Wednesday, June 10, 2009

44 billion dollars to tide us over

Around two o'clock last Saturday, I saw a miracle. The current cutting across the jetty slowed perceptibly, stopped, then reversed, in less than a half hour. (As the tide turned, a horseshoe crab shed blue blood on me, a mortally wounded skate stared at me, and the sun moved as well.)

Tides are, ultimately, incomprehensible to me. Oh, I can do the math, figure out the forces, even calculate the tonnage of water moved (give or take a few million) in the Delaware Bay, but my brain cannot truly imagine all that water.

A page of numbers ultimately means nothing.

This does, though. If I stand in knee deep water at low tide, it will be a foot over my head at high tide. I've watched the tide come in and retreat. I've played while it ebbed, fished while it rose, ate while it ebbed again, napped when it returned--not sure I've not done anything that matters within the sound of the surf.

So how do we teach awe? Do we force a child to memorize daily tide heights? Make her watch the beach for 6 hours? Talk about the moon and the sun and the Earth's relative positions?

You cannot teach the tides unless you know the tides. You cannot know the tides unless you live at the sea's edge. A ghost crab knows the tides, but none of them are certified.

We cannot know the tides, but we try anyway.
We cannot teach what we do not know, but we try anyway.


So you want to do a unit on the tides, either because it interests you, or because the course curriculum says you must, or because the state has decided that knowing the tide gets our children a leg up on those Asian children who are stealing nonexistent jobs, or because an expert determined that tides are a good source of renewable energy or because....

Whatever the reason, a child will not be interested until she watches the sea gobble up a good chunk of land, and even then, there's a good chance she'll be more interested in the dead purple urchin at the shore's edge.

Whatever reason we might choose to teach tides does not matter to the student. That knowing tides might lead to some career in the future otherwise destined to a child in a faraway land means nothing. That the state requires exposure to the subject means nothing. That a teacher happens to love tides might matter a little bit, but less than we like to believe.

Are tides worth knowing? I think so, but not in any way that can be efficiently measured.

We need room for awe in the classroom. Awe takes time.


My sophomores run to the back of the room before the bell rings, tending pale green bean plants, now gaunt for lack of real soil. Peat moss, water, and light only carry a plant so far.

Maria's plant "died" last week. I thought it was long past watering. I offered her another bean. She ignored me and watered Fred (or whatever name she gave this particular bean plant--she has gone through a few of them).

Fred's doing fine now, maybe a little pale for lack of nitrogen, but he should thrive once transplanted into the ground.


Sean Nash recently challenged me to build a course:

Build a pilot, Dr. Doyle. Build a microcosm within your larger system that allows those near you to see what happens when your philosophies do on the the students you work with on ground level.

We just really can't say we don't like what the typical track through the system is doing for kids... if we don't offer an alternative for comparison.

Mr. Nash is right. I may use our astronomy club as the jumping off point. I might even dabble in the classroom. Our district is embracing Understanding by Design--we are expected to use craft our lessons around essential questions and enduring understandings--a daunting task, but a worthwhile one. (Good teachers have been doing this for centuries anyway.)

With a little luck and lots of work, my kids will have an equal shot at nonexistent jobs, Arne Duncan will shower money on my district for meeting measurable standards, and the Marias in my class will find suitable replacements for Fred (and Robert and Joe...) the Bean plants.

A problem remains.

Some things worth knowing cannot be quantified. Awe cannot be measured. Awe takes time. Awe is inefficient. Awe defies scantrons.

No one is going to get rich these days writing a pedagogical method teaching objectives that cannot be measured, though plenty of people are going to get a nice check from the 44 billion dollars Arne's waving around on his "Listening and Learning" Tour.

44 billion dollars buys a lot of measurables, but not a lick of time.

So, Mr. Nash, if you're looking for me, you'll find me on the ferry jetty in Cape May on Saturday, watching the tide rise, watching the tide fall. Some folks would say I'm just wasting time.

I'd say I'm living.


Kathryn J said...

Awe takes time. It often requires the slow observation you describe for the tide. Sit outside long enough on a summer night and you will notice the constellations circling Polaris, then you understand the rotation of the earth in a way you haven't before. There isn't time when standards are content-driven rather than learning-driven. I think the listening and learning tour is happening too fast for true understanding.

My favorite tide story comes from my oldest son, then four, who has spent a week every summer camping near the beach on Cape Cod. We live near the Erie Canal which is drained every winter to protect canal infrastructure from freeze-thaw cycles. The winter he was four, he told a friend - as we were driving over the canal - that the canal was now at low tide but it took longer than the beach to get to high tide. Kids!

iceowl said...

One problem is, Mike, that not all kids can "get it" about subject X or Y or Z. I was really good at math all through my educational history, and I can still plow though the mechanics. But did it inspire awe in me the way it did to the physicists and math majors? Nah. I just thought it was cool and I could do it and most people couldn't.

Even my chosen field, electronics, I knew enough to get the grades but could I really understand the underlying reality of what was happening between the equations? Nah.

Now, all these years later, I realize what I was missing. I realize my education was a swiss-cheese mesh of discrete learning with lots of blank spots left as an exercise to the student to complete. And in those blank spots was the awe-inspiring reality that the very smart people, and the accomplished people "got" immediately. It took me years to catch up. Now I am awed by math and I have an intuition about all things computerized and electronic that before I had of once only a wrote understanding.

However, it was only through several inspired teachers that I learned it was possible to be inspired by engineering or math. I imagine that most kids would never associate "awe" with the tides, but rather, with the utility for fisherman of knowing the tide tables.

Every week, it seems to me, out here in California at some festival or another I meet another artist or architect of esoteric technology who is inspired by some facit of the world or another - of bees or trees or butterflies or tectonic geology. They make things. They craft things.

Lots of the time, I am not awestruck by the things that capture their imaginations. And it is probably my limited capacity that holds back that process.

Though, I am aware of the possibility of being captivated by the ripples in the aqueduct flow or the conjunction of the moon and mars over the deer in the park at the end of the street.

This probably cannot be taught. Rather, examples have to be made, and the mind has to allow that possibility life is entirely the force of magic and all the living practitioners or this invisible art.

I suspect we can't hope for more.

doyle said...

Dear Kathryn,

I love watching people "feel" the Earth move on a clear summer's night. It doesn't take long to see the stars shift in the sky.

I love watching the moon rise over a cityscape. My brain still expects it to rise "straight" up, but of course it doesn't.

I love the Erie Canal story--I had no idea it was drained each winter.

Dear Joe,

You may not have been in awe of the physics behind the math, but when we were kids, you were mesmerized by everything--it's why we all tolerated your habit of taking everything apart (and usually put back together).

Administrators might see tides as a utility for anglers, but I'd bet most kids don't worry much about the utilitarian value of anything.

(Not sure you knew James, who broke his neck diving into Compton's Creek at low tide back in 6th grade--an awful but effective way for us to appreciate how much water flows in and out with each tide. And crabs--we could always get blue claws at high tide.)

Maybe awe is the wrong word for kids--everything's still so new when you're under 10. Lightning bug, whoa! Snake, cool! Look, a turtle, skunk weed, a dead rabbit, ants....

Anyway, I ramble--I agree a lot of this cannot be taught. So be it. My big fear is that we are killing the spark that interests kids in lives outside of the human, we are deadening natural curiosity.

School rewards hard work, true, and it rewards applied intelligence. It also rewards, though, plodding through without thought, worshiping inanimate objects (again without thought), and focuses on some golden future that is supposed to justify much of the useless time spent in classrooms.

It need not be that way.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Where else in the universe?

nashworld said...

I sure wish I had previewed that comment before I hit "publish." Doggone skinny Blogger-windows.

And you know... out on the Jetty is the absolute best place to conceive of a pilot. One that takes that hands/feet/minds-on approach and builds OUT from there.

You won't find that protocol for design in UbD, but I assure you it can work.......