The best learners: the forager and the Renaissance human
It is really much more difficult to unlearn things rather than to learn them. We hold on to knowledge we have come to know and build, like valued possessions such as our houses, cars, and devices that we fiercely guard with our lives.
For the large majority of humans who are living today and have gone to school, the kind of education we have had has broken down how we view and deal with the world according to "disciplines" – mainly between the branches of the arts and the sciences, and their respective "veins." This has been perpetuated in the myth that there are "left-brained" humans who are more logical (sciences) and "right-brained" ones who are more creative (the arts). Knowing how much damage this has done to our own personal growth, and to societies and the world as the larger collective, is an extremely interesting job that a panel akin to the scientific panel on climate change should be tasked to perform.
But in the meantime, we have classes to reconstruct and repair from that "broken" view of knowledge. Around the world, this reality has come to be so palpable and even painful as the world has radically changed – at a pace that has never been seen in history. Many societies, including ours, now find that most of its population are not ready to function and be useful, productive, and purposeful in this world where many barriers have come down, exposing realities that were hidden from us before by walls artificially raised by a kind of education that divided the arts and the sciences. Now, education is screaming that STEAM – the integration of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math – is the way to go.
But is it? I think it is a good way to go and will be tremendously interesting and beneficial. But I think before it goes, well, full steam ahead, it has to make some apologies first to some remarkable groups of people.
First, an apology to some smart, creative, and resourceful humans who have come before us. Before the arts and sciences were considered North and South poles, they were shifting layers of the human thought and experience.
The foragers – the humans before they discovered agriculture as a way of life 12,000 years ago – for instance, were very integrated in their knowledge. They had to be, in order to survive. A day in the life of a forager involved knowing which fruits were edible and which ones could make them sick or die. It involved a knowledge of space and navigation, because they had to deal and inhabit many kinds of environments and seasons. It involved a knowledge of one's own biology and how one would react to the different conditions offered to them by the place. It also involved a compelling impulse to mark one's presence or a moment whether as a useful marker, or as a mere expression of "I was here" (The arts!).
This was human life in history, untouched by a knowledge of various art and science "disciplines." These things about the average forager are inferred from the knowledge on what it would take to survive as a forager. In his book Sapiens (which should be required reading for all educators), Yuval Noah Harari said that the foragers, on an individual level, were "the most knowledgeable and skillful people" in history. No wonder that they have to give a $1-million prize money to modern humans who join the reality television show Naked and Afraid. Participants have to work really hard to be as skillful and intelligent as the average forager to survive ancient conditions. But if we could resurrect a forager now and tell her about that television show, she would probably be confused as to why we are generously rewarding what to her is "normal" behavior.
A second apology would be to masters, particularly of the Renaissance, who already exhibited that a mastery, at best, and an appreciation, at the minimum, of the various dimensions of life through an equal regard for the sciences and the arts make for not just progressive and remarkable societies, but also lives worth living.
Leonardo da Vinci was equally adept in the arts, science, and engineering. That he was most probably a homosexual also gives insights to gender, sexuality, and the brain. Galileo was an astronomer, physicist, mathematician, and philosopher. They were looking at the human condition, as well as possibilities with prismatic brains – shedding light on aspects of the human experience without the artificial border of the arts and sciences, and formal and informal education. The term "science" was not coined until 1883 by William Whewell. Before that, scientists, many of whom also lived lives in art, were called "natural philosophers." Whewell himself was an "explorer" of mechanics, mineralogy, geology, astronomy, political economy, theology, and architecture, to name only a few.
Third, an apology to the young ones who are still new to the world and who are still unaware that the history of learning and education is riddled with fumbles as well as successes. We owe them an easing, if not a removal, of the baggage that the arts and the sciences, and the disciplines within them, are naturally walled to keep each other out.
So after the apologies, how do we let off STEAM in modern-day education?
There are many ways to do it now, without going on a trance to ask the ghosts of our foraging and Renaissance past to appear in our learning spaces. For this column, it will be delusional to think I can completely cover that terrain. But those minds who care enough to focus on this issue categorize the ways that educators can integrate STEAM.
There are at least 3 paths: First, you can have two or more teachers team up to tackle the same subject but through different lenses. Second, you can "merge" one discipline with another. Third, educators can make their students come up with their own real-world problems which are naturally multi-dimensional and will require collaboration with their peers.
Think of any topic as any one place that showed its different dimensions, depending on the elements that were laid to it. If geology is layered on to it, it would show mountains and valleys. If it were culture, it would show the different rituals of different communities living in it. If it were history, it would show the historical events and forces that shaped the place. If it were biology, it would show natural history. These are different but connected realities of the same place.
This is why instead of starting a lesson about health with information on cells being the basic unit of life, you can start by having learners look at a gash in your body, observe what happened to it, and watch as it heals as the days pass. What is it about the body that it gets sick, dies, and regenerates? What health and safety habits should we be mindful of? Instead of starting a lesson on "stimulus and reaction," learn by picking a song you like and a song you hate, and see how your body reacts to both. Why? What is it about the song? What brain regions are activated? Does the human brain have a preferred rhythm (math)? How does the body know how to dance to the music that the brain hears?
Nature does not have a problem making days and nights for earthlings like ourselves and other creatures. The solar system does not have a problem making its physics shake hands with any biology lurking in any of the planets. The universe does not get overwhelmed by the galactic mathematics involved in measuring distances, size, and speed of celestial objects and events.
We humans invented the disciplines so we can, with our limited capacities, highlight various aspects of reality for a deeper understanding. They are different doors to reality. But our education has, for so long, made classrooms inside our heads too – walled and opaqued. We have to unlearn the borders we made between them so we can see where the disciplines connect and where they diverge. Only then can we have genuine classes. – Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at email@example.com.