BRUCE RINKER: Fragmented Schooling

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H. Bruce Rinker

Mitchell Thomashow is an eminent science educator and writer who founded the Environmental Studies program at Antioch New England Graduate School in Keene, NH. Mitch is a brilliant advocate of place-based learning that asserts the best way to perceive the biosphere is to pay close attention to our immediate surroundings.

The only way that we can take care of the planet is by taking care of our home places; learning to read global trends, patterns, and biodiversity in the local landscape. It immerses students in regional heritage, cultures, landscapes, opportunities and experiences, using these as a foundation for the study of science, mathematics, the arts, social studies, languages, physical education, and other subjects across the curriculum.

When I travel to a new place, at first, I set up a base “camp” that is the daily hub of my local meanderings based on my research on the region – its flora and fauna, natural areas, cultural highlights, and out of the way streets, shops, and homes, and neighborhoods. By exploring this way, I avoid the agitated habits of many vacationers and site-seers who rush frantically from monument to museum and from art gallery to park without really seeing anything. Too often, we fragment our precious vacations into vignettes of frenzy. Who wants to return home after an expensive trip as a dissatisfied and weary traveler? Place-based learning might be the remedy.

Years ago, I taught a senior student enrolled in my Advanced Biology course who exemplified the practical aspects of place-based ecology. (The course was decidedly not an Advanced Placement or AP class). My student arrived at the boarding school determined to explore every nook and cranny of the beautiful 600-acre campus by his graduation.

His plan systematically followed a series of concentric circles that expanded in radius year to year as drawn on USGS topography maps of the region. Each circle represented his exploration goals for his high school years, in which he noted birds, insects, native plants, and local geology. His sense of wonder and curiosity were indefatigable.

By his graduation, he had become a local natural history expert as a regional authority sought eagerly by local bird clubs and native plant societies. His self-taught skills included orienteering, journaling, researching, writing, identifying, public speaking, and basic First Aid in the field. My student exemplified place –based learning for his peers and teachers as fueled by his marvel and interest in the streams, marshes, fields, and forests on the campus. AP classes do not make allowances for this kind of brilliant initiative.   A place-based interdisciplinary model provides exportable learning and practical knowledge.

I just learned today (16 June 2018) from National Public Radio that the Advanced Placement (AP) World History exam will no longer include pre-colonial civilizations and will begin instead with 1450, essentially the rise of European power. Once again, a bunch of Eurocentric Caucasians has decided to neglect indigenous peoples around the world. How can such myopia be justified? Isn’t this supposed to be World History? How do we dismiss most of the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia?

It seems morally reprehensible to leave off defining chapters of human history. Consequently, thousands have urged the College Board to change its mind, the non-profit organization located in NYC that administers standardized tests with an annual revenue (2014) of 840.7 million USD!

A poor parallel from Biology is the AP’s long-standing emphasis on molecular science and its glitzy technology instead of field biology, taxonomy, and local natural history. During my award-winning career as a science educator, I refused twice to offer the AP Biology package into the departments I chaired. Nonetheless, the curriculum remained rigorous with its emphasis on fieldwork, ecology, natural history, taxonomy, and naturalists (e.g., Charles Darwin, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and E.O. Wilson.)

In other words, I taught the big-picture concepts immediately relevant to the worldviews of young students anxious to learn about the world around them. The glitzy technology and more esoteric concepts can come later in the education process once the students have mastered the basic concepts of ecology and evolution and anatomy and physiology.

I have long-opposed standardized tests of every ilk as contrary to the very nature of education. They fragment learning and deter a coherent worldview. As costly pre-packaged mediocrity like the bar-coded processed meats in a cheap super market filled with artificial ingredients and covered in plastic in a trim package called food. With their predisposed testing biases, standardized tests hardly do more than test a student’s ability to take a certain genre of test. It is notable that many top-ranked schools no longer require any test scores for admission.

Place-based schooling synthesizes the various threads of learning to provide a meaningful picture of the world around us. Nothing can be more calamitous for life-long learning than the regrettable emptying of the heart and soul of a child into an ambiguous standardized test score. Furthermore, whose standard anyway? Do we sit back to let a testing agency funnel the intellectual capacity of our young people into the corporate world? Fragmented schooling leads to fragmented citizenship for our communities and to fragmented stewardship of our natural resources. Like a shattered mirror, it reflects darkly the world around us.

Biographical Sketch: H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D., is a forest ecologist, science-educator, and explorer who lives in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Bruce is also the founder of Bioquest Solutions LLC, a multi-service environmental consultancy at home and abroad. You can reach Bruce at [email protected].