Thursday, July 9, 2015

Exploring the Educational Borders Between the Heart and the Mind

"In all things nature there is something of the marvelous."  --Aristotle

"Science but increases the mystery of the unknown and enlarges the boundaries of the spiritual vision."  --Liberty Hyde Bailey, The Holy Earth  

Monarch larva pupating

Monarch emerging from chrysalis

"Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty."  --Albert Einstein

The above quotes are written by great thinkers and scientists, renowned in their fields of study (philosophy, horticulture and physics respectively).  All three quotes though are pointing to something more than what might be considered hard and fast logic and/or science.  Philosophy and science are generally based in reason and logic.  They are about making sense of the world through discovery and facts . . . about proving the null hypothesis . . . about finding objective truths (or as close to truths as we can come).  And yet, I have started noticing an interesting paradox with many (if not all) the great thinkers and scientists that I have read.  There is a love of their subject matter that goes beyond the facts.  Science as something that is "marvelous," and "enlarges the boundaries of the spiritual vision" and is about "widening our circle of compassion," implies a delving into the heart.  These are not factual statements; they are statements of love.

This paradox, this jumping borders between the heart and the mind, makes so much sense to me.  Show me a great scientist and, chances are, they are passionate (and even in love with) their subject matter.  How could they not be?  Who could spend their life work studying the reproductive lives of bees (my entomology professor at U of MN) without some sort of passion and heartfelt love for bees?  These scientists are passionate folks.  If you want to be awed by moss, read Robin Wall Kimmerer's book, Gathering Moss.  She will pull you into the story of mosses so that you will never look at moss the same way again.  Moss is an amazingly adaptive species that can survive and reproduce in the most unlikely of spaces.  You will grow to love (if not highly appreciate) moss after reading her book.  If you need a reason to fall in love with trees, read Joan Maloof's book, Teaching the Trees.  I'm in the midst of reading her book now and I'm already seeing trees from a different perspective.  I've always been fond of trees, but now I'm learning just a bit more about the interwoven relationships between trees and the animals and insects that live among them.  The more I learn about trees, the more I appreciate them.  Life simply continues to amaze me.  And the fact is, I know so very little.  I feel a bit like Winnie the Pooh; compared to scientists, "I am a bear of very little brain."

The above monarch pictures show a couple amazing processes that I've had the opportunity (along with some of my students) to witnessing in real life: the monarch caterpillar (larva) turning into a chrysalis and the butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.  Both processes are spell-binding and although the processes are scientifically documented, they are still miraculous to observe.  My family knows that if I walk by milkweed (the only thing monarch caterpillars can eat) I look for eggs and caterpillars.  And when I find either one, I take them home and raise them.  About 1% of monarch eggs survive to adulthood, so I like to increase their chances.  I have learned a little bit about the lives of monarchs and all I can say is, "what's not to love?"  These insects have an amazing life story.  Summer monarchs mate and lay eggs, living for about two to five weeks.  Fall monarchs suspend mating and travel to Mexico, living up to nine months!  Monarchs travel from as far away as Canada to their overwintering home in Mexico.  After winter, they mate and begin their journey north.  It's really an incredible story.  But the story doesn't end there.  If you examine a common milkweed plant, you will find many different species of insects and spiders that are also fascinating creatures.  Did you know that when aphids (common pest to many plants) become overcrowded on a plant they will birth a generation of aphids with wings?  Or that aphids are almost entirely female with the sole goal of mass producing genetically identical babies?  Every plant, animal and insect has carved out a place in this world and adapted amazing ways to survive.  I'm not going to claim to love aphids, but I can pretty much bet, there's a scientist out there that does. . . This world is amazing and the more I know, the more amazed I become.

I am not a scientist or an expert of any kind.  In fact, as I grow older I realize more and more how little I know.  I'm a generalist at best.  I've been teaching elementary school for twenty years.  This means I teach all subjects from reading to math to social studies to handwriting (to name just a few).  I'm a "jack of all trades, master of none" (my sons like to say, it took me several years to graduate from kindergarten to first grade).  The few bits of information I shared in this piece of writing are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding and appreciating monarchs or aphids . . . hopefully enough for you to share a bit in my amazement.  There is another lesson here for those of us who are generalists in this world.  We need to remind ourselves that the heart has an important role in education.  Teaching requires at least as much emphasis (some of us would say more) on the love of learning as on any subject matter that we present.  Great scientists are born, out of not just knowledge but a love for their subject matter.  If we want to start a revolution of great thinking, we need to work on the love of it all.  The mind will always follow a great story.  And if we want to really save this world from the myriad of dangers we face, lets teach from our hearts, like there's no tomorrow (so that there will be).

"Nature-study is not science.  It is not knowledge.  It is not fact.  It is spirit.  It is concerned with the child's outlook on the world."  --L.H.Bailey