Being In Nature Benefits Health – But How? | IFLScience

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“Kuo suggests that fresh air, sunlight and a beautiful view relax us and turn off our “fight or flight” responses. “When we feel completely safe, our body devotes resources to long-term investments that lead to good health outcomes – growing, reproducing, and building the immune system,” she said. If so, many of the same benefits can be achieved for those who really aren’t the outdoor type by doing what they love, be it reading a good book or spending time with friends. However, Kuo adds these don’t provide elements of good health such as Vitamin D.”

–Stephen Luntz, “Being In Nature Benefits Health – But How?” On IFL

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Back at It. & Photos

I’ve had a packed and busy school year, so for these last few weeks, I took a hiatus from all matters education—and news and social media in general—to visit Ireland and Scotland. I greatly enjoyed the architecture, green and blue expanses, non-humidity, whisky, beer, haggis, and blood pudding. Here’s some pictures:

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Now I’m back to work, doing a summer residency with one education organization and virtual contracting with another. I’ll be posting more as I shed the sweet remnants of Britannia from my soul. . .

Unnatural Selection: Darwin and the Business Model

I’ve been thinking about natural selection lately. If schools are ecosystems and students are the species occupying those ecosystems, these student species must be constantly adapting to meet the demands of their environments. Eventually, some of these adaptations must harden into character traits, and these character traits, developed in response to school environments, must form some part of a student’s adult identity.

In a school based on our ecosystems model, we would hope to create an environment where successful adaptations might include taking intellectual risks, supporting one’s peers, pursuing long-term projects, and contributing to the school community outside the classroom. In the end, such adaptations would help students develop into adults who are well rounded, thoughtful, open to new experiences, and compassionate towards others.

Unfortunately, our schools are led by reformers who believe that a corporate model, rather than an ecosystems model, will produce the healthiest adults. What sorts of values do these reformers promote? As The New York Times recently reported, David Coleman, an architect of the Common Core Standards, articulated the business reformers’ values quite clearly last year:

“In progressive education circles, Mr. Coleman is often criticized for his emphasis on ‘informational texts’ over fiction, and his push for students to write fewer personal and opinion pieces. Last year, he gave a speech making that point in strong terms, asserting that it would be rare, in the working world, for someone to say, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.'”

Under the corporate model, an account of one’s childhood is superfluous fluff, while a market analysis is a text of value. Let’s look at the skills required to produce these two types of texts.

To write a “compelling” account of one’s childhood, a writer must first engage in thoughtful, critical reflection. The writer must identify themes that run like threads throughout the events of their childhood, and must convey these themes to the reader. Using imagery, metaphor, and a variety of other literary devices, the writer must evoke the world of their childhood for the reader, allowing the reader to visualize, empathize, and ultimately experience that world vicariously. Finally, the writer must edit and proofread vigorously, with an eye for both minute detail and broader meaning. The writer’s goal is to share an experience with the reader, to guide the reader through that experience, and to help the reader learn from that experience.

Now, I’ve never written a market analysis, so I did a bit of research to find out what that process requires. Apparently, a market analysis is a text of such complexity and sophistication that it’s written every time someone has a proposal for a new business. Thankfully, unlike with compelling memoirs, the folks at about.com were able to break down the process of writing a market analysis step by step. Here’s are the highlights:

“To define your target market, you need to ask the specific questions that are directly related to your products or services. For instance, if you plan to sell computer-related services, you need to know things such as how many computers your prospective customer owns. If you plan on selling garden furniture and accessories, you need to know what kinds of garden furniture or accessories your potential customers have bought in the past, and how often…

You’ll write the Market Analysis in the form of several short paragraphs. Use appropriate headings for each paragraph. If you have several target markets, you may want to number each.

Remember to properly cite your sources of information within the body of your Market Analysis as you write it. You and other readers of your business plan will need to know the sources of the statistics or opinions that you’ve gathered from others.”

In other words, a market analysis involves doing research on what sort of things different types of people like to buy, putting that information into paragraphs (which you may or may not label with numbers), and citing your sources. Oh, and the purpose of this text? To convince investors to give the writer money.

To be honest, I think Coleman’s crazy for preferring this type of reading to a good memoir. Then again, the business model is a bit crazy. Literally. As The Week reported a few months ago, the business world is “full of psychopaths.” Specifically, according to the CFA Institute (“a global association of investment professionals that sets the standard for professional excellence), one out of every ten Wall Street employees “is a clinical psychopath…compared with one out of 100 people in the general population.” The CFA report describes these “financial psychopaths” as people who “generally lack empathy and interest in what other people feel or think,” and who possess an “unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication, and manipulation.”

What does all this have to do with our students? Well, when folks like Coleman argue that schools should be promoting the skills and values of the corporate world, they’re talking about a world that’s disproportionately composed of psychopaths. Instead of healthy participants in sustainable communities, reformers like Coleman want schools to produce adults who are incapable of empathy, but skilled at writing market analyses.

Am I being too harsh on the business reformers? Here’s Mayor Bloomberg, champion of the business model, describing the methods he used to achieve success (I’ve added the bold):

“Among old McDonald’s hamburger wrappings and mouse droppings, we dragged wires from our computers to the keyboards and screens we were putting in place, stuffed the cables through holes we drilled in other people’s furniture—all without permission, violating every fire law, building code, and union regulation on the books. It’s amazing we didn’t burn some office or electrocute ourselves.”

You can judge for yourselves, but running electrical cables through a firetrap littered with rat feces in violation of health, safety, and legal regulations for the sake of personal financial gain sounds pretty nuts to me.

In a school system run by people who hold these values, students who display kindness, generosity, or any of the other fluffy virtues that generally fall under the umbrella of “goodness” will be failing to reach the standards. As our schools fall increasingly under the sway of these corporate reformers, is it any wonder that cheating scandals are on the rise? Students, teachers, and administrators are simply adapting to their values of their new, corporate-minded environments. It’s unnatural selection: survival of the sickest.

Emerson on Nature and Education

Perhaps no writer has as much to say about the connection between education and the natural world as Ralph Waldo Emerson. I was just re-reading his lecture, “The American Scholar,” and was struck by how relevant his ideas and language are to our “Schools as Ecosystems” project.
For example:

“To the young mind every thing is individual, stands by itself. By and by, it finds how to join two things and see in them one nature; then three, then three thousand; and so…it goes on tying things together…discovering roots running under ground whereby contrary and remote things cohere and flower out of one stem.”

Isn’t this what real teaching– as opposed to test prep– is all about? At its core, our job is to help students recognize connections that were formerly hidden to them. Of course, we also have to present them with facts and formulas, but in isolation those facts and formulas lack substance. As Emerson writes, their significance lies in the hidden roots that connect them to “remote things.”

Emerson goes on to argue that these connections are not simply an aspect of the young mind’s academic development, but of a much deeper process:

“Thus to him, to this schoolboy under the bending dome of day, is suggested that he and it proceed from one root; one is leaf and one is flower…[Nature’s] beauty is the beauty of his own mind. Its laws are the laws of his own mind…the ancient precept, ‘Know thyself,’ and the modern precept, ‘Study nature,’ become at last one maxim.”

As we discuss education policy and school reform, we should keep Emerson’s vision in mind. Learning is not simply a gathering of facts, and teachers are not information-delivery professionals. Our schools should be spaces where students learn to explore and appreciate the world around them– and to see their own connection to that world. Without that type of integrative perspective, all the facts in the world are simply academic.

The Beauty of Teaching, the Teaching of Beauty

Every teacher I know believes that our jobs hold some deeper purpose than test preparation. What is this deeper purpose?

There are many answers to this question. Some folks argue that we are imparting “core knowledge” to our students that will help them easily assimilate into the adult world. Others argue that we’re providing our students with occupational skills. Still others argue that we’re helping our students develop the analytical skills necessary to become responsible citizens.

One thing I try to do in the classroom is help my students appreciate beauty. Whether we’re reading Of Mice and Men or discussing evolutionary theory, my students are not simply acquiring new skills or information. They are learning that science and literature can be beautiful.

In her wonderful book, “On Beauty and Being Just,” Elaine Scarry argues that beauty itself is a kind of teacher:

“Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people…The generation is unceasing.

[The] willingness continually to revise one’s own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education. One submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet makes its sweep through a certain patch of sky.”

This process Scarry describes is, in fact, my favorite part of teaching: directing students towards beautiful things, as well as helping them recognize the beauty of things. It goes without saying that this process is impossible to measure with an alphanumeric scale, and that test-obsessed reformers have sucked much of the beauty out of our classrooms. Yet when this process bears fruit, its value– for both student and teacher– is immense.

Beauty, as Scarry points out, motivates us. A student who sees the beauty in a sonnet or an equation will seek out more sonnets and equations, and will eventually start their own sonnets and equations. This is why many of us become teachers: to share something beautiful with our students and thus ensure that this beauty continues to perpetuate itself. Surely there’s an intrinsic value in that.