Do you like dinosaurs?
Or did you when you were a kid?
Dinosaurs are neat. They are big, ferocious and were, quite frankly, very successful. They were also the dominant animals of the Mesozoic, for 180 million years. That is impressive.
I never liked dinosaurs when I was a kid. I found them boring.
I was beguiled by the Palaeozoic and early Cenozoic rather than the Mesozoic. The creatures — plants and animals — that lived then were alien, intriguing and awesome.
I could never put my finger on why trilobites and Paraceratherium interested me more than dinosaurs. But there was a pattern in that interest that cropped up elsewhere in my life.
An underlying ecology
When it came time for me to enter university, I knew exactly what I wanted to be — an ecologist. Not a botanist, not a zoologist, not even a geologist, an ecologist. Don’t get me wrong, I was fascinated in zoology, botany and geology, mostly botany, but I did not want to study one thing.
I was interested in it all. I was interested in how it all fit and worked together. I was interested in how life lived on an erratic Earth. Its individual forms fascinate, but mostly as pieces of the intricate whole.
And that, as I later found out, was why I didn’t like dinosaurs. They ate. They fought. They terrorized the land — not to mention other animals. But, until the last ten to twenty years, for me they never belonged — neither fit nor worked — within a bigger system.
They were boring.
In the last decade or two, that changed, or perhaps I became aware of the “bigger” Mesozoic picture. More Mesozoic palaeoecology has been learned and integrated into other disciplines, as illustrated in Harold Levin‘s The Earth Through Time (I have the 2003 seventh edition published by John Wiley and Sons). And now the dinosaurs belong with, influence and are influenced by a bigger lifescape and ecology. Dinosaurs became more and more interesting as they began to fit and work in the puzzle of life and living in a changing, furious Earth.
It is their place in ecology that fascinates me, not their ferociousness nor their reputation.
The point? Even as a child, I was geared toward ecology.
An overarching Universe
My enjoyment of astronomy also stems from the same root. I am fascinated by the Earth’s place and development in the Solar System, and of the Solar System’s place and development in the Universe.
I look at a star as I do a handful of sand and I wonder about its past, about its surroundings, its environment, its present and its future. I wonder about what it interacted — or will interact — with, what it influences or what it is influenced by. I similarly wonder (to the same depth) about the Universe that the star represents and the Earth and rock that the sand typifies.
I remember encountering an ant crawling on a moss and seeing its ecology and the ecology of the ecosystem where it lived. I had no words for these concepts, but I distinctly remember seeing the ant interacting with its environment. I barely noticed the ant outside of this frame. I was in grade two. And I still see ants and stars and handfuls of sand this way.
A far-sweeping magic
Story exists in this way too. With story we build our cultures, societies, histories, skills and technologies. But we also build our spirit and curiosity.
Story exists in a bigger context, constructed of reality and imagination and wonder.
Arthur C. Clarke coined, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. I prefer to replace “advanced” with “exotic”, meaning unfamiliar or novel or not (currently) understood.
Ants and sand and stars, ecology and math and story and language are magic. There is always more of them to explore.
Story is a form of species-changing magic. And writing transmits this magic into the minds of generations and far-flung peoples.
In writing fantasy (which I mostly do), one creates the rules of a given world and studies how a story fits and works within that world. It is intriguing to witness story unfold even as one writes it. I am always surprised by what story reveals, about what it says about the world it explores, influences, interacts with and is influenced by.
Story is a key part of my life and has been for as long as I can remember. I am geared toward it like I am ecology and astronomy.
The gears of our children
In his essay forward, The Gears of My Childhood, to his 1980 book Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, Seymour Papert eloquently describes how gears shaped how he perceived the world and approached learning when he was a child.
We all have our gears where what we learn ceases to be flat and static and becomes multidimensional and living. Papert describes vividly how gears of different sizes fit together to produce meshing products in a multiplication table. I tried to describe here how interactions are part of my guiding gears. I have students who are ranchers. Others are athletes, artists, scientists, writers. And of course they are each interested in more than one thing and are geared toward truly fundamental world views.
Imagine viewing multiplication as representation of meshing gears. What most affects us, influences our world view and shapes how we perceive and interpret what we later encounter has a great effect and affect on what we learn and how we do it.
Teaching toward our children’s gears might help them understand and learn what we are teaching. It also might allow them to more easily own what they learn, extend it beyond our teaching and keep it for a lifetime. Teaching the student more than the students and the lesson content facilitates her engagement with and conceptualization of the outcomes we wish him to learn.
Papert recounts his discovery that others do not share his world model of the gears, but have different models instead. We have to teach students we know in multiple ways to help them learn what we want them to learn. We have to know and value our students to help them realize their influence, their potential and their dreams.
We might have a class under our charge, but that class consists of unique individuals geared by unique world models. The function and art of teaching is to change behaviour not people. Our gears are as precious as our names. Sometimes all we own are these two things. We need to be careful to nurture and engage our children’s gears so that they might serve our children well in our multi-layered societies.
This post was inspired by David Wees’ draft of a keynote he was invited to present at the 2012 University of Alberta Faculty of Education Technology Fair.