In his early writing Plato championed gymnastics and music as the major components of education for students from 6-18. Gymnastics was about gaining control, balance and flexibility (of the body) while music would emphasize rhythm, harmony, and community structure. The two components were thought of as essential learning.
Later, Plato would delineate a wider range of specific foci and these for the most part are still the secondary school departments and teacher certifications today. They are far more narrow in scope and rigid in approach.
A teacher’s tale: Once upon a time I taught composition classes at SUNY New Paltz. Most of the students were new to the Pfaltz, and I thought they needed some encouragement to venture forth from the campus and explore the environs. So I designed a series of tasks that would function as stimuli for writing pieces. (Note the shift of motivation when one sets out to describe some aspect of an experience rather than be assigned to write a 5 paragraph essay.) Here are a few examples from the original dozen:
Go to the oldest continuous community gardens in the state – located in New Paltz. Begin at Main Street and ask directions. When you get to the gardens, find out about it. Discover what you can. Let the soil run thru your fingers. Talk to the practitioners. What crops are doing well? Feel free to sketch.
Go to Main Street and explore a section of it. Make a map of the places you find along a stretch of the road. Go into each place unfamiliar to you.
Get a current local newspaper. Find something detailed in it that you’d like to do and do it.
Check out a cemetery. (This on Halloween.) What did you discover?
Each was intended to serve as orientation, exploration, and writing prompt, and in this way to connect the world to the academy. Many comp teachers requested my list over the years. A few created their own “assignments” along similar lines. Try it yourself.
Of course the specifics of a particular class and course structure matters. When I was teaching Great Books of Western Civilization, I began with writings from some of the earliest “cities” in Mesopotamia. So I modified the Gardens exploration prompt, to read like this:
Find the community Gardens of New Paltz, the oldest community gardens in the State of NY. Begin on Main Street and without asking directions from anyone proceed on foot (no cars in the early days). Keep in mind what you now know about where the early cities were located and why.
Often learning is about connecting the dots. The Eureka moment persists, synaptically we think. Quite often it isn’t that you have created something new, but that you have understood a relationship between physical realities and ideas. This is not the same as clicking on computer icons and imagery. Just as Newton and the falling apple made gravity tangible, or Archimedes and the overflowing tub measured displaced volume, engaging in exploration yourself matters. John Dewey called it experiential learning. I use the phrase “learner active lessons,” to suggest that teachers can design their own.
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