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Place-based learning in teaching and teacher education November 1, 2016

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education, Social Ecology, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
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By Katherine Bates

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.  (Benjamin Franklin)

Place-based education is part of the broader ecopedagogical movement in education that connects learners with and immerses them in their natural locale (Kahn, 2010; McInterney & Smith, 2011). These connections are understood to be best developed authentically, over time and with gentle positive immersions in the natural world (Sobel, 2014). This ‘in-place’ approach is also argued to be a built on process, connecting students with their local community through repeated immersions in order to develop a sense of agency with and planetary citizenship for the lived-in world (Hung, 2014; Sobel, 2014). Place-based education therefore plays an important role for engaging students with notions of ‘place’, identity’ and ‘community’ and, for developing local-global connectivity and citizenship in these times of significant environmental challenge (McInerney, Smyth & Down, 2011; Misiaszek, 2016).

Place-Based learning is also a particularly useful and energising approach in light of today’s Australian Curriculum reform and eco-pedagogy paradigm shift (ACARA, 2012). With the inclusion of an eco-pedagogical approach in curriculum and syllabus documents, immersing children in the natural world, it moves from an optional fringe pedagogy to mainstream when implementing the Humanities and Social Studies Learning Areas in the Australian Curriculum and the NSW BOSTES History and Geography Syllabuses for the Australian Curriculum (ACARA, 2012; NSW BOSTES, 2012). However, if we are to implement this approach in a school context for deep learning about the world around us, educators need to leave indoor classrooms so that students can be immersed in the natural world ‘up close’ (Kahn, 2010; Knight 2016; Liefländer et al, 2015).

One of the core aspects in the Human Society and Its Environment subject in the Master of Teaching at Western Sydney University provides future teachers with a sense place by involving them in place-based activities within their local university environment. These strategies provide future teachers with a starting point for understanding hands-on, nature-based enquiry and provide model lessons for implementing positive immersion nature based explorations in their future primary Geography and History teaching contexts.

Many of these place-based tasks are supported by using technology in the learning experience and in the creation of learning objects back in the classroom thus making technology an invisible tool in the learning rather than a tokenistic add on (Hunter, 2015). One of the popular choices amongst the selection of activities is the nature audit. Vertical or horizontal metres are measured out and using a mobile device, photos of the components within the metre space are taken. Students then audit the collected data, categorising the manmade and natural objects, the interaction between the objects and the dominance of, or integration between these components (Fig. 1). The photos are then generated into a ‘Zoom’ slide show with a sustainability theme.

comp-1Figure 1: Nature Audit

 

 

 

Kinaesthetic experiences are also popular with our preservice teachers such as matching paint colour swatches with colours from the natural and man-made local environment (Fig. 2). Students then ‘colour-map’ their environment, collecting data on colour dominances and tonal preferences. These data mapping activities are connected with earlier work in using Google maps, geo-mapping and geocaching for learning about local and global communities with school aged students. Conversations and ‘fat questions’ are raised about the dominant colours in our children’s school and in their wider communities. Other kinaesthetic activities involve recording natural and man-made sounds in their environment, which instigates interesting discussions about the impact of sound and the ‘white noise’ in children’s seemingly ‘always on’ world.

comp

Figure 2: Colour in my world task

 

The strategies described here are but a sample of the place-based inquiries that our preservice teachers take part in but are ones that demonstrate the opportunities for rich discussion that these activities generate in terms of implementing place-based education with primary aged students. Moreover, the significant positive in task engagement that transpires when groups of preservice teachers work collaboratively in and about the natural world reinforces the different ways of knowing and learning that the outdoors offer all ages. As facilitators of these activities our team always looks forward to working with our groups as we share a common passion for supporting our future teachers in developing students’ connections with nature and develop pro-environmental agents of change (Liefländer et al, 2015).

 So children can thrive and grow strong in challenging times ahead, let us engage them in nature, ethical conversations, and the building of caring and peaceful communities, in their schools and beyond.  Winograd, K. (2016, p 266)

 

References:

Australian Institute for Teaching and Leadership (2016). Australian Professional Standards of         Teachers, Author, Sydney.

Hung, R. (2014). In Search of ecopedagogy: Emplacing Nature in the lLght of Proust and Thoreau. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 46(13), 1387-1401.

Hunter, J. (2015). Technology Integration and High Possibility Classrooms: Building from TPack,

Routledge, New York and London.

Kahn, R. (2010). Critical Pedagogy, Ecoliteracy and Planetary Crisis: The Ecopedagogy

Movement. New York: Peter Lang.

Liefländer, A., Fröhlich, G., Bogner, F., & Schultz, P. (2015). Promoting Connectedness with

Nature through Environmental Education, Environmental Education Research, 19(3), 370-384.

McInerney, P., Smyth, J., and Down, B. (2011). Coming to a Place Near You? The Politics and

Possibilities of a Critical Pedagogy of Place-Based Education, Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 39(1), pp 3-16.

Misiaszek, G. W. (2016). Ecopedagogy and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization:

Essential Connections between Environmental and Global Citizenship Education to Save the Planet. International Review of Education, 62(5), pp 587-607.

Sobel, D. (2014). Place based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities. Green

Living:  A Practical Journal for Mindful Living, 19(1), 27-30.

Winograd, K. (2016). Education in Times of Environmental Crisis: Teaching Students to be Agents of Change, Routledge, New York and London.

Dr Katherine Bates is a sessional academic in the School of Education at Western Sydney University, Australia.  She currently lectures in Human Society and Its Environment at Western Sydney University and also in Literacy and Numeracy in Secondary Schooling at the University of Wollongong. She has had extensive experience as a classroom teacher across ES1-S4, EAL/D and literacy support, as well as senior leadership roles in curriculum and assessment with the Department of Education and Sydney Catholic Education.

Reflections upon attending an indigenous world gathering for peace October 10, 2016

Posted by Editor21C in Community Engagement, Education and the Environment, Social Ecology, Social Justice and Equity through Education.
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By Roseanna Henare-Solomona

 

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21s t Sep 2016 INDIGENOUS TRIBAL NATIONS – GATHERING

On International Day of Peace 2016,

INVITATION to all indigenous tribal nations, to participate in a world gathering of:
❣ Chieftain’s / Grandmothers convening in global council;
❣ All respective Indigenous Nations of Mother Earth tending sacred fires, on their sacred land with community.

In this sacred way for Mother Earth and all her children, in solidarity:

Kia Ora, Talofa, Malo e lelei, Nisa Bula Vinaka, Namaste, Taloha Ni, Aloha, Fakalofa lahi Atu

———————————

Last month I participated in a delegation to attend this Peace gathering in Seoul Korea, and since returning to Sydney have decided to put pen to paper in an attempt to understand some of the outstanding issues raised by my colleagues in that forum. I also want to take a brief moment to present my own observations about some of the underlying problems to emerge when Non-Indigenous helpers attempt to organise Indigenous people.

Let me begin with two key issues discussed in depth during our assembly. The first was the degradation of papatuanuku, or earth mother, and the seas that surround her. On the very first day of discussions a representative from the Kiribati nation highlighted their plight with rising sea levels and the consequences of a sinking island or the loss of their home. He noted that this issue had been on the United Nations agenda for some time and wondered why very little had been done to date. The urgency, he explained, was such that my people are close to becoming like a homeless coconut floating in the Pacific Ocean.

I thought about my own home and what it might feel like to lose the place where we gather as a family to eat, laugh and love. My heart sank as I thought about the rising tides and the effects on the children and grandbabies of these Kiribati people. Actually, I could not even begin to fathom the loss to the families and the generations to come.

As the days progressed many more stories of horror and environmental destruction were shared. The Rena oil spill off the coast of Tauranga in New Zealand was another stand-out for me. The lack of accountability fuelled outrage, sadness and sometimes despair in me as the local people told of the lasting effects this oil has had on their food, water, health, and surrounding seas and land. And to think that the company pays a fine and then gets back into their boat and leaves the local people with an ongoing problem to fix.

This is outrageous! How can this occur? Corporate shipping companies who use our backyard as a highway to take their cargo from port to port with no real regard or accountability to the people whose lives depend on that sea and the land around it to live. It is ironic these companies are granted government approval to traverse our waters risking the food source and livelihood of many. Governments, in my view, are just as destructive and guilty as the shipping companies.

All that aside, my reflections about this dialogue and in particular, how it aligns with peace, left me somewhat perplexed as I struggled to find a composed resolve to an issue that forces such destruction on others. Moreover my intellectual brain started to think about the ongoing conversations we have in the academy; like the over production and never-ending need of humans to keep taking natural resources from earth mother, the sea and even our own species. I also thought about the people who are privy to knowledge about this global situation, and I realised just how vast the gap is between who know what is happening and those who do not.

This has left me in a state of continuous reflection and thought about how I may contribute, to at least let the people from the Pacific know what is happening beyond their beautiful paradise. The decision to write and tell this story is for now my resolve, and perhaps nowhere near as grand as a United Nations report, but at least it is a genuine attempt to make a change for the better.

The second and final issue I want to raise is the divide between non indigenous and indigenous peoples’ realities. This Korea trip taught me that we are still a very long way from understanding each other, because in some parts of the world there are non indigenous people whose intentions and purposes still operate within a bubble lined with romanticized ideologies. The thought that one can invite elders and leaders to travel halfway around the world where the biggest and strongest typhoon is causing havoc just a stone’s throw away from the gathering place is absurd to say the least.

And what about the missiles fired outward by North Korea only a few months earlier in the direction of Seoul? If that is not enough to get a person wondering, then how on earth does one respond to the hullabaloo antics of an organiser linked to the United Nations and academia who promises to transport our elders to the gathering place. Many travelled long distances and at their own cost to the allocated pick up point, only to be told at the 11th hour there is no plane. In my ‘cranky me’ voice I asked for a please explain. I soon saw how easy it was to disconnect an email, skype, telephone or communication link to suit one’s needs. It is these sorts of shenanigans that intensifies the divide between “us and them” and keeps the collective from bridging the gap in a time when there is an urgency to work together.

As I sat thinking about my world peace experience and the different emotions and lessons I found along the way, I can’t help but feel very blessed to have been taught by some beautiful grandmothers whose wisdom brought me full circle. They watched with great interest and curiosity as people including me shared stories of fear, frustration and despair. They listened with an open heart, and one by one each nanny spoke to an issue with clarity and wisdom. They also offered a solution to the problems we face. This response I shall ponder a little longer.

 

Dr. Roseanna Henare-Solomona is a sessional academic in the School of Education at Western Sydney University, Australia.

Learning towards an ecological worldview April 11, 2016

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Secondary Education, Social Ecology, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
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by David Wright

For a little over 20 years I have worked as an educator in a university based Social Ecology department. Here considerable attention is paid to the construction of ecological understanding and, in association, the ‘learning ecology’ of both students and (Hill, Wilson & Watson 2004; Wright & Hill, 2011). This is central to our process. We argue that it is one thing to observe ‘an ecology’, it is another to understand one’s self as part of it. Capra (1966), who has made a significant contribution to applying this thinking to education, draws on Maturana and Varela (1992), to describe this as ‘bringing forth our world’. With this in mind, our students are invited to pursue understanding through real world practice, self-reflection and creative, academic writing.

As an illustration of the context for this study, I quote ‘Anne’, a primary school teacher and a recent graduate of our Social Ecology program.

Before [I did the Master of Education: Social Ecology course] I didn’t have [an integrated] understanding… Ecology was a separate thing… I see everything in [connected] terms now. I see it in our relationship with the world, how our relationship with each other impacts upon the world around us… I look at the ecology of the classroom, because you see a shift when someone is away… The class… I see it as a body, an organism made of many bodies…. And I see the staff like that also… So yes… my understanding has changed totally (Personal communication, July 24, 2012).

Anne’s response demonstrates personal and social insight as well as insight into her work as an educator. She notes benefits to her work and benefits to her life outside of her work and she identifies this in relation to ‘the world’. I am excited by her analysis and keen to understand how insights of this kind can permeate education more fully. This is more than a response to an environmental problem. It is a response to ‘our’ circumstance: a social-ecological point in time, in which we are all participants (Wright, Camden-Pratt & Hill, 2011).

I argue therefore that ecological epistemologies can offer a considerable amount to the practice of education. The influence of Bateson’s thinking (1972, 1979; Harries-Jones, 1995) can be seen in constructivist approaches to learning, most particularly in radical constructivism (von Glasersfeld, 1996), where it is argued that the construction of understanding (or learning) is an individual experience built around reflection upon systems of relationship. Maturana and Varela (1992) extend this through theories of systemic self-organisation and autopoiesis. Autopoiesis (or self-making) draws on the biology of cognition to argue a process based understanding of experience, from the perspective of the participant. Varela (1999) extends this through further work on ‘enaction’, which identifies embodied experience as a generator of emergent knowledge. Such knowledge, Varela argues, creates consequences, for which responsibility must be taken. Capra (1996) captures such thinking in his discussion of the way in which we bring forth our world. Sterling (2003) argues this as the basis of a paradigm shift in education and an emerging ecological worldview.

In his work with the Centre for Eco-literacy (Stone & Barlow, 2005), Capra calls for education systems that learn from and reflect the workings of self-organising systems. He notes, “at all scales of nature, we find living systems nesting within other living systems – networks within networks” (1996, p.24). These living systems include schools. An ecological worldview draws attention to inter-relationships within a system. It does so from the perspective of those within that system, rather than that of detached ‘objective’ experts. Bowers (1999, 2011) describes this as ‘ecological intelligence’: the intelligence of the systems – including human systems of thought and action  – that sustain the organization of life. He argues that the transition from individual to ecological intelligence should be a major focus in education.

The challenge will be for education professors, as well, as their colleagues in other departments, to recognize how the patterns of thinking they now equate with progress and enlightenment contribute to the ecological crisis, and to make the radical shift in consciousness that is required (Bowers 1999, p. 170).

In predicating ‘the local’ as central within such learning Bowers emphasizes local communities, local histories and local environmental practices. He argues the importance of examining the local in terms of its sustainability. This can be known better Bowers suggests, through greater awareness of place based culture, tradition and ‘elder knowledge’. This calls up the values and experience of traditional and indigenous communities and challenges the assumptions and practices of colonial cultures. Immersive experience in nature-based learning is a vehicle for such learning (Sobel, 1996). Sobel argues, “we teach too abstractly, too early” (p.5). Grunewald (2003) also seeks to build a critical consciousness of the ways in which place permeates schooling. He challenges educators to recognise and utilise place-based pedagogies. In doing so he cites Wendell Berry.

Properly speaking, global thinking is not possible. Those who have “thought globally” [and among them have been imperial governments and multinational corporations] have done so by means of simplifications too extreme and oppressive to merit the name of thought… Unless one is willing to be destructive on a very large scale, one cannot do something except locally, in a small place (Berry cited in Grunewald, 2003, pp. 633-634).

These issues of systems thinking, criticality, the perspective of the participant, reflection, responsibility, ‘the local’, nature-based and place-based learning, indigenous perspectives and imaginative and emotional engagement in the construction of relationship are core elements in an ecological understanding of education. Much literature suggests that these can be linked and interwoven very effectively (Stone & Barlow, 2005; Smith & Williams, 1999; Saylan & Blumstein, 2011; O’Sullivan & Taylor, 2004; Judson, 2010). This thinking is applied and reflected upon in a research project that looks at ecological understanding in a selection of Australian and North American schools (Wright 2013). It is also discussed in relation to the use of drama as a teaching methodology in two recent book chapters (Wright 2015a, 2015b).

 

References.

Bateson, G. (1972) Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Ballantine Books.

Bateson, G. (1979) Mind and nature. New York: Bantam Books.

Bowers, C.A. Changing the dominant cultural perspective in education, In Smith, G.A. & Williams, D.R. (eds) (1999) Ecological education in action. Albany NY: SUNY Press.

Bowers, C.A. (2011) Perspectives on the ideas of Gregory Bateson, ecological intelligence and educational reforms. Eugene, OR: Eco-Justice Press.

Capra, F. (1996) The web of life. London: Harper Collins.

Grunewald, D.A. (2003) Foundations of place: A multidisciplinary framework for place-conscious education. In American Educational Research Journal, Vol 40:3.

Harries Jones, P. (1995) Ecological understanding and Gregory Bateson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Hill, S.B. Wilson, S. and Watson, K. Learning ecology. A new approach to learning and transforming ecological consciousness. In O’Sullivan, E. & Taylor, M. (2004) Learning towards an ecological consciousness. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Judson, G. (2010) A new approach to ecological education. New York. NY: Peter Lang,

Maturana, H. and Varela, F. (1992) The tree of knowledge Boston MA: Shambhala.

Saylan, C. & Blumstein, D.T. (2011) The failure of environmental education. Berkely CA: University of California Press.

Sobel, D (1996) Beyond ecophobia: Reclaiming the heart in nature education. Barrington MA: The Orion Society.

Smith, G.A. & Williams, D.R. (eds) (1999) Ecological education in action. Albany NY: SUNY Press.

Sterling, S. (2003) Whole system thinking as a basis for paradigm change in education: Explorations in the context of sustainability. University of Bath: Unpublished PhD.

Stone, M.K. & Barlow, Z. (eds) (2005) Ecological literacy. San Francisco CA: Sierra Club Books.

O’Sullivan, E. & Taylor, M. (2004) Learning towards an ecological consciousness. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Varela, F.J. (1999) Ethical know-how. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press.

von Glasersfeld, E (1996) Radical constructivism: A way of knowing and learning. London UK: Falmer Press

Wright, D. & Hill, S. Introduction. In Wright, D., Camden-Pratt, C. & Hill, S. (2011) Social Ecology: Applying ecological understanding to our lives and our planet. Stroud, UK: Hawthorn Press.

Wright, D., Camden-Pratt, C. & Hill, S. (2011) Social Ecology: Applying ecological understanding to our lives and our planet. Stroud, UK: Hawthorn Press.

Wright, D. (2013) Schooling ecologically: An inquiry into teachers’ ecological understanding in ‘alternative’ schools. Australian Journal of Environmental Education Vol. 29: 2.

Wright, D. (2015a) Drama & ecological understanding: Stories of learning. In Anderson, M. & Roche, C. (eds)  The state of the art: teaching drama in the 21st century. Sydney, NSW: Sydney University Press. ISBN 9781743320273.

Wright, D. (2015b) Drama and ecological understanding: reflections upon ecology, performance, place and indigenous knowledge systems. In Linds, W. & Vettraino, E. (eds.) Playing in a house of mirrors: Applied theatre as reflective practice. Sense Publishers.

 

Dr David Wright is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at Western Sydney University, Australia. He is also the Academic Course Advisor for the Master of Education (Social Ecology) program at the university.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Postcard from Alaska: The Dream of an Arctic Winter August 25, 2015

Posted by Editor21C in Social Ecology.
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from Carol Birrell

Have you ever had a dream of doing something in your life so so special that you can hardly imagine it? We ask young children, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ In classrooms, we explore imagination, through reflecting on dreaming the future. We smile at those grandiose plans, and reflect on our own lives where many of those dreams were shattered.

I was recently in Alaska, on a very small island in the south-east of the state, as part of a month long Writers’ Fellowship through The Island Institute. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to come to Alaska- in winter! Many think I am crazy, but trained as a geographer, landscapes vastly different from our own have always fascinated me. But most of all, I have harboured this desire to see the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights, as they are more commonly known.

Twenty years ago I bought a book on the Aurora, hoping and wishing that one day I would get to see it. Of course, there is a snag here. Even if you do make it to Alaska, there is no guarantee that you will see the Lights. First of all, it depends on the sunspot activity of the sun, producing streams of charged particles hurtling towards earth at a great pace, and this happens in 11 year cycles, with a peak at about 5 years. 2014 was the peak. Ok so cross that one off the list. Next is the weather itself. Clear skies, no wind, and that usually means temperatures below freezing. And where do you find that? Best chance is inside the Arctic Circle with temps at this time of year down to minus 60F. Now the exact translation of that extreme temp to Celsius is beyond me, but I do know that at about minus 40 both F and C scales converge. I am no scientist, but I can tell you that it is some of the most extreme cold on the planet. What is the coldest I experienced? Maybe minus 1C, hardly in the same category.

Next box to cross off? Even when those conditions have been met, you never know what time the Aurora will turn up, if at all. It is more likely in the wee small hours of the morning, like 1 or 2am, when the temp has dropped even further. A 15-20 min stint is all our human body can take at that temp. Eyeballs can freeze then, so you have to constantly blink, and whatever you do, don’t cry! You cannot breathe in that cold air, or ice could freeze not only the back of your throat, your nasal passages, but also your lungs.

The place I chose to stay was a hop in a plane over the Arctic Circle at a little village called Bettles, occupants 14 in winter, swelling to 30 in summer. No roads in or out. Sometimes it is too cold for planes to fly as the fuel freezes, or the engine freezes, or everything freezes. We were doing well to get in and out of Bettles in a small 6 seater. This is the only way food and provisions get to small places like this in winter. Imagine the costs! Naturally, not much in the way of greens provided but we had hearty bowls of moose and reindeer sausages.

Now, even if the Aurora does show, it may be a weak night of only one colour (mostly green), or it is rather a still show- more like bands of green light that are stationary across those starry night clear skies…

All this is to say, it is quite a palaver to get to see the Northern Lights.

Besides being a Geographer, I have a commitment to experience based learning. In most of my classes at university, I take advantage whenever I can, of introducing experiential learning. There is no substitute. You can ply me with all the apps in the world that simulate all the things that we cannot directly experience, but I know that the direct encounter leaves the most profound imprint. It is learning par excellence.

And there is no comparison between reading about the Aurora Borealis (or seeing youtubes of it) and experiencing it. Sometimes those experiences do not have words, cannot so easily be translated into language that others can comprehend. But they exist, nonetheless, and you know it has changed you, in the deepest way possible.

So I cannot, and would not, try to describe the actual experience to you of being present with the Aurora Borealis on a night so clear and burning that all my hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, became frozen solid. Rather, I want to encourage you to hold on to your own dreams, and chase them, encourage our children and young (and older) students in our classes to seek out their dreams first hand, rather than vicariously, through others. And never, never lose hope.

 

Dr Carol Birrell is a former lecturer and social ecologist in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She has written several other posts for this blog.

Learning off by Heart May 5, 2015

Posted by Editor21C in Primary Education, Secondary Education, Social Ecology.
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from Carol Birrell

One subject I teach through the School of Education at UWS is Learning and Creativity, a Social Ecology unit undertaken by many pre-service teachers (about 250 each semester). It introduces students to engaged learning through creative pedagogies and instills how to be a creative teacher in all aspects of the curriculum. I happened to be taking an absent, sick tutor’s class just a week or so before a major creative piece of work was due. A young man with shining eyes stayed behind to ask me whether or not he was on track with his assignment.

His plan, as he explained to me, was to demonstrate to the class the impact of an intense learning experience he had gone through just a year or so earlier. It was learning the Koran off by heart. He told me it took him 3 years to memorise all the words of this ancient text, which also demanded knowing the meaning of every word written. Scholars had come to Sydney to conduct this teaching and it was every day for three years that he studied so intently. He showed me the Koran itself, in its exquisite detailed calligraphy, and demonstrated the process of his learning right from the beginning. He had learnt a page a day, line by line, then progressing to paragraph by paragraph. Within a very short time, he was able to put together and repeat a grouping of 3 paragraphs and so on, up to a whole page, then several pages. Each day began a series of new pages, but first with a testing of the previous day’s learning.

I was astounded by this singular feat of learning off by heart, since I can hardly recall the names of my current students in class, let alone the poems and songs of my childhood!

It made me think about the ‘noble art’ of rote learning and its fall from favour as a teaching strategy. When I was in primary school, the times tables in Maths were an absolute fixture of everyday lessons and the whole class would chant it out together like a mantra being exhorted by a pulsing fervent crowd. Alas, no real fervour here in class, just the terror of being caught out in not knowing the answer to 6×8! I must say, it had some sort of appeal to me then, even in its hollow recitation. There was definitely a rhythm to the sing-songy learning which most of us seemed to enjoy once we had it mastered. Of course, there were some who never managed to master it, despite the threats…!

Then I think back to my crazy High School French teacher, who fired herself into every class with a barrage of language. We would sit mute as the French words flowed from her into a fertile field of unknowing. She loved us to repeat out loud, after her, all our vocab for the day. Yes, vocab for the day, at least 10 words that she would duly test us on the very next lesson. This may not seem so unusual, to call upon rote learning in the acquisition of a new language, but somehow I think it had more to do with learning off by heart as her particular ‘je ne sais crois’! Did we learn via this method? We surely did, but was it again, more through fear, or the power of rote?

Perhaps I imbued some of these now archaic techniques in my own pedagogical practices unknowingly. A particularly difficult 9F Geography class (no, ‘F’ was not the teacher’s surname but the lowest level of streamed classes), convinced of their ineptitude for anything scholarly, and backed up by most teaching staff, had me confounded when I tried to get them to study the geography of Japan. Of course, first up, you have to know the names of the islands of Japan. Impossible! No matter what I tried, no recall. Blank wall! I finally, in sheer desperation, resorted to something familiar. Get a chant and a rhythm going:

‘Hon-shu Shik-ok-ku Ky-u-shu Hok-kai-do! ‘
‘Hon-shu…
Shikoku…
Kyushu…
Hokkaido!’

And off we went stomping around the class, around and around with these words becoming familiars amidst much hilarity and stupidity. But they got it! And it stayed with them. Fixed in embodied learning that rarely disappears. Maybe hidden, but there to be plucked at some future time.

So I think it is time to take a long hard look at some of these Western educational outdated methods and reconsider if we have thrown the baby out with the bath water. Is there no place for honing our memory through ongoing recitation? And what about poetry known and recited out loud? Children’s nursery rhymes that form a strong basis of literacy?

The lost art of learning off by heart… Now why was it called that? What has the heart to do with this process of memorizing?

The young man with shining eyes told me why he wanted to do this feat of memorising. The desire had been with him as a young kid, when first shown the Koran. He just knew he wanted to do it, for his love of God. As strong then as it was twenty or more years later when he finally achieved his dream. Now, he was learning through his heart. And with his heart.

I do know that in an embryo, when the organs are early developing, the heart and the ear lie close together, before the ear finally migrates to the top of the body, which becomes the head. So for some time, the intimacy between head and heart creates a template of relationship that may be remembered each time the word is spoken aloud to the heart.

The shining man cannot rest on his laurels once the deed has been accomplished, the total memorization of the Koran. He must one day a month go through that huge chunk of the Koran in total, to test his memory, to say it out loud, going over and over it for the rest of his life.

This, surely, is learning off by heart! Not all learning systems threw rote learning out, for good reason.

I am off to brush up on some poems, long ago learnt and forgotten. How hard can that be? And then after that, I’ll tackle the names of all my students…!!

 

Dr Carol Birrell is a Lecturer and social ecologist in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She has written several other contributions on this blog site.

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