Thursday, January 06, 2011

ants and ants

Two kinds of ant
We spent the day yesterday with raincoats, binoculars and cameras wandering through the Costa Rican cloud forest. The rain kept most of the birds in hiding. We identified two kinds of ants, but even their activities were “dampened”. They are dependent on pheromes to travel in a line, whether they are “army ants”, always moving in mass from one location to the next or “leaf cutters’ who neatly snip small pieces of leaf and carry them from the tops of trees all the way down the trunk to stuff in holes in the earth and raise fungus which is fed to their queen. If you were not at all knowledgeable in such things you would probably notice very little difference in the two types of ants and have very little sense of wonder about them. Such very small things are taken for granted in the US, by all but the very few. We live our lives estranged and isolated from nature. See a bug, get out the spray. And our lives are made much more meaningful by the intrusions of mother nature.

Here at the Leaves and Lizards resort, you won’t find the typical USA American. At dinner we meet wildlife biologists, and others with deep environmental concerns. Costa Rica is a haven for scientists and biologists.

Howard Gardner had identified “nature smart” as one of our native and natural intelligences, and it is yet one more that is ignored and often suppressed in American education. I have talked before about the inherent bullying that takes place in schools as a result of our extreme focus on reading and math. Make a bit of noise with your pencil or pen and see how quickly your musical intelligence is suppressed. If your intelligences are not the primary two, you may find schooling to be generally oppressive.

At the airport, the sign said, Welcome to Costa Rica, where the people are the happiest in the world.” There is something to discover in nature about all that. First Costa Rica is green. Very green. It soothes the eye. Secondly, people spend their time in nature. You see them walking on the roads, carrying their children or machetes. Many work in agriculture, where “nature smarts” can be fully expressed.

I cannot help but marvel at the two types of ants I observed. How is it that army ants can travel as they do? When it rains the water washes their pherome trail. They have a tiny queen they carry along with all the pupae of their young. The leaf cutters on the other hand, have a huge queen nestled deeply in a hole in the ground where they tend to her needs as a way of preserving their own lives. To contemplate the incredible nature of their intricate symbiosis and atunement to the environment could leave one in a state of awe. And that awe is an important element that is often missing from American lives. We go goo goo and ga ga over technological devices and miss and ignore the more profound mysteries that surround us. In other words, we have the world at our finger tips and remain desperately out of touch. Make, create fix. DIY, TIY.


  1. Doug-

    Since I have been reading this blog I have found myself going into my science classroom with the mindset like I am going into my workshop. I try and read the students more as if I am reading the grain of a board. The tools that I use to shape and form my boards are with me in my mind as I am working with my students. All of the lessons I learn from forming a piece of furniture lend themslelf to working with my students. Your writings are influential and I am so grateful for having found your books and this blog. It may add years to my teaching career. Maybe I'll send guys like you and Matt Crawford a hallmark one day!

    So here's a little bit about my work as a teacher. Presently my 8th graders are personifying elements on the periodic table and creating their own performances for them to fit into and be acted out it. They love the idea of having control of their own learning and building something. I got the idea from reading about multiple intelligences as a beginning teacher. Gardner's Theory is true, and it should be the "mandatory delivery system" (if you will) for all content knowledge. Otherwise, you'll bore students into oblivion. There's a nice example of one of my student's projects from last year on You Tube called "Science War of the Elements." The performing arts have been a valuable tool for me to make science more meaningful.
    Keep enjoying Costa Rica!


  2. Chris, I met a professor from a university in Virginia who has her organic chem students act out the parts of molecules, so I know that is a good idea even at the university level. Teachers who have their students sit still for 45 minute lectures have little understanding of what the human brain can handle, and even less understanding of how we learn. Then, if you don't get it in their distorted fashion, you are adjudged incapable.

    Unfortunately, many teachers are trained for little else.
    The ones who succeed toward advanced degrees are often the ones who survive in the most oppressive learning environments. It is difficult to bring change. But it can be done. You are the change you believe in.

  3. I'll have to share this with my co-workers. Some seem to think that science can only be learned by doing what the curriculum guide says to do.

    On another note, I heard of David Pye's book "The Nature and Art of Workmanship" on this blog and I am looking forward to reading it. In addition, I am wondering if you could recommend a book on furniture construction.

  4. We would do well to throw out the text books and put science teachers back to their own resources. One of the primary things employees always bring up in job satisfaction is the matter of being trusted to engage creatively in their work and to test their own ideas. Standardized textbook teaching and curriculum are a great way of suppressing natural teacher engagement, and are killing the profession. Even among art teachers, I was told that 50 percent of masters of art education leave the field within 3 years. So the system loses its best and brightest and gets left with teachers who can tolerate becoming less engaged in their student's learning.