by Denny Olson

Denny Olson

 At Flathead Audubon, we have a lot going on these days behind the scenes to build our school field trip presence in our own Owen Sowerwine Natural Area and assisting the Flathead Land Trust and Fish, Wildlife and Parks with in and out-of-classroom student bird education in the West Valley Ponds (“The Cranes, the Cranes!). So here is more about the “why” of getting kids outdoors as part of their schooling. Why is the outdoor part of a “sense of place” so critical?

In lieu of being outdoors, schools are beginning to address the more generic skills that will prove essential to a sense of place. Problem-solving, listening and observation skills, the ability to work in teams (collaboratively and cooperatively, seeing the value of synergy first-hand), competence with electronic technologies, etc., are being addressed by most of our local schools. Depending on the teacher, some also address critical thinking, healthy skepticism, planning (beyond the short-term and obvious) and life-long learning. The development of science standards is at least partly responsible for these advances.

However, ecological and environmental literacy, and the development of a sense of place, demand a set of skills that are (largely, but not always) missing from the public education framework. To develop these, in all classes and subject areas students should routinely  (1) seek interconnections between objects and events (thinking about systems), (2) look for the very beginnings of change, (3) evaluate the consequences of potential actions, (4) examine alternatives and make choices among the least-impact possibilities, (5) assume a sense of responsibility to all members of the community, both human and non-human, (6) critically examine values issues, (7) distinguish between quantity, quality and actual value, (8) distinguish the virtual (map) from the actual (territory), and (9) modify old conclusions with new facts.

Instead of a plethora of unrelated disciplines, real, community-centered place education operates under the fact that all education is “environmental education”. It cannot be tucked into science or geography, because our “environment” is the “all and everything” of our existence. Of course, it is extremely difficult to develop cross-disciplinary thinking in a discipline-oriented framework. Environmental education will probably never realize its potential until the entire school is organized under a basic philosophy which seeks the connections between specialties, encourages multi-person team teaching, and fosters the reassembling of narrow specialization back into the big picture.

By contrast, a community-based, place-literacy-focused education system has a very different set of descriptions. The primary objective is the engagement of students in critical thinking and action as citizens. Curriculum focus would be on group learning processes and positive action (“action” does not mean rebellion or a political stance, as some would fear). Ideally, the community, teams of teachers, and the students themselves would be the decision-making body. The main emphasis of this type of education are community linkages, student positive action, small group processes, developing a working knowledge of society and community, and a constructively critical perspective on society and the community. Primarily, it is focused on interaction and empowerment, and learning the skills to be a life-long learner. In this model, self-evaluation is ongoing as part of the learning process, done primarily by the learner. This “learner”, of course, can be any member of the community, not just those of school age.

It’s revealing to look at what brought us to here, educationally. For me, my ability to think and write about ideas comes mostly from personal exploration and reading interests, from conversations with people I admire and respect, from solitary walks in the woods and canoe trips, from sitting in tree stands watching the daily activities of deer, bears, ravens and an ecosystem of other animals, from being involved in the politics and spirituality of friends and community, and from practice. Except for paper credibility (diplomas, etc.) I think that fewer of my “qualifications” came from inside school buildings.

This is not meant as an indictment of formal schooling. It is a plea toward the realization that education happens everywhere and all the time, and is much, much broader and deeper than “school”. Confining “education” to the school building, television, computers, the city and its suburbs is akin to expecting well-rounded humans to emerge from a sensory deprivation chamber. The key to effective classroom learning may well be getting out of the classroom on a regular basis.

There is a bigger world outside, full of life lessons and rich, hair-raising experiences that change the courses of lives, and sometimes even save them. We have two of those world-class outdoor schools right next to us, one in the West Valley and one in the East River-bottom. How about we use them?