’21st Century Learning’ needs to connect to nature and the numinous

I was recently asked by my wife, in the course of researching her Masters thesis in SelfDesign Graduate Institute, to reflect on life experiences that provided me with an experience of ‘beauty’. I had no trouble landing on two experiences I had as a child, both during summertime, both outside of schooling, and each of which contributed to my deep fascination with natural science and also altered my life’s trajectory.

The first, when I was 5 to 7 years old, was a more-or-less habitual outing I made with my mother’s help to a nearby pond. Actually, it was a swamp but it was my Magic Kingdom. There, adorned in cap and rubber boots and with net in hand, I waded into a watery Valhalla. Hours went by like minutes as I studied the graceful darting of minnows, tadpoles and water beetles and, heart pounding, glimpsed the occasional turtle or water snake. Late in the afternoon my mother pleaded with me to leave, a proposition I would only agree to if I were allowed to pack home some frogs or minnows I’d procured during the afternoon.  As a young boy I dreamed of nothing richer than these adventures.

michael on log-2

Age 5, experiencing the bliss of ‘my swamp’

A second experience I recounted occurred a few years after we’d moved away from ‘my swamp’. Summer vacation arrived and I was ‘shipped out’ from my home in Vancouver to a nearby summer camp in Howe Sound. Initially, the camp had all the makings of a drizzly, Lord of the Flies-type experience including the start of a canoe trip on which we were to paddle around Gambier island, hike and camp out. Rain, cold water, wind and uncomfortable paddling set the stage for this trip to be a big bust until, incrementally, my doubts and misgivings were undone by some bigger force. The sun came out, the mountains dazzled, our canoe bobbed on an ocean that dazzlingly evolved through different crystalline shades of aquamarine. Seals bobbed around us.

I was gripped by excitement but my excitement turned to being out and out awestruck when we went ashore on Gambier Island and, in short order, I hiked into an old-growth forest – the first I’d ever experienced. There I saw massive fir and cedar trees adorned with spectral beards of moss, and I felt tiny and insignificant though also safe and secure as if among friends. I remember coming upon a stream flowing down the rocks and I thought it was the most beautiful scene I’d ever gazed upon, and the sound of the flowing water I heard as something absolutely perfect. I felt something vibrate throughout my entire body that I’d never felt before. A sensation of being part of something so extraordinary that there were no words for it, only feelings and impressions. Down at the foreshore, where the  water ran out of the forest and into the ocean, where it was irrevocably changed, I grasped an understanding of the ephemeral nature of life itself, something I’d not understood before, but here I could see that it, too, was profound and beautiful.

These experiences changed my life in many ways, all of them positive. They set me on my first career path in earth science, and my second as a science educator. In mid-life I migrated with my wife and daughter to the Sunshine Coast and now live nearby to that very camp and Howe Sound.

As an educator I can’t help but wonder how it is that more educators and administrators don’t consider more deeply how impressionable we were as children, and why we don’t strive to recreate the conditions by which we were often most positively influenced in our childhood and youth in settings far beyond the confines of a classroom. Influenced to learn, not by coercion and false rewards but by an irresistible desire to explore, experience and understand.

In education it has become fashionable to speak of ‘21st Century Learning’ that is largely dominated by technocratic skills. This needs to be challenged. In this 21st Century, when issues like climate change and habitat loss threaten to trigger global calamity, it has become imperative that we nurture opportunities for our children to connect, deeply, with the natural world where they might experience the numinous, and be positively changed.

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