Learning to Fly

cedar waxwing

When I’m not pondering how much knowledge and what kind of knowledge I should have as a teacher in a 21st-century classroom, I’m thinking about what ‘good’ teaching is. Reams have been written over centuries about what makes a teacher ‘good’ but I confess that I find the whole debate utterly exhausting. What is ‘good’? For whom? When?  What does it even mean to ‘teach’?

A few summers ago, my friend Skylark and I were on one of our regular  walks through a nearby fragment of forest when we noticed a baby bird on the pathway.  The bird still had downy feathers and seemed quite content to be just sitting there.  But sitting where it was would put it in the direct path of any one of the many dogs that also love to walk the trail. And so we had a dilemma on our hands.

I immediately announced that I did not know how to look after a baby bird but Skylark’s childhood had included experiences with her father rescuing birds and butterflies.  She began talking softly to the bird while she thought about what to do. After a few minutes, she gently picked up the bird the way her father had taught her, and placed her/him in her purse.  We walked on. When we came to a stream, she dipped her finger into the water and fed the bird droplets of water, all the while patiently talking to the bird.  Then she decided we had to find some worms so that we could feed the bird.  So there we were, scratching around the dirt looking for worms to feed the baby bird all the while mosquitoes were having quite a midday meal on us. We didn’t find any worms and so continued our walk, wondering all the way if the bird would be okay.

When we got home and Skylark went on the Internet to find out what to do about the bird, she quickly realized that we had done all the wrong things.  A bird-rescue website had helped her to identify the bird (a cedar waxwing), corrected her on what the bird actually needed to eat (berries, not worms) and advised that the bird should be returned to the place it was found so that its mother could find it and show it how to get back to the nest.

And so we followed the advice which included setting the bird back in the same area but not the same spot and waiting from a distance for the mother so show up.  We did as suggested and after waiting about 20 minutes, we realized that the bird had been safely rescued by its mother.

For me there are so many dimensions of learning and teaching revealed in this incident. There is the learning and teaching between the baby bird and its mother.  Apparently baby cedar waxwings learn to fly by first dropping to the ground which is why it was not scared to be where it was. It had not, of course, realized that its forest home also accommodated lots of humans and dogs. Although it had been born with the instinct to fly, it still  needed guidance from its mother. The ‘teaching’ by the mother bird and the ‘learning’ by the baby bird were processes that had evolved over millennia so that there are specific skills learned and taught for a specific environment.  Baby birds need to learn to  fly in order to feed themselves so that they can go on to do more bird-like things: sing, procreate, participate in an ecosystem.

To gather data about the bird as an entity separate from its environment (temperate rain forests) would provide a poor and incomplete picture of the bird, its bird behaviour (eating berries) and bird skills ( flying, nest building).  In addition, to gather data about how the bird learns and is taught without looking at the environment would be a ridiculous notion. And yet proponents of standardized teaching and testing use just such a lens when they look at students in classrooms.

What the bird needs to learn is directly connected to specific needs in a specific environment.

And when that environment changes, as it is currently for many Arctic birds, there is a level of change in that learning in order to adapt to the new environment. Many birds have adapted to living and thriving in urban environments. How did they learn how to do this? How long did the learning last?  Who/what  were the teachers of that learning? How did they realize that their environment was changing and that they would need to adapt?

Ecologists tell us that we humans too are inextricably part of an ecosystem, that without our environments, we would die; spiritual mystics tell us that there is no boundary between what we see as our separate selves and what we call our environment.  And yet we persist in seeing teaching/learning as a separate issue, extricated from the multiple places and spaces to which we belong.

Each morning we all awake to different selves (biologically, chronologically, psychologically) in a different world (seasonally, technologically, historically, politically) both outside and inside the classroom.  And yet we continue to rely on textbooks that captured what was true in an environment long-changed by new discoveries, and new ways of seeing the world.  We continue to focus on the past to prepare students for the future. If birds did this, they’d never survive!

The Information Age has exponentially generated not only vast oceans of information but also a multitude of possible places of belonging and ways of being. What determines what is ‘good’ to learn and teach in an ever-changing world?  Is it enough to know how to navigate oceans of information?  Should we learn how to live in a world of imminent nuclear devastation?  How to live in a world of dramatic weather events and climate change?  Should we teach our children how to live in a world of perpetual war? How to make a living during economic recessions and depressions? Should they know how to thrive in whatever economic system is going to replace capitalism?

What do we prepare the next generation for when we are not even certain what the future looks like?  Whose agenda do we choose and what are the implications of that for the child, for society,  for our collective future?

Next September schools will begin to educate 6 year olds for the world of 2028… who knows what they’ll need to know for the world they will face when they enter adulthood?Will we have prepared them enough so that they know how to fly in the forests of the future?