Monday, June 15, 2015

We're All in This Together: The Lower Elementary Class Explores How Everything and Everyone is Interconnected

On Earth Day, April 22, the lower elementary class embarked on a nearly two-month-long series of lessons, activities, and projects that could be entitled ‘We’re All in This Together: How Everything and Everyone is Interconnected’—an interdisciplinary mixture of elementary-level ecology, economics, mathematics, psychology, anthropology, and philosophy. The series consisted of three parts that built upon and cross-referenced each other, focusing on (1) ecological interconnections between human beings, other living organisms, and the environment as a whole, (2) economic interconnections between people and nature, and (3) human needs of survival and well-being. The following is an account of what we did, learned, discussed, and pondered. As you will see, it’s long, but it represents only a fraction of what we covered overall.

Part One 
In part one of the series, we looked at the causes and effects of global warming and the basic principles of ecosystems, food chains, and energy pyramids, along with some related phenomena with fancy names such as bioaccumulation, bioamplification, and global distillation. To examine food chains and energy pyramids, we began by focusing on an arctic food chain and energy pyramid consisting of ice algae, zooplankton, cod, seals, and polar bears, which established a model through which we could examine the phenomena mentioned above. 

We were able to make abstract concepts more concrete and break them down into chains of easy-to-follow, step-by-step reasoning with the help of some simple materials and activities. For example, to illustrate bioamplification, we laid out pictures of the arctic organisms in an energy pyramid—with lots of ice algae and zooplankton at the bottom trophic (i.e., nutritional energy) levels, fewer cod at the next level, even fewer seals at the next level, and just one polar bear at the very top level (90% of the organisms’ energy is lost as it flows from one trophic level to the next, so less and less energy is available as it moves up the pyramid, which means fewer and fewer organisms can be supported).

We then put little red discs on each picture of ice algae, representing some sort of toxin that the algae had accumulated from its environment (a subsequent lesson and activity on global distillation helped to explain where the toxin could have come from and why it ended up in the arctic in the first place). When the zooplankton consume the ice algae, they consume the toxin too, so it’s transmitted to them. Then the cod eat the zooplankton, which means the toxin transfers once more to the cod, and so forth and so on, all the way up the energy pyramid and its higher trophic levels. Since there are fewer and fewer organisms at each subsequent level, the toxin becomes more and more concentrated in the organisms as it flows higher and higher up the energy pyramid—all the spread out discs we started with converging inside our poor polar bear.

After exploring the arctic food web and energy pyramid, we started applying what we had learned to human beings. We looked at an energy pyramid of agricultural production (just two levels: crops and humans) versus one of meat production (three levels: crops, cows, and humans), seeing how much more farmland it took to feed cows for human consumption than it took to produce an equivalent amount of plant-based calories (because of the energy loss that occurs between the trophic levels of the energy pyramid). 

The numbers are pretty astounding (and they set up some of the children to work out some interesting math problems, such as how many acres of land it would take to feed a population on a meat-based diet versus a plant-based diet). It takes roughly two to five acres of land to feed a single cow, which can provide less than a year’s worth (about 257 days’ worth) of calories for an average adult—whereas the same amount of acres could support twelve to thirty adults per year on a plant-based diet. In the United States, only 27% of crop calories directly feed human beings; a whopping 67% feed livestock, with the remainder going mostly to biofuels.  

To create and maintain all of the millions upon millions of acres of farmland needed to feed the millions upon millions of livestock animals raised for human consumption (e.g., the roughly 30 million beef cows in the United States alone), many trees must be cut down, and land that’s already been deforested must stay deforested, which means less CO2 is being taken out of the atmosphere. Meanwhile, livestock such as cows release tremendous amounts of methane (a greenhouse gas) into the air through belching and passing gas (yes, some of the children liked the latter part of this fact): the equivalent of about 4 tons of CO2 (the common measure of greenhouse gas emissions) per year—around the same amount of damage to the atmosphere that the average car creates per year. Overall, livestock-related greenhouse gas emissions amount to somewhere between the equivalent of 7.5 billion to 32.5 billion tons of CO2 per year (estimates vary and are difficult to calculate), which represents somewhere between 11.8% to 51% of the world’s overall greenhouse gas emissions (with all non-CO2 gasses being translated into CO2 equivalents). 

Of all the contributing factors to global warming, raising livestock for human consumption is one of the most significant ones—but, unfortunately, it’s also one of the factors that gets talked about the least, in part because the topic of food-consumption and its ethical implications makes many people uncomfortable. I recognize that some of them might take issue with my decision to discuss it (in a non-prescriptive manner) with the children, but I felt morally compelled to do so; after all, the children are the ones who are going to have to live with the damage that we’re doing to our planet, and they’re the ones who might be able to reverse and repair it—but you can’t solve a problem if you aren’t even aware of it. 

Part Two
Looking at the nutritional energy required to produce our food provided a segue to looking at the social and natural “energy” (i.e., labor and resources) required to produce them as well. We began our exploration of economic interconnectivity by looking at supply chains for bread (wheat farm -> flour mill -> bakery -> grocery store) and meat (livestock feed farm -> livestock farm -> slaughterhouse -> butcher  -> grocery store), along with the transportation links between each stage of production. 

Then the children split into four groups, each of which explored the supply chain of another product that could figure into the bread supply chain that we had already examined: salt, sugar, bricks, and gas. Each group read through a book about the production of its product, wrote an outline of the supply chain and its stages of production, made a chart to summarize and communicate the latter, and then presented its chart to the rest of the class. 

We linked the four new supply chains to our original bread supply chain, and then we talked about how other supply chains were interconnected with them as well (for example, various machines figured into each supply chain, and each of those machines has a supply chain of its own). If we wanted to, we could take every single component of our supply chains, trace out a supply chain for each of them, and then take every single component of the new supply chains and trace out even more supply chains for them, and so forth and so on. If we kept on going until we’d covered every commodity that human beings produce, we’d end up with a mind-bogglingly complex web of supply chains and distribution networks that would represent the world economy as a whole (more or less, leaving some components of it aside). Growing up and getting a job, we noted, is partially about finding one’s place within this intricate web of economic relationships. 

With the help of some hands-on activities, we also explored the concept of a division of labor, the rationale behind having one, and how it applies to both the economy as a whole, spheres of economic activity within it, and particular workplaces. For example, the children were each given a basket and instructed to fill it with 15 different objects that were laid out on tables. The initial way in which the children went about doing this was a bit chaotic and inefficient. We talked about and experimented with different ways of applying the concept of a division of labor to make the process more orderly and efficient, refining our approach until we struck upon the idea of making the baskets via an assembly line, which more than halved the amount of time it took to produce them. 

At first, we did this for a just about a minute at a time (we got our time down to about 50 seconds to produce 15 baskets filled with 15 different objects), which many of the children enjoyed, but then we did it for ten minutes straight, so the children could get a little taste of what working on an actual assembly line might be like, which they didn’t enjoy as much. They were then asked to extrapolate from this experience and imagine working on an assembly line for 12 hours per day (the average workday for someone working on an iPhone assembly line). 

We watched some videos of actual assembly lines for products such as iPads, shoes, and cars. One of the more sobering videos was of a small factory in Asia that was engaged solely in the production of little stuffed animals for a certain fast-food chain that shall remain anonymous. The children were asked to imagine working long hours every single day, doing the same thing over and over again on an assembly line, just to produce cheap toys that other children in richer societies would receive with their fast-food meals, spend five minutes caring about, and then toss aside. 

This brought up the dark-side of divisions of labor in general and assembly lines in particular: yes, they’re efficient—but they’re efficient at producing goods for consumers, not necessarily well-being for workers, and there’s a certain amount of tension and trade-off between achieving the two objectives (at least so long as economic production depends on human labor; one student brought up the possibility of all production being automated in the future, which then led to the question of what human beings would do with their unlimited free time to avoid boredom—a question asked and explored by none other than John Maynard Keynes in his essay ‘Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren'). 

In its most extreme forms, an assembly line can reduce a human being to an appendage of a machine, repeating the same, highly specific task over and over again, and thereby exercising, developing, and enjoying only a small portion of his or her overall range of human capacities and aspirations. Some of the students’ responses to this were to “get rid of that,” but, they were reminded, the workers in developing nations are relying on “that” for their income. If they didn’t have it, what would they do to survive? There are no easy answers to the questions these topics raise—but that’s usually a sign that they are good topics and questions to think about. 

Part Three
After looking at how various products are made, we asked ourselves “why make all of these products in the first place?” “To make money” was the children’s initial answer—but to make money from products, people need to sell them, and to sell them, other people need to buy them, so why do they buy them? Because people need or want them, the children recognized. Thus we started a series of lessons and activities on the fundamental and higher-order needs of human beings—what they need to survive and be happy. 

Here is where our overall series of lessons, activities, and projects reached its culmination. I have split the following account of it into four sections. The middle sections derive from a couple of posts I wrote on Namaste’s Facebook page; the first and last sections are new. 

We began by looking at the fundamental needs of human beings, both in terms of general categories of things people need in order to survive (e.g., nourishment) and specific examples of ways in which they can fulfill those needs (e.g., bread, vegetables, meat, etc.). The categories that the students identified were nourishment, housing, transportation, communication, and healthcare, and they came up with numerous examples of ways in which human beings can and have fulfilled these needs, both in the past and present. 

We then noted how for some of the categories (e.g., communication and transportation), human beings could, in theory, fulfill their needs without the help of external, technological aids: to move from point A to point B, a person could just walk, and to communicate with another person, he or she could just talk. However, as we further noted, the ability of walking and talking to fulfill our transportation and communication needs depends upon the proximity of one’s destination and interlocutor. 

To move or communicate across long distances, we need the help of technological aids (e.g., cars and cellphones), which augment our capabilities and the ways in which we can fulfill our needs. In societies in which people need to engage in such movement and communication to be active, integrated members of their social environments, such aids become necessities for them. Thus, while human needs are largely universal and innate on one level (e.g., because of our biology, all human beings need nourishment—cavemen and modern humans alike), on another level they are historically and socially contingent and constructed (e.g., cavemen and modern humans fulfill their nutritional needs in very different ways—e.g., depending on hunting and gathering versus depending on industrial agriculture and a complex network of supply chains). 

Of course, we talked about all of this in terms that were developmentally appropriate to six to nine year-olds, but this was the gist of our conversation, translated into more adult language. By the end of the conversation, we were already getting into pretty advanced (especially for young children) intellectual territory. In subsequent lessons and activities, we went even further. 

The class then turned from the fundamental needs of survival to the higher-order needs of happiness. First, the children came up with examples of higher-order needs and the things that can fulfill them: friends, pets, love, chairs, flowers, candles, sports, board games, painting--the list went on and on. Then they organized the examples into groups of needs and things that went together.

Next they thought and talked about what the underlying commonalities were between the examples in each group--homing in on category names that would unite them all. Ultimately, they identified them as recreation, comfort, and companionship. (Some examples fell outside these categories; we acknowledged that there were more than these three, and that we would look at some of them later on).

The focus of the activity wasn't just getting the "right answers" about which examples went into which categories; it was why they went into those categories in the first place--the logic behind their categorization. The children were asked to explain, refine, and defend their reasoning.

After identifying the categories, the children came up with more examples that fit into them. In doing so, they were following a pattern that we often follow in the lower elementary: starting with the concrete (particular examples), moving to the abstract (general concepts that unite the examples), and then moving back down to the concrete--but this time approaching it with the help of the concepts reached in the previous step (identifying more examples that illustrate the concepts). Sometimes we repeat this process a few times, refining the concepts and our understanding of how the examples relate to them further and further as we go.

The children did all of this with the help of little notecards, on which they wrote their examples. The cards help us to organize and rearrange the examples into groupings on the fly.

Continuing its exploration of human needs, and repeating the same procedure as before, the lower elementary class then came up with more examples of fundamental needs of survival, higher-order needs of happiness, and the various people, living beings, places, events, and things that can fulfill them. The categories that the children arrived at this time were security, creativity, nature, education, psychological health, and meaning.

The creativity, meaning, and psychological health categories yielded particularly interesting examples and discussions. We talked about how examples of creativity include not just artistic pursuits such as visual art and music, but also vocations such as architecture and computer programming. Then we talked about how religion is one of the main ways that many people find meaning in their lives, but also how there are other, non-religious ways of finding it. The children’s examples of psychological health needs included peace, quiet, concentration, self-love, travel, feeling capable, and working. We also noted how there are interesting overlaps between the categories. For example, creativity is one of the keys to finding meaning in life and maintaining psychological health—the latter two of which are also closely connected as well.

By this point, the children had come up with 15 categories of human needs and over 200 examples of them, which we laid out on a long series of rugs.  

Rounding off its exploration of human needs, the lower elementary class further examined three of the categories of higher-order needs that it previously identified: education, psychological health, and meaning. The first examples that came to mind with education, of course, were school, school-work, and the various academic subjects, but we went on to recognize that our need to learn has a much broader scope, encompassing social, communicational, emotional, personal, practical, creative, and non-academic (at least in the traditional sense) intellectual skills, understanding, and knowledge. We also talked about why we need to learn in the first place: compared to most other animals, we come into the world with a relative lack of instincts to do the things we need to do to survive and be happy; we don’t know how to walk, talk, calculate, build, etc., so we have to learn how to do them. 

For psychological health, the children initially focused on very specific examples of ways to achieve and maintain it, but the subsequent discussion that we had about them helped us to make some insightful generalizations. For example, one child identified gardening as being conducive to psychological health, and when asked why, she said there was something deeply satisfying about seeing her own plants grow and enjoying the fruits of her labor, and something calming and centering about the activity itself. Part of the reason for this, we noted, was that when you're doing an activity like gardening, your mind and body become focused on the task at hand, which fills you with a clear sense of purpose and allows you to disentangle yourself from all the thoughts and emotions that might be swirling around in your head; they fade away as you become immersed in the activity, providing you with an invigorating respite from the other concerns of life and leaving you refreshed (and therefore more ready to tackle them). As we noted, similar things can be said of the children’s other examples, such as cleaning, exercising, reading, and playing. 

Finally, we talked about finding meaning in life. Of course, this is a rather esoteric topic even for adults, let alone young children, but we were able to broach it through some simple activities and reflections. For example, first the children were asked to walk around the classroom, without any further instructions. After aimlessly wandering around for a couple minutes, we reconvened and talked about how the experience felt. “Boring” and “a waste of time” were some of the descriptions. Then the children repeated the same activity, but this time, they were instructed to walk as silently as possible. After a little while, further complications were added, such as counting by 3s and rubbing one’s head and stomach at the same time, while continuing to walk silently. This was a more interesting, meaningful-feeling activity, the children said, because it was more challenging and there was a goal, which made it seem more purposeful. These were two of the hallmarks of meaningful (i.e., worthwhile-feeling) activities, we noted; they tend to be challenging, and they tend to have goals. 

In a similar manner, we went on to identify connection to other human beings and doing good (making others happy and/or the world a better place) as two other hallmarks of meaningful activities. We encapsulated all of these hallmarks of meaningfulness in the acronym CGCG (challenge, goal, connection, and [doing] good), noting how meaningful activities tend to exhibit one or more of these characteristics (and the more they exhibit them, the more they tend to feel meaningful). 

After coming up with more examples of things that help us to feel that we’re doing something meaningful with our lives, we related them back to our CGCG-framework. “Finishing the whole book of Harry Potter,” “doing a big math problem,” “making new friends,” “making a poster for a benefit,” “going to a funeral,” “winning a basketball game,” “finishing building a house,” and “graduating college” were some of the children’s examples, and we talked about whether they were primarily about being challenging, accomplishing goals, connecting with other people, doing good, or representing some combination thereof. 

Previously, religion was one of the main examples that the children came up with for finding meaning in life, and we talked about this in terms of our CGCG-framework. Religion, we noted, helps people to find meaning in their lives on a larger scale than activities like the examples listed above; whereas the latter help people to find meaning within the temporary contexts of particular activities, religion helps them find it in their lives-in-general. Part of the way it does so is by making them feel connected to their religious communities and by setting all sorts of general and particular goals for their lives—goals that tend to be challenging to accomplish and oriented toward doing good (at least ostensibly and in the mind of the believer). 

However, as we also noted, there are plenty of non-religious ways that people can find such larger scale meaning in their lives; pursuing personal passions and championing causes were the main ones that we identified, and the children—on their own, with just a little adult help with articulating their ideas—came up with all sorts of wonderful examples, from pursuing the study of birds (can you guess who said this?) to stopping global warming, protecting endangered animals, curing cancer, and ending sexism, racism, hunger, lack of healthcare, homelessness, and poverty. 

Taking the cause of curing cancer as an example, we began to conclude our discussion by bringing it home to the children. "What could you do right now to help with curing cancer?”, they were asked. A little, but not a whole lot, was the gist of their answer; they could raise some money for cancer research, for example, but they recognized that the impact of this would be limited. But then they were asked to imagine “what if you grow up and study biology and medicine when you go to college? What could you do to help cure cancer then?” A lot more, the children realized; one of them could even be directly involved in finding a cure. 

This realization led us to some of our final conclusions: part of the point of education is to enable the children to become capable of pursuing bigger and more challenging goals—becoming more deeply and broadly connected with other people, finding their places in society, and having a larger impact on the world in the process—all of which will make their lives more meaningful. 

In the end, a simple, crudely drawn diagram summarized the “take home point” of our discussions: on one side of a whiteboard, I drew a stick figure baby crawling on the ground. On the other side, I drew a big stick figure representing each child as a young adult. In between, I drew an arrow representing the intervening passage of time. “What are you doing between here [the baby] and here [the adult] I asked?” Growing up, the children answered. “But are you growing up just physically?” I asked. No, the children answered, and we identified the other ways in which they are developing: intellectually, socially, emotionally, morally, personally and creatively. The children’s task in life is to grow up in all of these ways, I noted, and Montessori is designed to aid them in accomplishing that task, on all the levels on which they must do so (not just a small subset of areas within intellectual development, which is what traditional education reductively focuses on). 

This task represents the most challenging goal a human being can pursue—and by pursuing it, one becomes more and more connected with other people and capable of doing good in the world. For the children (and, I would argue, adults as well), education (in this broadest and deepest of senses) is therefore the key to living a meaningful life and finding happiness, both now and in the future.

For me, there was something very poetic about this final discussion of ours, because as we were talking about the children developing into adults, I felt myself coming of age as a teacher—a profession that is much more than a job for me, as Montessori education has become one of my primary passions and causes in life. For the first time in my young career, I felt fully at home in my role, and the children seemed to sense it too, on some level. Our series of activities and discussions ended up going on for two hours (far longer than I had intended), but the children were engaged, respectful, and thoughtful the entire time, more so than I have ever seen them before—some of the more reticent children fully opening up and freely sharing their thoughts for the first time.   

In some ways, it felt more like a college-level seminar than an elementary classroom, and it was one of the most intellectually stimulating experiences I’ve had since leaving university. When we finished, I felt proud of myself for having been able to conduct such a lesson and series of activities, and I felt even more proud of the children for having risen to the occasion—children whom I have had the privilege of working with over the past two years, children who I have seen grow up in all sorts of marvelous ways in that relatively short span of time, and children who were reaching a new level of maturity before my very eyes as we rounded off our exploration of what they need to be happy and fulfilled. 

As I often tell both parents and children, people can’t grow as human beings without being challenged. I’m not going to lie; some of you—parents and children alike—can be challenging to work with at times (though I’m sure you could say the same of me), and the past two years have been among the most challenging years of my life. But I am grateful to all of you—not in spite of the challenges that you have given to me, but partly because of them. Having tackled them and found my voice as a teacher in the process, I have grown tremendously over the past two years—not just professionally but also personally. And I think that this is perhaps the most wonderful aspect of Montessori education: the growth that it strives to foster is a two-way street—the adults gaining as much from the children as the children gain from them. That’s why we describe our school as being more than a school; that’s why we describe it as a community: a group of people living, working, playing, and laughing together—and sometimes inevitably crying, arguing, and fighting in the process—but ultimately overcoming our differences, coming together, and growing up as human beings, both individually and collectively. 

The community of Namaste Montessori School has helped to shape me as a young adult in more ways than I can describe. I hope to stay connected with it as Maria and I pursue our adventures in Scotland—for although I am excited about the path ahead of us, I will miss the children terribly. But no matter what happens, I know that all of you will always be in my heart, and that I will carry your imprint with me wherever I go. I wouldn’t be who I’ve become without you, and for that, I am eternally grateful. 

Thank you for everything and everyone,
Daniel Rose 


Colin McNeil said...

We look forward to welcoming you to Scotland! - From Jacob (Children's house)

Kim Bostwick said...

Hi Daniel,

I just found your message yesterday, and I wanted to thank you so much for leading the kids through this series of exercises and conversations, and then thank you again separately for taking the time to sit down and explain and share it all with us. I am so deeply pleased that Nolan is having these sorts of important ideas explored at such a young age. It seems these ideas just float around among the fray even as adults, as we all search for what drives and motivates us, what we need, what we want, and what our "place" in the world is. But it is fundamentally important. And I had no idea this was going on. None. And I guess it hadn't really occurred to me that you could even "teach" these sorts of things, but now that you describe it, of course, why not?

I am a little disappointed I had to be outside the whole conversation, but will now see if I can unlock a little of this from Nolan (probably not by direct questions). I did ask him if he really learned about global warming and food pyramids, and he said yes. I asked if it was interesting, and he said, mmm-hmmm (yes). When we used to fall asleep together we had a couple spontaneous conversations about the universe (when you get to the edge, what's on the other side), and about evolution (how people could come from other animals). I wish we had more of these.

Anyhow, thank you so much Daniel. I am so happy Nolan's path transected yours, and I hope your paths cross again. We will want to be in touch with you as you continue along yours. Best wishes, and best of luck to you.

Sincerely, Kim Bostwick, a.k.a. Nolan's Mom