This year make a classroom in the wild

Arun Venkataramanan | Updated on January 01, 2021 Published  on January 01, 2021 

Class act: Learning by direct observation calls for an observant and curious mind and some  recording skills – IMAGES COURTESY: ARUN VENKATARAMAN 

The best classroom is the outside world — readily  available and for free 

* It is the role of teachers to lead students to magic wells  and set them off on their own learning journeys 

* To study about orchids and bromeliads in books and  then to witness them in person in their natural  environment is always exhilarating 

* Once students and teachers learn to use the world as  their classroom, the opportunities are endless

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to reflect on so much  of how we function as a society. In the past year children  either accessed virtual classrooms on a mute button, or had  fallen off the map entirely due to a digital divide. Either way  the question is: Has any real learning happened at all? And  can we course correct our method of teaching? 

If one were to go back to the drawing board and reflect on  what was the best way for education during a time like this,  schools as they are now might not come up as an option at  all. So what are the broad goals of a school education? 

For the sake of brevity, let’s tick two boxes. First, an  understanding of how the world functions. This includes  acquiring knowledge of various subjects. And, two,  developing skills mental, physical, interpersonal and many  others. This includes learning about behaviour, attitudes,  values, etc and engaging meaningfully with peers and adults. 

In my opinion, realms of learning, other than the social one,  don’t particularly need a school setting. In fact, a study of  home-schoolers will reveal how well children excel in  educating themselves with or without help from experts. But  in terms of acquiring knowledge or building skills, there are  multiple ways of going about it. 

The best classroom ever is the outside world, which is readily  available, for free, to learn from. Through our education  systems we have made learning a second-hand experience,  where we learn just about everything from published  materials. A judicious combination of both, the real world and books, will create room for some very exciting learning  opportunities. 

Learning through observation 

As a geography teacher, I have always encouraged students  to learn about the phases of the moon by observing it for a  month or two to figure out what is happening, either  individually or collectively. There are so many things for  students to learn here such as the direction in which to  sight it, the time of the day when it rises always different  each day, its changing shapes and so on. To learn these  things first hand by direct observation in real time is very rich  as it results in palpable learning which is one’s own. 

When one is near the ocean, we can learn about tides in the  same way. Similarly, one can study clouds, winds, monsoons,  soil types, ground water and many more things. All it takes is  an observant and curious mind and some recording skills. 

In biology too, there is so much to learn from direct  observation. There is flowering and fruiting of plants and  trees, pollination, composting, life cycles of insects, bird  migration etc.

Field work: Biology lessons in the open can focus on the flowering and fruiting of plants,  pollination, life cycles of insects and bird migration 

We link biology and geography by observing seasons, noting  when different trees, shrubs and plants bloom or bear fruit  and how the life cycle of insects such as butterflies and moths  are linked to those of plants and trees. Students and teachers  can create their own knowledge base through recording the  host plants (both feeding and egg laying) for different species  of butterflies. The same for bird species in terms of flowers  they draw nectar from, fruits and insects they eat, trees and  shrubs they use to nest.

Branching from this is the whole realm of life sciences of how  bodies evolve and adapt to suit their particular life styles. With  a strong foundation in direct observation and experiential  learning, one can of course keep building on both skills and  knowledge. 

Magic well 

German-Austrian Ethologist, Karl Ritter von Frisch, who won  the Nobel prize in physiology in 1973, drew the comparison of  drawing from a “magic well” while referring to in depth  learning. He was referring to tapping in to a rich source of  learning by asking the right questions, making pertinent  observations and drawing relevant inferences from that. Once  students learn to tap in to magic wells, there is nothing to stop  them. The opportunities to explore and learn from the outside  world are unending. It is the role of teachers like us to lead  students to magic wells and set them off on their own learning  journeys. 

A wide menu 

Students are excited by different aspects of learning. It is  important to present a wide menu during early years but, at  the same time, it is also important to allow for deep learning  by being willing to pursue each topic to the extent their  collective curiosity takes them. 

Not long ago, in a geography class with 13-year olds, we  were learning about oceans and marine life. It was from a  beautiful book with lovely illustrations and photos that held deep concepts. The diversity of marine life excited the class,  leading us to understand about the extent of light penetration  in oceans and its consequences, increasing pressure with  depth, drop in temperature, ocean currents and how marine  life are adapted to these conditions, using them for their  benefit such as sea turtles using ocean currents to migrate. 

So deep was the learning that we pursued this alone in  geography for a whole year. The students were not ready to  stop until we had finished the whole book. We also visited the  beaches of Chennai and participated in the conservation of  olive ridley sea turtles thereby bringing about a direct  experience to their learning. 

Becoming a wave: Visiting the beaches of Chennai and participating in the conservation of  olive ridley sea turtles enriched the learning about oceans and marine life

After this book, we engaged in a similar way with a rain forest  book for many semesters. We culminated this study with a  visit to a rainforest in Wayanad, Kerala, where conservation  of rainforest plants was being carried out. To study about  orchids and bromeliads in books and then to witness them in  person in their natural environment is always magical and  exhilarating. 

As a teacher I feel it is important that children learn about and  connect to the natural world without having to come to terms  with all the destruction we have brought about as a species.  That needs to come later in their life, but when they are still  young and thirsting to know the world it is important to  connect to it as naturally and organically as possible. 

The above examples just give a little glimpse into what is  possible. Once students and teachers learn to use the world  as their classroom the opportunities are endless. It also  makes learning a dynamic, direct experience and brings  immense joy and empowerment to the learner and facilitator  alike. 

As we enter a new year, with a morphing pandemic showing  little signs of abating, schools need to reinvent themselves  and our curriculum needs reimagining. There is no better time  to introduce our children to the beauty of the natural world,  rich with possibilities of learning. 

Arun Venkataramanan is one of the founders of Marudam  Farm School, Tiruvannamalai

This article appeared on Business Line