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Divergent Thinking and Ecological Literacy

sara.gladwin's picture

This was a presentation I delivered as part of a workshop developed in collaboration with Anne Dalke, Sophia Abbot, and Esteniolla Maitre at a Penn University Conference on Silence.

“Are you paying attention to me? How can I tell if you are paying attention if you aren’t looking at me?”

“Doodling in class is not acceptable, Sara.”

“I think the topic you have chosen for this personal essay is too personal. Please choose a more appropriate topic.”

These are a few among many comments [Sara explained, that] I heard from my teachers while growing up. The first two comments have stayed with me because they were the most frequently delivered throughout my education experience. The third comment is significant because it marks the first time I became hyper conscious of the ways in which personal experience is silenced in the classroom. Come into the classroom and leave your baggage behind at the door. These comments have also stayed with me because they all are indicative of the constant redirection that educators often felt I needed in the classroom. I have been taught, both directly and indirectly, that divergence, distraction, and disruptions, especially in the form of personal experience, are not conducive to the learning environment.

Early in many students’ educational lives, we learn to silence the connections that our brains instinctually create; we learn to label them as distractions. We learn to de-authorize and eliminate wandering thoughts; they are labeled as irrelevant. However, being the kind of learner that I am made it much more difficult to silence these divergent thoughts. The way it was explained to me by an elementary school guidance counselor, who had a similar difficulty to mine, is this: “Most people have something like a filter in their brains, working to separate the distracting thoughts from the rest. People like us, Sara, don’t have a filter. We hear everything, and often we can’t completely focus on something, no matter how hard we try.”

This same guidance counselor was the first to name some of my issues in the classroom as Attention Deficit Disorder. I later became strongly disenchanted with the language surrounding learning “disabilities,” and most likely you will hear me refer to them as “learning differences.” Since coming to college, what I have learned and am continually learning more about is that these learning differences, my divergent thoughts, are what set me apart as a student. Last semester, I had two classes with Anne, The Rhetorics of Silence and Ecological Imagination. In our Ecological Imagination class, we learned about how the environment is envisioned in collective and individual minds. We sought to answer questions such as, “What is Ecological literacy?” and “How can we create a more Ecologically literate world?” For most of the semester, we sat outside and confronted cold weather, the noise from cars, and the continual reappearance of a resident daddy long legs.

As the semester continued, I began to form connections between my silence class and my ecological imagination class. I began to see a connection in the way the many people do not view environment as a concern and the way students are taught to shut out the world around them upon entering the classroom. As an example, I imagined a young student, who is reprimanded for looking out the window during class time. That student is then conditioned to see what is outside the window as not only distracting, but less valuable than what is being taught. I could see how the environment then becomes less important, extraneous. The environment fades into the background of our consciousness.

In Anne’s Ecological Imaginations class we were constantly negotiating and naming “the politics” of distractions. Together, we decided what could serve as a valuable learning experience, and what was actually disruptive to our learning. The Daddy long legs in particular became a valuable contribution to our discussions. Often, class time would be interrupted by the involuntary shriek of a student who discovered the daddy long legs crawling across their backpack or up their leg. After this experience became a regular occurrence during our class, we decided to take the opportunity to talk about why so many students feared aspects of the “outdoors.” Paying attention to this “distraction” offered us a whole new range of questions to pursue, such as “Why do we develop these fears?” “What conventions perpetuate those fears?” and “How can the fear of the environment be resolved or confronted?” Seeking answers to these questions allowed us to connect to our learning in a way that directly related our varied personal experiences with the environment and with each other.

One student in the class had extensive outdoor experience as a camp counselor. Before class one day, she fearlessly captured the Daddy Long Legs and placed him in a Tupperware container to be passed around our circle. While we were not required to hold the Daddy Long Legs, she strongly encouraged us to pick him up and confront our fears. However, in the process of capturing the Daddy Long Legs, one of his legs became injured. We then had to ask ourselves: What price does the environment pay for our pursuit of knowledge and confrontation of our fears? This small creature became significantly disabled, possibly losing its chances of survival, for our experience as a class.

The rich and powerful range of discussion fostered by what was originally a “distraction” not only allowed us to ask some important environmental questions, but provided the space within the classroom structure for personal experience to become a valued contribution. We became a community of learners, connected through shared past experiences and shared new experiences. We also were able to share with one another our differing experiences, and learn from one another. My experience in The Rhetorics of Silence enriched my learning in Ecological Imagination and allowed to me bring connections to both classes that would have otherwise been different or overlooked.

I am not advocating that all distractions be given importance in the classroom, or that we overthrow the entirety of traditional classroom structure. This is not a radical proposal. I am simply seeking to call attention, to “redirect” value to divergent thinking as a potentially important process of learning. I am asking that the current curriculum include spaces that allow what is traditionally silenced to enter the classroom sphere. I want to call attention to the importance of the process of negotiation, in deciding which walls of the classroom are necessary to learning and which walls have to be pushed around.

For me, acknowledging the validity of divergent thinking in the classroom has an important function. It can serve to valid student’s personal desires and experiences. It also provides the opportunity to teach in context. Instead of learning biology through a textbook, perhaps it is more memorable to walk through the woods as a class and experience biology. Perhaps students would be better served not by being asked to disregard what they see outside their window but instead to question what they see, to observe and participate in their surroundings. Not only should school structures validate student experiences, but it works the other way around too; students who are disengaged and disinterested in learning can then can validate school learning as connected to their reality, they can see it as relevant and significant to their lives.