Modeling Education on the Natural World

Skeeze, pixabay.com

Nature operates complex systems with awe-inspiring success. We see such systems in Monarch butterfly migration, spotted hyena hunting behavior, the day-to-day life of a honeybee colony, everywhere in nature.

The science of complexity tells us these systems cannot be fully understood when examined in isolation because they function as part of a larger whole. Perhaps surprising to us, complex systems flourish right near the edge of chaos. That’s how nature works.

Any self-organizing system, including a human being, is exquisitely cued to maintain equilibrium. Yet that equilibrium can’t hold for long. That’s a good thing. Consider the pulse fluttering in your wrist. The heart rates of healthy young people are highly variable while, in contrast, the beat of a diseased or very elderly heart is much more regular. An overly stable system is rigid, unchanging, and eventually collapses.

We are attuned to minute fluctuations in our bodies as well as in the world around us and are capable of almost infinite responses to regain balance. Some of these responses occur at a level we can’t consciously detect. Change or disturbance at any level functions as a stimulus to create new options.

Each time we are destabilized, these elegant and complex processes at our disposal give us ways to regain balance. The more potential responses we have, the greater our adaptability.

To me, this has everything to do with education. It tells me that we’re perfectly suited to expand our learning infinitely outward as long as we are not confined by sameness, limited variables, and inflexibility.

As an example, lets compare a curriculum used in a second grade classroom to a flock of Canada geese migrating north. It seems obvious that the geese are all the same species heading in the same direction, surely far less complex than an up-to-date curriculum supported by all sorts of educational resources and a well-trained teacher. But lets look more closely. Geese are self-organized into a highly adaptive system while the curriculum is not. The geese choose to migrate based on a number of factors. Unlike curricula, geese don’t operate by standardized data nor is there any flock leader telling them when it’s time to leave.

Geese fly in V-shaped formations. Flying together is far less physically stressful than flying alone. Each bird flies slightly ahead of the next bird so there’s substantially less wind resistance. Because they’re flying in formation, their wings need to flap less frequently and their heart rates stay lower, helping them conserve energy for the long flight. Flying in formation helps the birds communicate and follow the route more efficiently. They also take turns leading at the head of the V, the most difficult position. Each lead goose is smoothly replaced by another member of the flock after a short turn. That way no single goose is more essential than any other for the flock’s migration. The entire flock is able to respond and adapt to a whole range of conditions.

education complex system,

John Benson, wikimedia commons

In contrast, that second grade curriculum is tightly structured and largely inflexible. It was written thousands of miles away, far removed from the day-to-day interests and concerns of the students or their teacher. Each lesson is broken down into rubrics to better measure adherence to specific standards and is mandated by lawmakers who are heavily influenced by the $81,523,904 spent by industry lobbyists in one year. Students and their teacher are judged by tests put in place by education corporations, even though improved test scores are not associated with success in adulthood.  Learning cued to real world uses, learning that is based on readiness rather than rigid timetables, is real learning. 

Nearly every variable is limited by the curriculum and overall school structure. The most enthusiastic and dedicated teacher is afforded no real time to let students explore subjects in greater depth or to try innovative educational approaches. The fewer potential variables, the more it adaptability is diminished. Remember, an overly stable system is rigid, unchanging, and eventually collapses.

Instead, a truly viable education is modeled on the natural world.  After all, we are living natural systems ourselves.

What principles are found in sustainable ecosystems?

  • cross-pollination
  • diversity
  • self-assembly
  • interdependence
  • adaption
  • balance
  • an undeniable tendency toward beauty

Such principles support and enhance life. These principles can form the core of a living system of education as well. All we need to add is joy.

Based on an excerpt from Free Range Learning.

Are You An Anthropocentrist?

 

animal intelligence, anthropocentrism,

Paradise, by Gillis d’Hondecoeter circa 1575

When I was growing up we were taught humans were at the top of every chart, far superior to all other living beings. Our textbooks, illustrated with stereotypical images of “cave men,” proved the assertion with a long list of what our species could do that others could not. The list was so smug that I was a bit embarrassed on behalf of my fellow homo sapiens. A skeptic even then, I thought the list was somewhat prejudicial. Worse, it didn’t acknowledge what feels obvious to young children, that we are all things and all things are us.

I don’t for a moment dismiss our many human accomplishments—among them language, science, the arts, and shared rules meant to advance mutual compassion. I simply mean to point out that we’re not better, we’re different.

Besides, what I was taught as a kid doesn’t really hold up. Here are some reasons why.

Tool use was a biggie on that list. It’s true, animals haven’t developed the smart phone (thus are spared walking into traffic while texting) but they naturally incorporate tool use when it makes sense for them.

  1. Crows make tools like hooks and rakes out of twigs, leaves, even their own feathers to obtain items just out of reach and can use three tools in sequence.  They also will drop pebbles into a container in order to raise the level of water, understanding cause and effect as well as a seven to 10-year-old child. Other examples of tool use by crows? They’re known to drop nuts on a roadway so cars will crack the shells, then wait for a break in traffic to retrieve the nutmeat. Interestingly, they’re more proficient when they grow up watching adult crows fashion tools. (Crows might wonder why we segregate human kids away from the interesting work-a-day world of adults.)
  2. Naked mole rats dig with their teeth, but to keep from inhaling dust and dirt they’re known to position wood shavings in their mouths as rudimentary face masks.
  3. The octopus is more closely related to clams than to people, yet these invertebrates plan ahead, tool-wise. For example they’ve been seen carrying coconut shell halves they can hide under later in order to grab unsuspecting prey as it passes.
  4. Orangutans fold leaves into a usable “musical instrument” that modifies their calls, making them sound lower and therefore more threatening to large predators.

Math was another obvious difference. We were taught that numerical sense is evidence of higher order thinking. Yet the animal kingdom uses math when necessary.

  1. Bears can count. Although they don’t benefit from the intelligence-boosting effect of living in social groups, research shows bears can estimate quantities just as well as primates. One particular study taught bears to discriminate between dots on a touchscreen computer, a situation about as far removed from relevant bear smarts as possible. Their abilities in natural habitat are likely to be far more impressive.
  2. Elephants have substantial numerical skills, outperforming primates and even human children when tested for their ability to find the difference between two quantities. A study found elephants can discriminate between one and two as well as between larger numbers.
  3. Baby chicks can not only count, they can even can add up numbers based on groups of objects they can’t see at the moment.  And that’s when they’re a few days old!  By two weeks of age, chickens can take into account the sun’s height and position to navigate. Plus they’re able to draw inferences and plan ahead, for example choosing to delay gratification in order to reap a greater reward. And who’d have guessed, but chickens prefer to count from left to right.
  4. Pigeons are able to learn abstract rules about numbers and order pairs. Aside from humans, only rhesus monkeys have been able to perform at this level.
  5. Insects also use math. Honeybees can distinguish between and remember quantities up to four. They can also match patterns. Ants operate with a collective form of intelligence, able to use complex problem-solving strategies to optimize time and energy spent feeding the colony.

People, we were told, communicate in complex ways while animals are, well, just animals. Again, not true.

  1. Elephants communicate sophisticated ideas in a variety of ways including low-frequency sounds from 1 and 20 Hz that can travel over miles. So far, researchers have identified nearly 200 expressions and gestures, along with nearly 100 vocalizations. Elephants can recognize at least 100 other unseen elephants by voice alone.  Their remarkable ability to understand communication isn’t limited to their own species. African elephants can differentiate between languages, gender, and age of human speakers.
  2. Dolphins remember one another, without contact, for at least 20 years. In fact, researchers have found that dolphins call each other by name (in this case, distinctive signature whistles).
  3. Koko, a western lowland gorilla, has been taught American Sign Language and, according to her trainer, understands about 1,000 signs along with nearly 2,000 words of spoken English. Sometimes, when there’s not a relevant sign, Koko invents her own signs. For example, she “compounded the sign for scratch with the sign for comb to mean, “brush” (scratch-comb).”
  4. Alex, an African gray parrot, learned well over 100 words that he used appropriately in unique contexts, demonstrating the intelligence of a five year old human child. He died suddenly in 2007. The last thing he said to his trainer upon going to his cage for the night was, “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.”

Which brings us to emotion and personality. Yup, non-human types are brimming with it.

  1. Chimps not only create social traditions, they’re interested in what’s trendy. Researchers are just now catching on (academic types are not known for fashion forwardness) to the latest thing, chimps wearing grass in their ears.
  2. Stressed-out honeybees show an increased expectation of bad outcomes. In other words, they become pessimists. The bees also showed altered levels of neurochemicals associated with depression. Other invertebrates, such as crayfish, can exhibit anxiety and respond well to medications that relieve anxiety in humans.
  3. Dogs traumatized by military service or abuse exhibit signs of canine Post Traumatic Stress Disorder 
  4. Rats feel regret after making poor choices.
  5. Crows will eat nearly anything, but prefer French fries from a McDonalds bag to the same fries in a plain brown sack. They not only hold grudges against specific humans who have done them wrong, but will teach other crows to react badly upon seeing them as well.
  6. And play? There’s plenty of it. Crows like to ski down icy rooftops and snow-covered slopes holding sticks or boards in their talons. River otters, elephants, and whales are known for playful behavior.

 

Let me push it one step farther, to compassion and even spirituality. We’ve been told that only humans have evolved beyond survival-based selfishness to establish ethics and morality. We’ve been taught we’re the only species to perform rituals as we mourn the passing of our departed, the only ones to meditate in silence, the only ones to experience a sense of awe akin to reverence. Apparently not true either.

  1. Altruism? There’s plenty of evidence. A dolphin saving a beached whale and its calf. Gorillas working together to dismantle dangerous poachers’ traps. A pod of sperm whales adopting a disabled dolphin. Rats gnawing through cages to help other imprisoned rats. A bear assisting an injured crowLions chasing away an Ethiopian child’s kidnappers and guarding her until human help arrived.
  2. How about awe? Chimps are known to ritualistically dance at the advent of thunderstorms and dance at waterfalls. They’ve also been observed dancing (rather than fleeing instinctively) in the face of wild grass fires.
  3. Meditation? Baboons have been observed performing a sangha, sitting in silence for over a half hour gazing at a stream of water, even the juveniles remaining quiet.
  4. Love? Probably yes according to research with cats and dogs who seem to be tapping into fields beyond our conscious awareness to know when their owners are coming home.
  5. Funerals, those too. Elephants weep in sorrow and grieve their dead. They’ve also been known to sense the death of humans important to them, even from great distances, as two tribes of African elephants did when they walked for hours to mourn at the home of a conservationist who’d once rescued them. Ritualized behavior to mourn death is common in animals including foxes,  magpieswolves, dolphins, and gorillas.
  6. Maybe even religion. Cetologist Hal Whitehead‘s research indicates that sperm whales not only transmit culture to their young, they may have have evolved a form of religion to make sense of their purpose.

 

Even these terribly incomplete examples have probably taxed your patience although there are thousands of other fascinating proofs out there. Let’s remember, all these observations are human-centric, further evidence that we judge animals against one species—-us.

We wouldn’t have particularly good scores if tested according to the abilities of our fellow creatures. It’s not as if we can age in reverse as a jellyfish named Turritopsis dohrnii does, possess a snake’s infrared vision able to assess the difference in temperature between moving prey and surrounding area on the scale of milliKelvins, emit a protein that neutralizes nearly every poison as an opossum does, regrow limbs and organs as the salamander can, or are able to hear as well as the wax moth Galleria mellonella which is capable of detecting frequencies of up to 300kHz, (we humans at best hear to about 20kHz).

According to evolutionary biologists, we humans aren’t better than animals, just different. Researchers in fields like comparative psychology and language study, say there’s an “emerging consensus among scientists that animals share functional parallels with humans’ conscious metacognition — that is, our ability to reflect on our own mental processes and guide and optimize them.”

As naturalist Henry Beston wrote in The Outermost House,

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.

 

animal capacities, Eden,

“Paradijs met dieren” by Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1620

We Are One Being

We are one being, linked in profound and essential ways even though we rarely pause to consider them.

The surface of Earth is seventy percent water just as we are made up of seventy percent water. This is the same water that has been on Earth for four and a half billion years. It flows in and out of each one of us. In cycles too infinite to imagine this water has been drawn up in plant cells, swirled in oceans, circulated in bloodstreams, sweated, excreted, wept out tearfully, drunk up thirstily, formed into new life, risen into vapor, and locked into ice. The saliva in your mouth is made of water molecules intimately shared with beings that lived long ago and will be shared with all who come after us.

We breathe about 600 million breaths in a lifetime. The air we rely on is a balance of nitrogen, oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide, and a dozen or so other gases perfect suited to our existence. It circulates through endless forms and uses, moved by the wind of our planet and by each exhale of living beings—-trees, crows, humpback whales, and newborn babies. It recycles just as the calcium in your jawbone may well have been quicklime poured on a criminal’s grave, a garnet on a nobleman’s finger, cheese carried by a nomadic herder, and a coral reef in a tropical ocean.

Nothing about our bodies is separate from what’s around us. We are nourished by what has grown from the sun’s energy and we remake ourselves constantly, replacing millions of cells every second using only the materials that have been on this planet for millennia.

Quantum physics tells us the principle of entanglement explains how particles, once linked, can remain connected even when physically separated by vast distances, possibly even by time. Entanglement occurs between living beings as well, both human and animal, indicating a greater connection same call a morphic field and others call a holographic universe.

On this planet we are linked to every particle and every life form so intimately that science is beginning to echo what poets and sages have been saying for thousands of years. We. Are. One.

Each person is truly your kin. Our human connection begins with common ancestors. Genealogist Gary Boyd Roberts estimates that everyone on the planet is at least a 40th cousin. That’s because the family tree expands as each generation traces back. You have eight great-grandparents. Their parents had 16 parents. Go back 40 generations and you’d find a trillion grandparents at a time when there were fewer than 15 million people on the planet. That means we share 40th great-grandparents. In that way you are connected to eighty percent of the people on this planet. That includes the guy driving the delivery truck right outside your window and the woman thousands of miles away struggling to find water in a drought.

The smallest children seem to recognize that existence is an “alive poem.” They find kinship with rocks, animals, as well as people. Our human family, built on kindness and cooperation, helps one another heroically. We are waking to the ways our Earth sustains us, working harder than ever to restore justice and ecological balance. We are reaching out to share, laugh, explain, and find kinship with one another.

We are entangled in a universe so holographic that we can’t help but sense the oneness that has been there all along.

The Youngest Have The Oldest Way Of Knowing

children as deep ecologists, seeing people as animals, older ways of wisdom, living the Gaia theory,

itallant.deviantart.com

I had a translation problem when I was very small. Like any other reasonable preschooler, I knew full well that people had names just as I had a name. But I saw people’s faces as having their own animal faces too. I wasn’t sure why everyone else couldn’t see this. Many of the animals I saw flickering right under the surface of outward human appearances were creatures I didn’t recognize. Some kind of deer or antelope on one face, an unusual hound on another. This was fascinating and distracting. It also meant I had to translate in my head from what I saw as a person’s animal identity into their given name. I never slipped, never called my kindergarten teacher a hawk or referred to the boy down the street as a dolphin. I was polite enough to realize this would have been rude, although I couldn’t understand why animals were so much lower on the scale of importance.  I grew out of it by the time I was five or six.

I’m probably making my childhood self sound like a complete ninny. (And I’m still a ninny in other ways.) But I still remember “seeing” animal identities in people.

Young children have a very creative sense of reality. That’s exactly the way they’re supposed to be. Adults may teach children that the night’s dreams have nothing to do with the next day, that the wind doesn’t have a voice, that a beloved toy can’t feel their adoration. Still, children know what they experience. They sense potent meaning in everything.

We forget that human-centered reasoning is a cultural thing. A recent study compared children who live in direct contact with nature to urban children who have somewhat limited contact with the natural world. Researchers found striking differences in outlook. Children who are raised close to nature, and who are sensitive to certain beliefs, are more likely to call animal communication talking and to see water as alive. They seem to grasp what ecophilosopher Arne Naess termed deep ecology. The deep ecology worldview recognizes the intrinsic value of all beings and the complex interdependence of all natural systems.

This affirms what our species long understood and only recently forgot. We are inextricably connected to the natural world for sustenance, meaning, learning, and perhaps most intimately, for our sense of self. Looking at the whole swath of human existence, we are barely out of the hunter-gatherer era. Each of us is tuned to nature’s wavelength. Yet we conduct our lives as if we are separate. The youngest children among us may sense how wrong this is.

In one of the last books by ecologist Paul Shepard, Nature and Madness, he speculates that what ails civilization is a kind of arrested development. From birth each of us is cued toward greater wholeness through deep interconnection with one another and the natural world.  We require elders who understand this and guide us. But these days, Shepard writes, we’re not likely to grow to maturity in this way.

“Adults, weaned to the wrong music, cut short from their own potential, are not the best of mentors. The problem may be more difficult to understand than to solve. Beneath the veneer of civilization, in the trite phrase of humanism, lies not the barbarian and the animal, but the human in us who knows what is right and necessary for becoming fully human: birth in gentle surroundings, a rich nonhuman environment, juvenile tasks with simple tools, the discipline of natural history, play at being animals, the expressive arts of receiving food as a spiritual gift rather than as a product, the cultivation of metaphorical significance of natural phenomena of all kinds, clan membership and small-group life, and the profound claims and liberation of ritual initiation and subsequent stages of adult mentorship. There is a secret person undamaged in each of us, aware of the validity of these conditions, sensitive to their right moments in our lives.”

I think we can still raise children this way, pushing back against our rushed and fragmented world. More and more people seek natural birth, attachment parenting, child rearing balanced between freedom and responsibility, and free range learning. Nature-based living isn’t out of the equation, no matter where we live. It is restorative to spend time in wild places, but it takes only a shift in awareness to to immerse ourselves in nature wherever we are. As adults, we model for children how to treat all life with respect. In turn, children model for us many ways to find awe, metaphor, magic, and oneness in what we long ago learned to disregard. That is, if we pay attention.

Some might dispute that paying attention to such wonderment remains relevant in today’s world. Some may want to know what’s to be gained by dreams, imagination, watchfulness, and nature-centered thinking. Acknowledging the primacy of these wonders doesn’t point away from the path of achieving one’s potential. If we need an individual example, look to Lilian “Na’ia Alessa, a cell biologist who advances science by incorporating Western and traditional ways of knowing in her work.

Or wider examples. When psychologist Abraham Maslow developed his well-known hierarchy of needs he placed self-actualizers at the pinnacle. He defined such people as reaching “the full use and exploitation of talents, capacities, potentialities, etc.” Among those Maslow considered to be self-actualizers:  Spinoza, Goethe, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Schweitzer, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Joseph Haydn. These people didn’t “unlearn” older ways of knowing. In fact, the characteristics of self-actualizers sound quite a bit like children who aren’t limited to human-centered reasoning. Self-actualizers are spontaneous, they see things in fresh and often unconventional ways, they are interested in the unknown, they aren’t limited by other’s perceptions, they transcend cultural rigidity, and they feel compassion for all life. Some self-actualizers have what Maslow called “peak experiences.” A defining characteristic of a peak experience is a sense of unity with everything and everyone, a complete oneness. This too sounds like the children we’ve been discussing, those who haven’t yet been taught to stop seeing vibrant meaning around them.

So much is to be gained by a wider way of knowing. Let’s not unlearn all that we knew as children. Let’s see everything for what it can teach us. As poet Joy Harjo tells us, “Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them, listen to them. They are alive poems.”