Another dot in the blogosphere?

Natural learning

Posted on: July 29, 2010

Two days ago I read a Straits Times article titled work starts on nature walk.

I bring this up because I used to be a biologist and a biology teacher in a previous working life. I also bring this up because I see a problem repeating itself.

Anyone who reads the article and who has lived long enough in Singapore will not be surprised that nature will be tamed and trimmed so that we can walk in it without getting too much of it on us.

In a way this is a good thing because most people do not know how to walk with nature. Instead, they trample all over it like clumsy toddlers in a toy store. So the authorities, being responsible parents, protect the kids from the store and the store from the kids by landscaping and manicuring what they can.

It’s a bad thing because the interventions are incomplete. They are well thought out in terms of planning, logistics, and infrastructure. They protect nature from stupid people with the hope they learn a thing or two. But the reality is that you get heavy cosmetics over badly scarred skin. Why else do visitors still leave litter on these walks and only learn whether something can be eaten or not?

What there isn’t enough of is social engineering in the form of values education. Yes, I know that the Nature Society of Singapore has programmes for this, but these are too few and far between to be part of our cultural consciousness.

We have a natural heritage to pass on. The next generation can either watch this shrinking heritage on YouTube dryly or live it messily. Creating a walk seems like a good compromise because you get a clean and edited simulation of the real thing. But it’s not. You miss the emotions you get when you startle a water monitor or when you discover brilliant colour in the forest gloom or when you figure out how to walk in mangrove mud.

I think that the manicured walks mirror our schooling system. We have a centrally planned curriculum that is relies largely on the model of decontextualized delivery. It is efficient and predictable. But it is so embedded in our culture that most teachers, parents and students know no other way.

Learning is messy and complicated. Our typical response is to clean it up and chunk (dumb) it down. In the process, authentic contexts get removed. Sometimes we realize this is doing our learners more harm than good, but we take half-hearted corrective measures that do not always get at the root of the problem.

For example, when we realized that our students were only exam-smart, we introduced things like project work and community involvement. But both have become formulaic in that you could practically get tuition centres to “teach” these “skills”.

Our approach is remaining reactive rather than being proactive. Look at the retrospective addition of elevators and safety barriers at train stations. At HDB flats, look at the retrospective addition of ramps and lifts that stop on every floor.

MacRitchie to Bukit Timah Briskwalk by inju, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by  inju

Returning to the example on nature, I wonder how many people realize that when the Bukit Timah Expressway was built, it cut our primary water catchment and nature reserve into two. This has not only led to the drying out of our forests but also disrupted natural animal highways. Now there are plans to retrospectively link the two halves via a green path. Better late than never? Not when the damage has been done.

It is not possible to foresee everything, but some signs are clearer than others. Our learners no longer get information only from teachers and textbooks. They can connect with information via Internet-connected devices and with people who know who, what, where, when, why and how.

We need to teach them to connect the dots. We need to use the tools that they are already using so that we learn how to learn like them. Then only can we teach them how to use those tools better.

In other words, instead of building an artificial walk, we should walk the talk by being learners ourselves. Then only can we teach in more relevant and natural ways.

3 Responses to "Natural learning"

i believe that more than half of the visitors to these nature places are inconsiderate visitors. they are there to destroy the view rather than appreciating what is there. I find vandalism and litters all over the top of the Jejawi tower at Chek Jawa. It is really disheartened to find people carrying out such acts. On one side, nature lovers are trying to protect these places and educate the visitors but on the other side, inconsiderate visitors are destroying the place. 😦

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Agreed. Unfortunately, the nature lovers and educators are a smaller side.

I don’t think we can rely on traditional educational approaches as one solution to the problem. Instead, one answer lies in informal educational opportunities.

To create such opportunities, we could leverage not only on sign boards (who really reads them) but also on new and immediate tools like augmented reality and social networking tools.

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