...Learning is in our Nature.
Quercus Academy is a community of independent scholars engaged in continuous development of knowledge and skills through nature study, culture studies, and quiet contemplation. Scholars work together to cultivate the habits of careful observation, reverent stewardship, and respectful companionship toward all of the natural wonders of our world: the beauty and power of earth, sea, and sky, the diverse plant and animal life, and the many, varied Peoples of Earth. We seek to build bridges, to make connections, and to find patterns of similarity and difference that can inform our actions, and make us wise.
Mentors of the Academy serve as role-models in the learning process. They actively engage in their own scholarly pursuits. They scatter seeds of insight. They ask probing questions. And they help younger scholars to develop and hone their skills. But mentors do so quietly, gently, and stealthily – so that the reins remain firmly in the hands of the scholar, and the drive remains in the child’s heart. At Quercus Academy, we believe that "Learning is in our Nature."
The slow and careful study of “backyard ecology” — the flora, fauna, fungi, climate, weather, geology, etc., of our local environments — provides an opportunity to hone and enjoy the use of all five senses. It gives us a chance to practice controlling the focus of our attention. It offers an endless stream of questions to ponder, which link to and may motivate future studies in history, math, the sciences, and the arts:
The analysis can be as simple or detailed as the individual scholar desires. There is always room for deeper analysis, when reviewing nature journal entries, later on.
As an added benefit, time spent in nature, focused on the complex beauty of the world, tends to quieten mind, body, and spirit. Cultivating a habit of spending time in nature develops an invaluable life-skill for children and adults who so often become overstimulated by life.
Finally, nature study provides a rich array of topics for discussion, and many opportunities to practice exploring similarities and differences in experience — without getting caught up in the “right” vs. “wrong” game. The ability to question another, out of a genuine curiosity about differences in experience, rather than a desire to win or reform, is prerequisite to the development of true compassion.
Scholars engaged in nature study do so primarily by way of nature rambles, field observations, nature journaling, and consultations with naturalists — or library research, as required — to identify and understand the objects and phenomena discovered in the field.
World Cultures, in their broadest sense, are the ways in which different groups of humans perceive, express, and address the needs of their lives, in context of the specific environment in which they happen to live. As with the study of the natural world, the study of world cultures provides another endless stream of questions to ponder, which link to and may motivate future studies in history, technology, foreign language & customs, and the fine and performing arts:
The study of world cultures provides a rich array of topics for Quercus Academy scholars to discuss, and more opportunities to explore similarities and differences in life experience. In addition, the study of world cultures encourages scholars to think of places and ways in which they might contribute to making the world a better place for all.
Scholars explore the cultures of the world through a combination of library and on-line research, travel, experimentation, and interaction with foreign correspondents scattered about the globe.
Whereas the Nature Study and Culture Study themes focus on exploring the outer worlds of nature and of human endeavor, the Quiet Contemplation theme turns inward, focusing on the development of knowledge and skills that can help us better manage ourselves, and the ways in which we interact with others. Topics of exploration include:
These types of cognitive, social, emotional, and physiological meta-skills are essential for anyone wishing to perform to the best of their ability, and remain happy and healthy in the process.
Young children’s brains are not yet fully developed, and they are not yet physically capable of focusing their own attention; their attention is focused and refocused by external stimuli. So, although young children might be trained to reproduce the external behaviors of things like meditation, and guided visualizations, they cannot actually do the internal work of meditation and energy work until they are older.
There are some activities and simple rituals that can help lay the groundwork for later internal work, and help our young children gain the benefits of that work, when assisted by a trusted and experienced adult. Examples of this include: teaching them how to select music (for listening) that alters, rather than enhances a current mood (music therapy); teaching them to sit with and carefully study (with all five senses) a beautiful stone, or houseplant, or ornament, to direct attention away from worries and quieten a racing mind; and observing and mimicking the physical presence, movements, and spirit of an oak tree, or birch tree, or an animal observed in the yard. Each of these activities help to ground the young scholar, develop the focus needed for later internal work, and provide immediate benefits — which also serves as evidence that the work of developing a meditation practice will be a worthwhile pursuit, later on.
At first glance, the title of this essay may seem trivial, but it represents a complex belief structure regarding the process of teaching and learning — based on years of practice, research, and study. Each of the four words indicates a central theme of my personal teaching philosophy, as do the word order and grammatical structure.
Student is the first word in the sentence, as it is always my first thought when I approach teaching. People often ask teachers, “What do you teach?” expecting to hear, “Physics,” or, “Engineering,” or the name of some other academic subject. But the best teachers do not teach subjects. They teach students. Students, as individuals, have unique motivations, preconceptions and expectations which strongly influence their perceptions of and interactions with themselves, others, classroom environments and subject matter. Each student enters class at a particular point in a dynamic state of personal and intellectual development. This state is accompanied by specific wants, needs, abilities and resources, which can be used to either encourage or stymie that student’s life-long learning process. Therefore, the primary duty of a teacher is to become aware of, and be dynamically responsive to, the current developmental needs of their students.
Learning follows student for several reasons. It follows because learning cannot occur until after the identity and innate value of the individual student are acknowledged and affirmed. It comes second because learning is one of the two most important ideas in my philosophy of teaching. Learning is a process of changing perceptions, conceptions, understandings and values. It is not about filling empty minds like the alms bowls of Buddhist monks, but about a process of changing minds which defensively guard hoarded knowledge and past experience. Minds cannot be changed by force. Minds can only be changed by the volitional efforts of their owners. This is another reason that learning was placed adjacent to student. It acknowledges that the goals and process of learning are controlled by the student alone. Course content is incidental to the learning goals of the students. If a student is convinced to adopt the mastery of course content as a personal learning goal, and if s/he is provided with the necessary guidance, the material will be learned. Otherwise, retention of subject content will be minimal. As a teacher, I can suggest goals and contexts for learning, but it is the student who holds the power of choice and the student who will drive his or her learning process.
Is serves three purposes in my philosophy of learning. Firstly, is places student learning in the present. A teacher cannot afford to waste time and energy caught up in the should’ves, would’ves and could’ves of students’ past experiences. They must diagnose their students’ current educational needs, and respond to those needs in the here and now. The second function of is is to put the statement in the passive voice. This is because there is no place for ego in the practice of teaching. Teaching is not about an instructor performing on a classroom’s center stage. It is about disencumbering student efforts to further their own learning and development. Finally, is reminds us that student learning is a continuous, ongoing process in which any teacher can play only a temporary, influencing role. Understanding this helps to clarify the role of “teacher” in the learning process.
The proper function of a teacher is to ensure that learning is facilitated. Their role is that of a master architect for whom each student is an apprentice, and each student’s mind the building site for a city of ideas. The students must design and build their own cities, but the teacher can offer input and guidance to help them along. Teachers can demonstrate the process of designing and building a city of ideas by openly pursuing their own learning goals, and by sharing that experience. Teachers can help students through their own design process by suggesting types of structures they might wish to build, by identifying design parameters they need to consider, by providing building materials they might wish to use, and so forth. Teachers can help students to critique their designs. They can provide them with tools and teach them techniques for building upon their existing knowledge base, and for determining when a conceptual sub-structure is unsound and needs to be razed and rebuilt. In the end, the city of ideas each student builds will be his or her unique creation. As facilitator to the process, the teacher cannot expect (nor should they desire) that any student’s city will replicate their own design. But if they do the job well, they can expect that the city will be solidly built and designed to meet the functional needs of that student’s future.