The saying “Seeing the Forest Through the Trees” means to be overwhelmed by detail to the point where it obscures the overall situation –wiktionary
Seeing the forest through the trees in public education seems to be a constant struggle, perhaps even an ongoing theme for my teaching career. With respect to the Old BC Curriculum, it was challenging to get beyond checking off the Learning Outcomes in order to provide a personalized learning experience that is relevant and responsive to each individual student. With the New BC Curriculum personalized learning has taken center stage with the Core Competencies, however achieving this expectation is restricted by our Western-European Education System and its foundational bureaucracy. In fact, I often feel that personalize learning is an act of resistance against the institution, even though it is a goal of BC’s curriculum.
It seems we have gotten lost in education somewhere between 2 opposing philosophies introduced in the early 20th century. Franklin Bobbitt emphasized “what” should be taught as he believed that an industrialized education system would prepare students for the workforce, whereas John Dewey and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were primarily concerned with the individual learner and the “how”. Rousseau and Dewey’s perspective were summarized nicely by Kieran Egan:
the belief that children are naturally good, and will naturally incline to the good if not prevented by social and institutional constraints, leads one to believe that educational methods which allow the freedom to attain this goodness will by definition be beneficial. (2003 p. 13)
The social and institutional constraints on educators are formidable, but if we are used to them they may go unquestioned. How can we teach indigenous content within the political construct of an industrialized education system? How can we effectively educate the student that works until 11pm on weeknights when their class starts at 8:30 am? How can we invite community experts to provide place-based learning opportunities when there is so much red tape around leaving the school building, and how can we involve students in global conversations when our technology use is significantly restricted by school districts? Whether learning restrictions come in the form of bell schedules, attendance practices, policy, the architecture of the building or even the hiring practices of educators we have significant hurdles to overcome in order to provide the student centered learning experiences that foster personal and social development mandated by the BC Curriculum.
An example of an educational experience that can provide valuable learning experiences are fieldtrips. I teach Environmental Science 11 and aim to take my students out of the classroom on field trips at least once a week. This may involve learning in our indigenous garden or in our more traditional school vegetable garden, walking down to nearby Colquitz Creek to check water samples for oxygen saturation, pollution, and salmon populations, or pulling invasive species at a local Garry Oak ecosystem. This past year we also had opportunities (that unfortunately did not actualize due to Covid-19) to explore Goldstream Provincial Park, monitor the effects of local development at Hospital creek, help preserve the beach from erosion at Portage Inlet in collaboration with Peninsula Streams, and visit the Pacific Forestry Centre.
The Greater Victoria School Districts’ Policy 3545.2 states that
The Board of Education recognizes the educational value of a wide variety and diversity of learning experiences for students, through field trips.
The Board directs that activities, undertaken by school personnel, are purposeful,
planned, organized, and conducted safely.
Further incentives to take students on field trips are presented in a blog post by Claiborne, Morrell, Bandy and Bruff (2020), which states that the intended educational outcomes of field trips focus on the following five areas (Behrendt & Franklin, 2014; Larsen et al., 2017; Tal & Morag, 2009):
- Developing social and personal skills
- Developing observation and perception skills
- Adding relevance and meaning to learning
- Providing first-hand real-world experiences
- Enhancing intrinsic motivation and interest in the subject
However, in order to go on a field trip teachers mush abide by field trip regulations and navigate up to 12 forms, including (but not limited to) driver authorization, field trip request forms, checklists, parental authority, permission, consent, and code of conduct.
In a blog post titled “Why don’t teachers take kids on field trips anymore” the author lists 19 different required forms or items necessary to complete and bring on a field trip to a museum and concludes that more teachers don’t take their students on field trips because it is too much to organize. Melissa Kelly begins her blog post with a question “Are field trips worth all the time and effort required to make them successful? ” (2019). Some of the reasons why Kelly believes field trips may not be worth it include the paperwork, field trip costs, getting and preparing coverage if the teacher will be away from other classes, time, and preparing work for students who (for one reason or another) cannot attend. BBC News education reporter Katherine Sellgren states that “The Association for Science Education (ASE) says too much attention to risk assessment means science field trips are in long-term continuing decline.” (2011) While all of these obstacles appear necessary within the construct of our public education system, would they exist if the system was intended to provide such opportunities? If the system was designed for it? We are trying to fit learning outcomes into a system that was not built with those learning outcomes in mind.
Teachers often wear the burden of ‘not doing enough’ and ‘not providing the authentic learning experiences that we all know are beneficial for students, but such experiences are not conducive to the institution within which we teach.
Field trips are but one example of navigating the bureaucracy of public education. The school building and how classes are organized further restrict opportunities for learning, and technology presents its own hurdles, with each school district endorsing its own Learning Management Systems while strictly forbidding others (For further teacher considerations surrounding technology, see my blog post titled “Digital Citizenship during Covid“). I regularly wrestle with myself when deciding to include field trips in the curriculum, try new technologies with my students, or plan opportunities for learning that do not happen within our 80 minutes of class-time. I usually return to the fact that the learning experiences, sense of community, and memories that are created are worth the challenges and time investment. That being said, streamlining the process and reducing the red tape are just the beginning of dismantling a system that, in my opinion, restricts opportunities for authentic student-centered learning experiences.
It might be challenging to imaging what the perfect future school might look like, however there are a few innovative schools and educators from which we can learn from such as Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry(PSII), High Tech High in San Diego, Trevor MacKenzie and the approach to education he presents in his book Dive into Inquiry, and our own graduate supervisor, Dr. Valerie Irvine, and her “voice and choice” philosophy. Rather than trying to see the forest through the trees, I think I’ll keep my eyes on front-runners such as these so I don’t get lost.
(To read more on the aforementioned innovative schools and educators, please see my post titled Inquiry, PSII, and Environmental Science – July 2019)
Egan, K. (2003). What is Curriculum? JCACS, 1(1), 9-16.
Bobbitt, F. (1918). The Curriculum. School Review, 26(10, 790-791.