, then narrate by sketching it with a pencil. But don’t forget occasionally and systematically to pull out the watercolours and intensify your observation.
© 2011 by Carroll and Andra Smith