Education Ideas

As a substitute teacher, I get a chance to see more classrooms than regular teachers do, and in most cases more than administrators do. I see what works, and what doesn’t, and I have strong feelings about schools and teaching. I believe that John Dewey laid out much of what we need to know about education over 100 years ago, but our schools systems have largely gone off the path he illuminated. He believed that a major purpose of schools was to produce good citizens, and that students developed citizenship skills by experiencing and practicing those skills rather than ingesting pre-determined knowledge.

I’m thinking I should really write up my educational philosophy again, but until that happens, here are some resources that have significantly influenced me.

Stop Homework – I believe that homework should have to do with the relationship between home and school, and not be used to extend the school day into the home. If homework brings home school learning to the family, or brings the knowledge and experience of the family back to school, great. Otherwise, I don’t see any place for it.

Responsive Classroom – There is simply no better resource in my experience for creating caring and academically successful classrooms than the books offered by Responsive Classroom. I hope to someday take one of their trainings.

Project Citizen – A way to involve students in community issues while meeting academic goals.

Cathryn Berger Kaye – The Complete Guide to Service Learning book and her workshops have changed the way I teach and the professional development I offer.

David Sobel – All of David’s books have influenced how I teach, and much of my effort in education is to bring David’s ideas to the classroom and to school systems. I use Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities as a resource every week. I’m reading Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators right now.

Richard Louv – Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder brought all of these ideas up to date in parent and teacher friendly language, and has transformed the way we think about school, though not yet how we practice school.

And on the negative side of things, there are scripted reading programs. The worst of these is Success for All, but the others are not much better. These programs are premised on several tragic ideas: reading must be broken down into parts – as it whole it has no value; curriculum writers know more about teaching and learning than do teachers; reading is supposed to be entertaining but not meaningful; reading can be taught with materials that are content free. These authoritarian scripted programs do not allow students or teachers to vary from the routine, in fact in many schools teachers are punished for being off the schedule during reading time. The materials would seem familiar to my generation, which was mis-taught with Dick and Jane books. Does it work? Yes, it increases test scores, at least for about two years, after which they begin to decline again. Why would scores decline after a time? Because scripted reading programs teach students to hate reading. They are bored with it, they find no personal reward in it. In middle school I continually see the result of SFA programs – students who hate reading, who would never carry literature with them in school, who show up for silent reading periods without a book. Sadly, more than half of the students feel this way. Talking with students about why reveals that they feel this way because they were forced to read boring and irrelevant books in lower grades. They’ve crossed reading off their list of interesting activities, and that is as sad a result as can be.

2 thoughts on “Education Ideas

  1. Last Child in the Woods ––
    Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,
    by Richard Louv
    Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.
    November 16, 2006

    In this eloquent and comprehensive work, Louv makes a convincing case for ensuring that children (and adults) maintain access to pristine natural areas, and even, when those are not available, any bit of nature that we can preserve, such as vacant lots. I agree with him 100%. Just as we never really outgrow our need for our parents (and grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.), humanity has never outgrown, and can never outgrow, our need for the companionship and mutual benefits of other species.

    But what strikes me most about this book is how Louv is able, in spite of 310 pages of text, to completely ignore the two most obvious problems with his thesis: (1) We want and need to have contact with other species, but neither we nor Louv bother to ask whether they want to have contact with us! In fact, most species of wildlife obviously do not like having humans around, and can thrive only if we leave them alone! Or they are able tolerate our presence, but only within certain limits. (2) We and Louv never ask what type of contact is appropriate! He includes fishing, hunting, building “forts”, farming, ranching, and all other manner of recreation. Clearly, not all contact with nature leads to someone becoming an advocate and protector of wildlife. While one kid may see a beautiful area and decide to protect it, what’s to stop another from seeing it and thinking of it as a great place to build a house or create a ski resort? Developers and industrialists must come from somewhere, and they no doubt played in the woods with the future environmentalists!

    It is obvious, and not a particularly new idea, that we must experience wilderness in order to appreciate it. But it is equally true, though (“conveniently”) never mentioned, that we need to stay out of nature, if the wildlife that live there are to survive. I discuss this issue thoroughly in the essay, “Wildlife Need Habitat Off-Limits to Humans!”, at

    It should also be obvious (but apparently isn’t) that how we interact with nature determines how we think about it and how we learn to treat it. Remember, children don’t learn so much what we tell them, but they learn very well what they see us do. Fishing, building “forts”, mountain biking, and even berry-picking teach us that nature exists for us to exploit. Luckily, my fort-building career was cut short by a bee-sting! As I was about to cut down a tree to lay a third layer of logs on my little log cabin in the woods, I took one swing at the trunk with my axe, and immediately got a painful sting (there must have been a bee-hive in the tree) and ran away as fast as I could.

    On page 144 Louv quotes Rasheed Salahuddin: “Nature has been taken over by thugs who care absolutely nothing about it. We need to take nature back.” Then he titles his next chapter “Where Will Future Stewards of Nature Come From?” Where indeed? While fishing may bring one into contact with natural beauty, that message can be eclipsed by the more salient one that the fish exist to pleasure and feed humans (even if we release them after we catch them). (My fishing career was also short-lived, perhaps because I spent most of the time either waiting for fish that never came, or untangling fishing line.) Mountain bikers claim that they are “nature-lovers” and are “just hikers on wheels”. But if you watch one of their helmet-camera videos, it is easy to see that 99.44% of their attention must be devoted to controlling their bike, or they will crash. Children initiated into mountain biking may learn to identify a plant or two, but by far the strongest message they will receive is that the rough treatment of nature is acceptable. It’s not!

    On page 184 Louv recommends that kids carry cell phones. First of all, cell phones transmit on essentially the same frequency as a microwave oven, and are therefore hazardous to one’s health –- especially for children, whose skulls are still relatively thin. Second, there is nothing that will spoil one’s experience of nature faster than something that reminds one of the city and the “civilized” world. The last thing one wants while enjoying nature is to be reminded of the world outside. Nothing will ruin a hike or a picnic faster than hearing a radio or the ring of a cell phone, or seeing a headset, cell phone, or mountain bike. I’ve been enjoying nature for over 60 years, and can’t remember a single time when I felt a need for any of these items.

    It’s clear that we humans need to reduce our impacts on wildlife, if they, and hence we, are to survive. But it is repugnant and arguably inhumane to restrict human access to nature. Therefore, we need to practice minimal-impact recreation (i.e., hiking only), and leave our technology (if we need it at all!) at home. In other words, we need to decrease the quantity of contact with nature, and increase the quality.


    Ehrlich, Paul R. and Ehrlich, Anne H., Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearances of Species. New York: Random House, 1981.

    Errington, Paul L., A Question of Values. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1987.

    Flannery, Tim, The Eternal Frontier — An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples. New York: Grove Press, 2001.

    Foreman, Dave, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior. New York: Harmony Books, 1991.

    Knight, Richard L. and Kevin J. Gutzwiller, eds. Wildlife and Recreationists. Covelo, California: Island Press, 1995.

    Louv, Richard, Last Child in the Woods — Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005.

    Noss, Reed F. and Allen Y. Cooperrider, Saving Nature’s Legacy: Protecting and Restoring Biodiversity. Island Press, Covelo, California, 1994.

    Reed, Sarah E. and Adina M. Merenlender, “Quiet, Nonconsumptive Recreation Reduces Protected Area Effectiveness”. Conservation Letters, 2008, 1–9.

    Stone, Christopher D., Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1973.

    Vandeman, Michael J.,, especially,,, and

    Ward, Peter Douglas, The End of Evolution: On Mass Extinctions and the Preservation of Biodiversity. New York: Bantam Books, 1994.

    “The Wildlands Project”, Wild Earth. Richmond, Vermont: The Cenozoic Society, 1994.

    Wilson, Edward O., The Future of Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Mike.

    One challenge of bringing children back into contact with nature is that there are a lot of us, too many, and not much wild nature. If we encourage children to spend more time in nature without any adult guidance, yes, damage will be done. While children need unsupervised, free, time with nature, they also need experiences with adults who can role model responsible action and appreciation. As Louv points out and Sobel says even more effectively in several of his books, initial contact with nature including building forts and catching frogs is a bridge to experiences with wilder nature and uses with less impact. But we can’t expect children to learn these things by hearing them, as though they were already adults, they must experience them, and yes, that will result in some harm to nature. My bigger concern is not what the children are doing but that there are so few adults left who will spend time with children in nature, talking, listening, laughing, wondering.

    I’m in agreement with minimum impact re-creation, that is what I myself practice. Children see and want to imitate adult behavior, whether that is off road vehicles, mountain bikes, or cell phones. But what I really think a lot of children want is to be allowed to be children, without considerable adult and peer pressure to be an adult. They want to wander, wonder, poke, move, catch, build forts, create imaginary worlds.

    If they have these experiences, AND have guidance from responsible and knowledgeable adults, they will grow into adults that care for the earth, and yes, leave much of it well alone. But if one or the other is missing, that is unlikely to happen. If we want to achieve the ecologically literate and responsible adult, we have to give up a little bit of nature to get there, and the balance is worthwhile.

    I agree with your premise that we need to respect the rights of nature entirely apart from our use of it, to ensure that much of it remains wild without significant human modification, and to let care and caution guide our actions. But children are born with a desire to explore, manipulate and experiment, and must be allowed and encouraged to grow into responsibility, not forced into it out of a fear of harming nature. Nature is resilient, if we don’t overdo it, and many of the areas that children would use are already impacted, changed from their original state, yet still offer rich possibilities for learning.

    Back on my original topic, what school in its present form does is encourage the idea that nature is out there, separate, something to be used in producing material society but not otherwise important. Nature shows up, to some degree and in a sanitized version, in science and a few pieces of literature, but it is not in the classroom and not on the schoolyard in any significant way. And that is mis-education of children.

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