Do we stop learning when we leave school?

Do we stop learning when we leave school?

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Do we stop learning when we leave school? 

Of course not. 

True learning only starts after graduation. It’s then that the real world smacks us in the face and we have to engage our street smarts and tough skins to survive and prosper. The formal learning might stop when the cap is thrown in the air, then our life learning begins in earnest. 

And where do we get that learning from? 

Sources of everyday learning

Our parents have already done their best to impart wisdom through our teenage tantrums and our grunts as the highest form of communication. Now they just want us out the door.

We can ask Google or Siri any number of questions. This gets us realistic answers as factoids and snippets of detail that we don’t otherwise know. This works so long as you ask the robots the right questions.

Then there are the online feeds with factual content indistinguishable from the advertisements and opinion of the bullshit artists. 

Most of us still browse a news media site or maybe still watch the news on the TV. Only these outlets are companies for the most part with no obligation to educate us in the things that are important. They decide what is printed, what is investigated, what is picked up from the distributors to fill the column inches. Their bean counters have only the company’s bottom line on their minds. They think of their audience in ratings and do not ask if they should be providing their customers with a service – eyeballs and clicks are all that matter. 

Hold on though, around the world, there are publicly funded and state-run media. Some of those outlets have more latitude to publish content that is educational. And for the most part they do, along with a set of government-sanctioned messages. 

My experience here in Australia is that the public services must increasingly chase that elusive viewer or else lose more of their funding. 

Then there are all those little videos presented by Joe and Jill public. Some are great and some are awful. They all rely on our judgement to decide if they give us any life lessons or wisdom. Remember that the Tic Tocers and Instagrammers are after clicks too.

Alright so we keep learning and the sources of material for us to consume are endless and require us to be vigilant.

Does everyday knowledge matter?  

Are the topics that enter the conversation via the media the most important to humanity?

Here is one answer.

But the horse race that matters most is humanity’s collective race to defuse the climate emergency. What’s ultimately being decided in these elections is nothing less than whether all of us are going to have a livable planet 20 years from now and beyond. If the press is most comfortable chasing fires and sending reporters into disaster zones, so be it. But newsrooms should know: the disaster is here. It is raging now. Our job is to cover it with the urgency it deserves.

Mark Hertsgaard, Executive Director, Covering Climate Now.

Climate advocates push that agenda of course and they are right to provoke crisis thinking around this problem. It is a huge deal. As I edit this post Sydney is in the middle of a five-day rain deluge breaking rainfall records only a year out from drought and horrendous bushfires. 

The climate change that we’re experiencing is easily sufficient to cause the next mass extinction, particularly as the effects are accelerated by human land use. 

Recall that four of the five previous mass extinction events were climate-related. The dramatic changes across the planet will affect every single one of us. Not talking about climate change is a criminal omission. 

But this is an advocate talking. Why pay attention to climate over other critical issues? If the climate gets the lion’s share of our eyeballs and worry, what about soil, food security, population, sustainability, not to mention pandemics (yes, there will be more than one)? The list of acute issues is a long one.

This begs the broader question of what is essential learning? And, of course, who decides what is important for us to know. 

Knowable knowledge 

The body of human knowledge is so vast now that no one person can be across all of it. Even a slither is challenging.

In my own discipline of ecology, the number of scientific journals and articles published each year has risen exponentially over the last decades. And since I was a postgraduate student, when it seemed possible to get your head around most of the concepts and the literature that described those concepts, nowadays, it seems impossible to even read the systematic reviews. 

Recently we completed our own version of an evidence review on the wild dog problem in New South Wales. This is dogs that are feral domestic dogs often mixed with dingoes into various levels of purity that occasionally predate livestock in the rural areas. 

Farmers respond to livestock losses negatively as you can imagine. Nobody who grows animals wants to see those animals killed or maimed even in small numbers. 

The literature on the dogs though is quite extensive. A Google scholar search on ‘wild dog Australia’ generates 23 research papers with these words in the title and over a hundred related to the topic since 2017. Keeping up with all of this information in its raw form is difficult. 

The media has an important role to play in presenting information in an objective way, synthesized into bite-sized chunks. What it seems to be doing though is sensationalizing everything in order to get eyeballs. 

I believe the media should be telling us about a whole bunch of issues that currently don’t even get any airplay at all. 

Particularly the crisis in the soils. The requirement to grow food and increase production at 2% for 30 years. The notion of the demographic transition, that humanity will peak at a large number of people. And we’ll have to feed that large number for a long period of time before that declines through natural attrition. 

But this is not news in the true sense. It is predictions of the future and news agencies are very wary of such things. The last thing they want is to be shown to get the future wrong, they will say their job is to report the present. They shy away from anything futuristic. 

What about the immediate consequences of longer-term stories? What about the aging farmers or the increased rates of suicides amongst farmers? The debt to equity ratios in rural communities or the number of rural properties operating as businesses that are just not profitable, never have been, never can be. What about the properties that are heading in that direction that were once viable and are now becoming unproductive? 

What about the fact that wild dogs are not really a pest at all? In terms of an economic impact, in the aggregate they are benign. 

What do we know?

I suspect that our desire to learn is a string as ever but I worry we are learning the wrong things and are ignorant of what’s going on in the world around us. We hide in our social feeds that are designed to deliver content that we like. And the youngsters who are trying to live on the edge of their comfort zones are really looking for that early life excitement more than education. 

The thing is when you get to a certain age you realize that education is actually fundamental to what you’ve just been through. And that if you’ve been successful most likely you have gathered about yourself the equivalent of education in various forms even f most of them are informal. 

Then you realize that you should have been doing that purposefully from the beginning. 

And education is not about certificates and grades or being the valedictorian. It is all about building your own capacity, your own level of understanding about yourself and how the world around you works. 

And how you can chart a better course for yourself as part of humanity.


Reposting is fine by me

Teaching ecology

Teaching ecology

Peer-reviewed paper series

Dangerfield, J.M., Boar, R.R. & Montgomery, P., 1987. Teaching ecology to undergraduates: a practical course using projects. Journal of Biological Education, 21(4), 251–258.


“In these practicals students learned how to derive facts through experimentation.”

This is a quote from my first ever peer-reviewed publication that appeared in the Journal of Biological Education, exactly 30 years ago. The irony that it wasn’t strictly research but some pedagogy gleaned from an undergraduate practical course I designed and delivered with my colleague Ros Boar that we thought would get students familiar with the process of research by experimentation. We were young and idealistic at the time but had a passion for education that was, and still is, a good thing.

The course began with some facts about three species of woodlice. One was common everywhere in the UK and the other two, whilst closely related (classified in the same genus) were rare. We presented the students with vast numbers of live specimens of each species from laboratory cultures along with some instructions on how to look after them responsibly, then asked students to test the hypothesis that it was the behaviours of these species affected their recorded distributions.

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Next we said, ‘Well, there you have it folks. Form small groups and go conduct some experiments.”

It was a bold plan even for the University of East Anglia that, at the time, had a reputation for innovation in teaching. We were trying to put the ‘open needed learning’ paradigm that we believed in, to the test and, almost without realising it, I have followed this approach throughout my time as an educator.

Open-ended explorations of carbon budgets, all taxa biodiversity inventories, the spatial distribution of plants and animals, and even millipede mating behaviours found their way into subsequent teaching efforts. I am not sure that all students benefit from being thrown in at the deep end of the scientific method without any flotation devices. In later years I became convinced that the approach exposed secondary school education that no longer teaches “thinking” to any useful purpose. But in those heady days, we just knew it was worthwhile.

Between them, the UEA students interpreted behaviours with experiments on habitat preference, vertical distribution, survivorship, feeding and growth, and palatability. All the likely suspects for the global hypothesis you would have to agree. Only this was a learning exercise and so we did not expect much light on what makes Porcellio scaber so ubiquitous. That said, it almost certainly has to do with the weaker physiologies of its congeners, and out students were on that track.

We did ask the students how they went and from what they said we concluded

The majority of students (80 per cent) initially expected their conclusions to support the ecological theory that they had explored during their lecture course. Interestingly, only 25 per cent subsequently claimed that they would expect this if they were to begin another piece of work. All of the students who replied to our questionnaire that they would now be less accepting of theory.

So we created sceptics.

An inspired outcome, even if I do say so myself.