Saving American Education in the 21st Century: The Lessons of Traditional Environmental Education

A paper based on this posting is under consideration for publication.


Education in science, natural history, and the environment was carried out in traditional societies largely through learning-by-doing, supplemented by watching and by listening to tales and stories.  These stories were usually either myths or highly circumstantial personal memoirs told by elders and mentors.  Contemporary science education is more typically done through passively sitting still, memorizing “facts” for assessment by machine-scored standardized tests.  Experience teaches that the former methods succeed; children in traditional societies quickly learn incredible amounts about their environments and about making a living from those, while modern American children are almost totally ignorant about their environments, typically failing to retain even the small amounts they are taught.  It appears desirable to move back to hands-on learning, personal involvement, and serious mentoring by elders and older peers.


Culture is about learning; children absorb it from parents and peers.  However, children bring their own skills to the process.  The human brain develops in a predictable way, and learns accordingly.  Thus (for example), children learning language go through a striking and very distinctive process.  They first use a word to correspond to a single object or person.  Mommy and Daddy are just the infant’s own mother and father.  “Dog” is the family dog.  Then, suddenly, around 7 or 8 months, they get the idea, and suddenly generalize the words out of all normal usage:  all female humans are Mommy, all males Daddy, and all four-footed creatures are “dog.”  Then, more slowly but still fairly fast, they learn to restrict these words to their proper meanings.  But restriction normally follows from learning new words for things previously covered by overextended words.  My first daughter learned “leaf” at 8 months, with reference to a single leaf.  She soon generalized it to cover all soft colorful things, including flowers, clothes, and sheets of colored paper.  Then she learned “flower,” which took a huge bite out of “leaf”; then “clothes” and “paper” took more bites.  Soon “leaf” meant what it means in normal adult English.  Children are programmed to learn this way, and it is exciting to watch.  They do not learn by stimulus-and-response or by simple copying.  They learn by extrapolating a definition or a rule and then vastly overgeneralizing it.

Culture consists of useful knowledge—data and rules—that we learn and then use in adapting to daily challenges and opportunities.  It includes countless alternatives that we can invoke and reinterpret at will.  If I want to pluralize “sheep” as “sheeps,” or even “sheepen,” I can do it, in spite of cultural rules to the contrary.  Moreover, I will be understood by standard-English-speaking hearers.  They will correctly assume I am playing language games.  If they are young enough, they will be amused.  Children love to see adults deliberately playing with the rules—it feeds into the learning process.  Creative use of knowledge and rules is what life is all about, and any culture that imposed a rigid crust of “constructions” on its bearers would immediately die out.


A culture, like a biological organism, has to reproduce itself—its working knowledge, its social organization, its hierarchy, its belief system.  Just as reproduction of the species occurs through mating and birth, reproduction of culture occurs most typically through formal and informal education of the young.  This process is fraught with social meanings and consequences (Bourdieu and Passeron 1990). 

Surprising uniformity emerges from studies (admittedly few in number) done on informal working education in traditional societies.  Everywhere, learning is by doing—but doing things while being guided by elders (Anderson 1992, 1999, 2007; Cole 2010; Lancy et al. 2010; Lave 1988; Stafford 1995). 

Everywhere, such learning is supplemented by stories the elders tell.  Some of these stories are hallowed myths that provide a sacred charter for conservation or other ethical behavior (the vital importance of serious myths in education is discussed in Cajete 1994).  Almost always, such mythic texts are told in special contexts:  During ceremonies and rituals, during long winter nights around the fire, or during long periods of work at the particular activity the myth concerns.  

In no case is teaching done through formal lectures in a neutral, alien environment.  The stories are graphic, dramatic, exciting, and personally compelling—partly because they are either sacred traditions or part of the life experiences of known and (hopefully) respected individuals. 

Usually, of course, it is the practice that matters.  The myths and tales supplement knowledge gained through experience.  The knowledge is then not merely verbal; it is learned by the whole body and the whole mind.  One learns with one’s entire being—hands and feet, emotions and cognitions, ears and eyes.  The more total the body and mind involvement, the more learning.  It is truly embodied, but it is more than that:  it is part of the whole dynamic process of using one’s body and mind in practice (cf. Gibbs 2006).

The results of such training are truly striking.   Both lowland and highland Maya of college age, and even of early teens, know hundreds of plants and animals by name and use (Stross 1973; Zarger 2002, 2010; Zarger and Stepp 2004).  They have an encyclopedic knowledge of farming (Kramer 2005) and forest management.  Chinese fishermen know hundreds of fish, how to catch them, and how much value they have in the market; they can handle boats, predict weather changes, and deal with coordinating crews (Anderson 1999, 2007; Stafford 1995).  Northwest Coast Native peoples have, by adulthood, gone through initiations that provide guardian spirit visions; in the course of these, they learn ceremonies and myths.  They also learn the expected encyclopedic amounts about fish, game, and plants, but from actual hunting and gathering practice rather than from rituals. 

The working knowledge bases of these traditional peoples are not greater than those of an extremely well-educated American young adult, but they are far greater than those of the typical product of American schools:  barely literate and almost completely ignorant of science.  The American young adult may know much, but most of it will be about consumer products and popular celebrities.

Wider reading in the anthropology of education confirms this as a general case.  Serious research in educational anthropology began with Maria Montessori, who put her findings to good use by starting the Montessori school movement.  Alexander Chamberlain’s The Child and Childhood in Folk-Thought (1895) opened the topic for research in the United States, but Chamberlain died shortly after this book appeared, ending a promising career.  More important and visible, but still without discernable influence on the field, was a striking article by J. W. Powell (1901) on “sophiology,” his term for the art of instruction; he anticipated much of what is below, and one wishes his article had had its intended effect of starting a whole field.  If it had, American education would be far, far better than it is today.

Studies of traditional nonschool education were few and far between for a long time.  The Sioux writer Charles Eastman (1902) reminisced about his boyhood in an extremely interesting and detailed review.  Many Native Americans since have contributed importantly to knowledge of traditional education (Cajete 1994 gives an excellent general discussion; among many autobiographies, Eastman 19092 and Reyes 2002 is outstanding; for inculcating general values, see also Atleo 2004; George 2003).  The Berkeley education professor George Pettitt became seriously interested in the whole issue and produced outstanding (though now dated) studies, first of the Quileute people, then of Native American education in general (Pettitt 1946, 1950). 

More recently, important research was started by John and Beatrice Whiting (Whiting 1951, 1994), of Harvard’s Social Relations Department, on how culture, via education and training, influences personality, and vice versa (see valuable review by Munroe and Munroe 1975).  Much of this dealt with emotional development, especially aggression and gender issues.  The Whitings’ most famous finding was a strong correlation between the degree to which boys are raised only by women and the level of pain and drama in male initiation rites.  Cultures where women raise the boys (because the men are off working, fighting, or whatever) have much more dramatic and painful rites—circumcision, scarification, and worse. 

As psychologists turned to studies of cognition in the 1960s, most of the Whitings’ students flocked to that area.  Their work on emotion is outside my view here, but the peak of their activity and influence occurred just as the “cognitive revolution” (H. Gardner 1985) was sweeping Harvard’s social sciences with major transformative effect.  The Whitings’ more cognitive-oriented students were swept up in the moment.  Kimball Romney, arguably the leader of cognitive anthropology for the next 40 years, got his start studying children under the Whitings’ direction (Romney 1966). 

Eventually, ethnographic and psychological research under the Whitings’ direction produced a fairly concrete set of findings on how non-classroom education normally proceeds (summary surveys include LeVine 2007; Munroe and Munroe 1975; Whiting 1994).

The Harvard Social Relations Department also included Evon Vogt, whose enormous Chiapas Project trained two generations of anthropologists (Vogt 1994).  Inevitably, interest in education and child life was part of this, leading ultimately to the recent work of Patricia Greenfield (Greenfield 2004; Greenfield et al 2003; Zambrano and Greenfield 2004), Eugene Hunn (2002, 2008), Brian Stross (1973), J. R. Stepp, Rebecca Zarger (2002, 2010; Zarger and Stepp 2004), Felice Wyndham (2009), and others (myself included).  Of these, Hunn, Stepp, Zarger and I were students of Brent Berlin, who had gotten his start on the Vogt project. 

Independently, Hilaria Maas Colli (1983) studied Yucatec Maya child life with special reference to the role of ceremonies and rituals in reinforcing gender-role training; one of the very best studies of traditional child life ever done, this work remains forlorn and unpublished in the University of Yucatan anthropology library.  Karen Kramer (2005) observed Yucatec Maya child life on the farm, and though her work is more concerned with the role of child labor in farming, she provided excellent observations on what tasks are learned first and which ones later.  All this has made the Mexican Maya by far the best known traditional small-scale societies in the world in traditional nonschool education.

Closely related in approach was Jean Lave (1988), who, though not part of the Whiting or Vogt projects, was trained in the cognitive revolution days.  She later worked with psychologist Barbara Rogoff (Rogoff and Lave 1984; Rogoff 2003), training Greenfield, as well as Mary Gauvain (2001), who has provided broader psychological overviews.  She was influenced by the cognitive psychologist Michael Cole, whose intercultural interests could not have begun farther from Harvard; Cole acquired them at Moscow State University with Alexander Luria.

 There were, meanwhile, a few—a very few—independent efforts to understand traditional training.  By far the most impressive was the work of geographer Kenneth Ruddle with the education specialist Ray Chesterfield (Ruddle 1993; Ruddle and Chesterfield 1977).  Much of what follows is based on their work.  Several other, largely isolated, studies appeared, but none has been followed up so far (Franquemont 1988; P. Gardner 2003; Quisumbing et al. 2004; Stafford 1995).  Pelissier (1991) provided a very valuable review of child life studies in anthropology as of 1991, but, alas, the main thing her review shows is that most research has been done in and on school environments.  There has also been some attention to what and how children really learn in modern schooled society, notably the superb and underappreciated prospective research of Emmy Werner (1989; Werner and Smith 1982) and the much more famous work by Paul Willis, Learning to Labor (1981; on youth and learning, see also Bjorkland 2007).  Peter Kahn and his group have studied nature learning in modern America (Howe et al. 1996; Kahn 1999; Kahn and Kellert 2002.)  Charles Stafford (1995) wrote an excellent, but unique, book on childhood on Taiwan; interestingly, his findings on Taiwanese fisher children were virtually identical to mine on fisher children in Hong Kong (Anderson 2007).

Recently, a major new trend has opened up in natural-historical studies of childhood.  Biological anthropologists interested in evolutionary and ecological questions started much of it, but third-generation Whitingians have been involved, as well as others interested in practice, or cognitive development, or simply in children.  A recent work edited by David Lancy, John Bock and Suzanne Gaskins, The Anthropology of Learning in Childhood (2010), brings all this together, with really superb overviews of the field (including a history by Munroe and Gauvain, 2010).  No longer is the anthropology of real-world education a minor side-channel.

From all of the above, a conclusion emerges:  Whether one is a Hadza learning to hunt antelope, a Trobriander learning to play cricket, or an American learning to swim or fish or ride a bike, the process is broadly similar. 

It was most succintly stated by Native American basketmaker Nettie Jackson (Klikitat of Washington state), describing her own training:

“’When you want to learn something, don’t always talk and ask questions, just watch and do it,’ my mother and grandmother told us when we were children.  ‘If it is in you, you will do it.  Even if it sems as if you can’t learn, it will come to you when you are ready’”  (Jackson 1994:200).

In some cultures, learners receive minimal guidance, especially from adults; people are supposed to be able to copy anything they have seen, or at least to try it and then work out any bugs by trial and error (Eastman 1902; Gardner 2003; Lancy et al. 2010, esp. Lancy and Grove 2010).  In other cultures, adults or older children model the behavior many times over (Greenfield 2004).  Still other cultures instruct the trainers to provide some verbal explanation along with the modeling (this is what I have seen among Chinese and Maya).  Always, however, the emphasis is on doing, not telling (Lancy et al. 2010).  

Modeling-with-words is appropriate for tasks like computing; most of us learn our basic computer skills this way—some peer shows us, with verbal and physical guidance, and we try to emulate.  For motor and mechanical skills, where words are often inadequate, modeling-without-words is often the rule.  You can go only so far in explaining how to swim or ride a bike. 

Children tend to begin by intently watching the process.  Few words or direct teaching is involved.  Then they try it, with more or less guidance from older children (for simpler, more “kid”-level learning) or from adults.  The best account I have seen is Patricia Greenfield’s (2004; and Lancy et al. 2010 review dozens of similar studies). 

When words are necessary, as in language learning, people in ordinary daily life (as opposed to formal schooling) embed the words in ordinary conversation.  Often, they use requests:  “Get me the ixi’im,” “go out and find a k’uum and bring it in,” and so on.  If the child does not know the word, the parent shows him or her the item in question (corn, and squash, in the Yucatec Maya examples above).  Or the word is simply embedded in conversation and the child is expected to pick it up:  “See, I’m going out to bring in the ik, come help me, OK?”  The child follows, sees the parent harvesting chile peppers, and thus learns that ik means those painful green or red items.  

Gathering firewood, medicinal herbs, and flowers all provide “teachable moments.”  What matters is not only the learning opportunity, but the child’s increasing realization that these are important skills—in fact, the very core of necessary knowledge.  Being an adult Maya means being able to raise corn (first and foremost!), find good firewood, treat one’s illnesses.  Children thus learn through work.  Often this is productive, necessary work; often it is play at adult roles, though the amount that children actually learn from such play is somewhat controversial (Chick 2010) and clearly depends on how much the play is really like the activity modeled.  Playing at making pottery is a good learning experience—we must all start that somewhere.  Playing at hunting is less valuable; tracking and killing large game animals is so difficult that it is learned late and often throughout a lifetime.  Thus hunter-gatherer cultures have longer “childhoods” with more play and less real practice than most agricultural ones do (Lancy et al. 2010, esp. Bock 2010).

Much of this learning takes place without punishment or major reward.  Children are not beaten when they fail and not given candy when they do well.  Motivation is a combination of intrinsic interest and validation by elders and peers.  Children everywhere want to learn what is culturally important.  This approach to motivation often shocks westerners, who cannot imagine raising a child without physical punishment.  In Hong Kong, British parents were always telling me that Chinese parents “spoiled” their children, in spite of the very obvious fact that the Chinese children were better behaved than the British ones.  The Jesuits in Canada in 1648 recorded it as a great triumph of their teaching when a mother beat her four-year-old child for some minor slip; the Jesuits could not imagine Christian childrearing without beating, but the Huron people they were converting never used physical punishment, feeling it was disrepectful to the child (Blackburn 2000:94).  On the other hand, corporal punishment is very widespread, especially among agricultural societies, and can be rather savage, as can shaming and guilt-tripping (Lancy and Grove 2010). 

Finally, older children teach younger ones.  This not only helps the younger ones; it helps the older—possibly more, in fact.  The truest proverb I know is “the best way to learn a subject is to teach it,” and these older children are doing their most important learning.  Current research suggests that the faster a learner (of any age) actually applies his or her learning, the better the understanding and retention.  Today we get children to take tests (as soon and as often as possible; Glenn 2007; Karpicke and Roediger 2008) or write down (hopefully with some thought) what they have learned.  How much better to get them to go right out to teach the younger ones!

This works.  Working, again, with Maya highlanders, Brian Stross’ classic study of Tzeltal Maya children showed that they knew an enormous number of plants, learning the names often from peers and especially in older childhood (Stross 1973; Janet Dougherty 1979 found that United States children knew far less).  A recent replication of this study by Rebecca Zarger and collaborators found that knowledge has been passed on, the same way, for yet another generation (Zarger 2002; Zarger and Stepp 2004).  Salient, culturally important plants are also learned first and best, as Felice Wyndham (2009) found working with highland Maya.  Children learn almost from birth to attend to things their parents and older peers stress and emphasize, and this is clearly one of the most important—probably the most important—variable in determining what is learned.  Wyndham also stresses the total experience—bodily, emotional, and cognitive—and thus takes a phenomenological approach to learning.  This is an important development; the artificial and arbitrary splitting of experience is one of the major reasons for the catastrophic failure of education in the modern United States, and phenomenology offers a needed corrective.

Learning is thus highly social, and is characterised in these traditional societies by being a full, rich experience with actual real-world choices to make.

Similarly, Eugene Hunn found that Zapotec children know an enormous amount about the plants in their environment—and, by inference, everything else in it too—at an early age; almost all children in the village knew dozens of plants well before the age of 10 (Hunn 2002, 2008; documentation and photographs in the latter work are outstanding and important).  Hunn (personal communication) has found a surprising amount of knowledge of nature among American college students, but it is learned from television and zoos, and is more apt to concern large African animals than small American ones!  Colleen O’Brien (2010) found that children in the isolated desert community of Ajo, Arizona, know a good deal about the desert, and could know a great deal more if anyone worked with them; but elders often know little themselves, and in any case have given up on the children, maintaining that “they know nothing” and are hopeless.  This attitude is not confined to Ajo (Louv 2005).  Obviously, giving up on the young is no way to teach them.  (College professors take note.  Many of my colleagues claim that “students these days” are hopeless—uninterested, illiterate, etc.  Of this more anon.)

One other set of studies informs our search:  participant observation on traditional specialized education.  A large literature on traditional training of religious and visionary practitioners (such as shamans) is too hard to evaluate for our purposes here.  Many traditional religions seem to teach largely through rote memorization of texts and rituals, but good descriptions of the actual process are few and far between (though see e.g. Boyce 1979 on Zoroastrian lay and priestly training).

Studies of traditional survival arts abound (e.g. Campbell 1999).  They rarely go into detail on learning, but they say enough to make it clear that the writers learned by watching and imitating.  Partly because it is the best way to learn, and partly because their consultants always taught that way, these survival-skills scholars learned by quite traditional methods.

A more important and deeply researched body of research is found in studies of traditional medicine.  Among those particularly good, and useful to us here, are two books by western Sinologists who studied Chinese medicine:  Knowing Practice by Judith Farquhar (1994) and The Transmission of Chinese Medicine by Elizabeth Hsu (1999).  Both apprenticed themselves to Chinese doctors.  Teaching was largely by apprenticeship.  In this case, there was a solid body of textual knowledge which had to be learned, but it greatly underspecified and underdetermined actual practice.  Farquhar spent much time learning to be a Chinese medical worker.  Hsu spent a year in Kunming, Yunnan, studying traditional medicine and qigong exercise.  Her  deeply insightful book covers the relationship of text, teaching rhetoric, and practice.  Both came to similar conclusions:  Chinese medicine is an art, learned by actual interaction with patients, not a craft learned from books.  The books are at best unclear and at worst incomprehensible; they never specify enough to determine practice clearly.  One has to work under a doctor’s direction for a long time. 

A few other such medical memoirs from other cultures exist, though many do not tell us much about learning the trade (see e.g. Leighton and Leighton 1949, which pays more attention to a Navaho healer’s inferred personality problems than to his practice).  However, it seems clear from all studies that most traditional and folk medicine is learned by doing, as in the case of Chinese medicine. 

My own experience is relevant.  I learned Maya healing largely from Don José Cauich Canul, a jmeen (healer) of Polyuc, Quintana Roo.  He consciously took me on as a trainee.  He took me out looking for herbs, demonstrated massage and other techniques on me, got me to do the simpler standard routines he used, and wrote up a manuscript with his favorite cures (see Anderson 2003).  There was, thus, a combination of apprentice practice, modeling, verbal instruction, and use of textual material.   

What works best is apprenticeship—or, more broadly, what Jean Lave (1988; Lave and Wenger 1991) calls “legitimate peripheral participation.”  It has also been called “cognitive apprenticeship” (Cole 2010), though in fact it is basically just old-fashioned apprenticeship, and the “cognitive” is thus unnecessary. We learn by helping.  Think how you learned to cook, or work on a car engine, or do any environment-related thing from backpacking to restoring habitat.  Almost certainly, you learned by actually working with a senior and more experienced person, and you gradually came to do more and more of the work by yourself.  If you did learn some of it from books, you are aware how much better participation is than book-learning.

In short, across a very wide range of skills and societies, surprisingly little discussion and virtually no lecturing takes place.  Much learning takes place through interaction, negotiation, and discussion, but often this is the kind of unconscious learning that goes on all the time, especially in language learning by young children.  Learning through discussion seems to be significantly commoner among modern large-scale societies, in both Asia and the western world, but we lack a wide enough sample to be truly sure of this.  Moreover, in these developed worlds, physical skills like sports playing and woodworking seem to involve less discussion than more purely language-based matters, and thus approximate to the typical learning situation in small-scale societies.  However, even in teaching physical skills, verbal coaching is still the rule in North America and parts of west and south Asia, though not so much in of East and Southeast Asia (at least in my field work days). 

As mentioned earlier, the one really important traditional way of verbal teaching in most of the world’s cultures, including out-of-classroom America, is through stories (Cajete 1994; Cruikshank 1998; Eastman 1902; Gardner 2003; Gould 1968; Goulet 1998; C. Laird 1976; Rose 2000; many others).  An exciting story, whether an ancient myth or a personal story told by the teacher, packages knowledge in a memorable, exciting way.  Aesop’s ancient Greek fables remain popular today.  Native Americans still tell their folktales, even among groups that have lost their language and most of their traditional culture.  Not only social skills, but everything from hunting to water hole location and from the highest religious ideals to the lowest sexual practices, is passed on in stories.  In non-literate cultures, stories are often the only teaching texts.  Cultures that have writing will add books and manuscripts, but often only for highly technical lore (be it math or theology).

Notably important are two very different kinds of teaching stories:  myths and personal stories.  Myths are a great way to make knowledge seem sacred, super-important, and God-given (see e.g. Cajete 1994).  Cultures as far apart as the Southern Paiute (Laird 1976) and the Australian aborigines (Gould 1968; Rose 2000) encode knowledge of water hole locations, hunting grounds, and food plants in racy stories about the animal beings in the mythic time.  Lots of adventure, sex, and danger, plus the advantage of being sacred, make these stories memorable.  Children learn the water holes thoroughly and in order.  Memorizing a bare list of water holes would not be as effective, and in the desert such relative lack of knowledge would be certainly fatal.

Personal stories often are used to pass on information, but are also well adapted to telling children what not to do.  In many cultures, one cannot criticize another person openly.  So, if a young person is goofing off, an elder will say:  “When I was young, I used to….  Here is what happened….”  The storyteller does not need to say that his foolish actions were the same things the young person is now doing, and does not need to point up the moral after humorously recounting the painfully instructive consequences.  This sort of indirect warning is usually highly effective!  I remember it from my own youth, and it seems to be cross-culturally general, along with other ways of using personal stories to teach (Sterponi 2010).

Other stories are reminiscences and circumstantial tales by the elders about their own experiences (see e.g. Hunn 1991).  These are told around the fire or during actual work.  Hunting tales are traditionally told while going to or from the hunting grounds.  Tales of farming are told while going to or from the fields. 

Most of us in my generation learned our life skills in these ways:  participation and stories.  We remember them better than most of our classroom learning.  Psychologists and anthropologists have demonstrated that knowledge packaged in concrete and specific stories is more memorable than knowledge presented abstractly.  The better-told and more exciting the story, the more it sticks. 

In traditional cultures, teaching by myth and story is usually done by respected elders.  They are well known to the learner, and are people who are highly regarded in the community.  Teaching simple skills by modeling, however, is the parents’ and peers’ job. 

In at least one culture, teaching can even come from the dead:  Among the Cambodians, for whom reincarnation is all-important, “a child’s previous-life mother is understood to play an important role in protecting the child from his or her current parents’ abuses or their inattention to the character the child has inherited from a previous life” (Fung and Smith 2010:266, citing research by Nancy Smith-Hefner).  I have gotten close to this myself; my son Rob was duly diagnosed by my wife’s Cambodian friends and research contacts as having important previous-life influences, not least because he was born on Buddha’s birthday. 

Teaching by rote memorization and formal instruction occurs widely, but usually it is confined to sacred songs or texts.  Normally, the traditional communities of the world place such teaching in a dramatic context—typically as part of a religious ceremony.  This involves everyone in the process, emotionally, and makes the knowledge more memorable because of that.  Often, elders teach the most important rote-learning during initiation ceremonies, often painful and difficult ones.  Knowledge comes with adulthood, and adulthood is hard-won.

Teaching is individualized (Cajete 1994), since normally it is done by elders working with their own family or community members.  It is also total-person training, involving body and mind together, and it is normally applicable immediately in daily practice.

Guided teaching of the traditional kind—copying of behavior modeled by the teacher, supplemented with stories—seems to remain the most effective method.  That is why it is traditional.  It worked well enough to be propagated. 

Modern derivatives, including lab science, hands-on activities, guided practice, coaching, interactive learning, and just plain learning by doing, work very well (McGinnis and Roberts-Harris 2009) but require a good deal of effort, including one-on-one teaching.  The cost of this could be substantially diminished by doing what all traditional societies do:  getting older children to teach younger ones.  The rigid age-segregation of American education appears, from cross-cultural evidence, to be an extremely bad idea.  Programs of mentoring by older children have succeeded extremely well in some places.

Such training is extremely effective in teaching practical skills.  It is not necessarily so good at teaching the kinds of analytic and interpretive skills that are expected in higher education today.  But neither is the lecture-examination system; modern higher education at the graduate level, relies on one-on-one teaching, apprenticeship in writing, and, in the sciences, hands-on lab work—in short, something very much like traditional informal education.  There is a deep human truth here.   

            The same applies to moral training:  students have to learn to care and be responsible.   People learn to be moral by dealing with actual life experiences (Kohlberg 1981, 1983).  A few philosophers may get their ethics from grave tomes, but the rest of us get ours from doing something—often something helpful, but often something “bad”—and getting set straight by our parents or other respected figures.  This is supplemented by stories, especially the rueful reminiscence stories noted above, which seem to be universal. 

Whatever the philosophers may say, morals are not abstract principles.  They are pragmatic coping rules for dealing with others.  They are learned not from abstractions but from interactions.


More generally, moving out from traditional education to education in general, several other points emerge.

The sooner and more often one retrieves and uses a piece of information, the better one learns and remembers it (Karpicke and Roediger 2008).  Traditional societies teach in context and get the learners to repeat endlessly.

Studies of education also show that the higher the motivation—emotional, social, economic, or otherwise—the more the learning.  Salient facts are stored easily. 

Typically, one learns in a family context, or at least in the community and from well-known community members.

A surprising amount of non-classroom learning is from only slightly older children, cross-culturally confirming Judith Rich Harris’ (1998) findings about the importance of peer groups.  Earlier, thinkers and educators had overemphasized the importance of adults.  Most had hardly noticed the great importance of slightly-older peers.  Yet it is doubly important, because as the younger ones learn by doing, the older ones learn by teaching.  Explaining what one has learned is well known as a particularly valuable way of organizing and cementing knowledge (Siegler 2005).  As the proverb says:  “the best way to learn something is to teach it.” 

Several important general points behind all this have been made by Karim-Aly Kassam (2009:75-81).  He cites Gilbert Ryle’s distinction between knowing how and knowing that.  In more formal terms, this is a contrast between procedural knowledge and declarative knowledge.  Children in traditional societies basically learn how.  Learning that is a part of this wider agenda.  Children must learn a great deal of declarative knowledge, including all those plant names, but they learn this as part of the wider process of learning how to make a living, run a household, and act as responsible citizens of their communities.  Declarative knowledge is reduced to its proper place:  a subsidiary branch of procedural knowledge. 

Traditional ecological knowledge, in Aristotle’s terms, is phronesis.  In Kassam’s very useful treatment of traditional knowledge, phronesis is practical, applied learning in general, made up of “knowing how” with enough “knowing that” added in to provide the basic useful information.  Aristotle distinguished techne—the word that survives in our “techniques” and “technology”—and episteme, basically declarative knowledge; actually, traditional wisdom includes all three, as Aristotle knew, but (again) techne and episteme are subordinate to phronesis in traditional work and environment.  (However, in other realms, such as religion, cosmology, and myth, episteme often dominates, and of course things like stone tool making are strictly techne.) 

Following Argyris et al. (1985), Kassam sees phronesis—and action research—as nesting in “communities of social practice,” while “knowing that” nests in “communities of inquirers” (Kassam 2009:166).  This has clear implications for teaching, and indeed for all aspects of organizing, acquiring, and transmitting knowledge.  We need to get working knowledge out into the field, and work with local people; keeping it in the academy won’t do.  A lifetime of experience in applied anthropology and (via my wife) global public health makes me very sensitive to this point.  Public health projects are constantly wrecking on the same rock:  academics plan and organize them, without awareness of what the people on the ground will make of them.   

Kassam applies to traditional learning a stage model that leads from novice through advanced beginner, competent performer, and proficient performer, finally reaching expert level (Kassam 2009:77-79).  Greenfield and others cited above found, but did not so clearly distinguish and name, similar stages.  Kassam also brings out the point that this all involves learning morals along with practical knowledge.  Morals are part of the work. 

The idea of separating ethics from practice is rather new even in the modern west, and is certainly not typical of modern international science, where both the goals and the practice are morally defined.  A medical researcher is working toward a moral goal (healing the sick), hopefully in a moral way (not plagiarizing, not hyping his funder’s product).


Probably the most striking difference between traditional education and ours in the United States today, however, is in the developmental process.  Children in traditional societies generally grow slowly and steadily into adult roles.  They begin by helping in small ways around the house, and are given increasing responsibilities as they get older.  Teenagers are given adult privileges and prerogatives in direct proportion to the adult responsibilities they have taken on.  No privilege is given without prior proof of a proportionate advance in reliability at increasingly demanding adult roles.  At least this is the case in the societies I know—the Chinese fishermen and the Maya—and seems to be the consensus in other descriptions.

Charles Stafford (1995) and I (1999) have described in some detail the order this takes among Chinese fishermen.  I have seen it among the Maya as well, and indeed most of the above-cited sources mention it.

Exceptions are largely in matters of ceremonial knowledge and practice, where a grand initiation into adulthood may suddenly change a boy to a man, a girl to a woman, in a matter of days.  Such “liminal” initiation rites (see van Gennep 1960) usually overdraw a process that is really rather less dramatic, but indeed there is a real difference here from the learning of practical everyday knowledge.

Emotional and personal development similarly is socialized gradually over time, and here our modern society is closer to the traditional.  However, we treat children as children—little kids—until they are in college, or even until they have graduated from it.  Hence endless problems with teenagers, who desperately need to be treated like young adults and made to shape up and act like young adults.  Infantilizing them is seriously harmful to emotional development. 

We have also created a consumer culture that sells to children and uses peer pressure relentlessly, with serious and dangerous results for education and for childhood in general (Pugh 2009).  Families need to stick together and act as a unit to combat this (Hofferth 2009; Pugh 2009), but usually do not, because of work demands and because parents too are caught up in consumerism.  The desire to “do what’s best for the child” now too often involves both buying brand-name items and hovering over the child in school and even in university, never allowing the child to develop any independence or self-reliance.  This is not a good context for environmental education.


The contrast between traditional and contemporary education is obvious.  One of the reasons for the widespread ruin of the environment by irresponsible individual actions is the abysmal state of environmental education.  Indeed, there is, worldwide, an incredible ignorance of science, especially biology (Greenwood and North 1999).  This is true especially in the United States (among developed countries).  Half of Americans believe the world was created by God in six 24-hour days.  American children score among the lowest in the world in science and math.  They do worse and worse, by comparison with Europe and east Asia, as they go through the grades /1/.  

Yet, interacting with nature has major beneficial effects on cognitive functioning, both improving performance and reducing stress (Berman et al. 2008).

Paolo Freire’s class Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1984) directed us to teach for liberation.  Modern American education teaches for passivity.  The schools are not explicitly “teaching the kids to mind,” as they were in my childhood, but they are effectively doing exactly that.  The independent citizenship necessary for environmental concern is increasingly harmed rather than favored.  Above all, teaching has become a process of drilling huge classes in mindless rote memorization for the purpose of answering machine-scored standardized tests.  One could not design a better way to make inquiring children and young adults passive and ignorant.

An editorial in Science, by Lorrie Shepard (2010), pulls no punches:  “An extensive research ilterature has documented the negative effects of such test-driven instruction, the most obvious being the reduction or elimination of less-tested subjects, including science and social studies.  Less obvious have been the negative effects on learning in tested subjects.  When students are drilled on materials that closely resemble accountability tests, test scores can rise dramatically without a commensurate gain in learning” (Shepard 2010:890).  The author goes on to document in detail the subversion of education by mindless but easily scored tests, and the devastation of science education that results.

Students of education speak of a “hidden curriculum,” a term which “reefers to the social relations in the school system and the taken-for-granted values that uphold the social relations valued by…society”—which, in most of the world, means “a hierarchichal, gendered society…[with] systemic racism and sexism” (Fiske and Patrick 2000:240).  This is not just a problem for indigenous people; it is exactly what Willis (1981) was describing in Learning to Labor.  The only comment to make is that this curriculum is not at all hidden.  It is not usually stated upfront in the school curriculum plans, but even if it is not (and it often is!), everyone knows about it.

Unsurprisingly, United State students rank far behind other developed countries in science education—13th out of 34 countries in a recent survey, but it is based on standardized testing and thus makes the US look better than it otherwise might (“American Students Do Poorly in Science,” Reuters News online, Jan. 25, 2011).  Only 21% of high school students were proficient and only 2% really adept.  Only about 28% of high school biology teachers unequivocally teach evolution as fact; 13% teach creationism and 60% temporize and refuse to go into depth on the issue (Berkman and Plutzer 2011).  The equivocators and creationists are less adequately taught in biology, and are, obviously, passing on that dubious legacy all too successfully.

The problem of environmental education requires an entire book of its own, and some books do indeed exist (e.g. Louv 2005; Nabhan and Trimble 1994; Orr 1992, 1994).  Richard Louv, in a superb book, Last Child in the Woods (2005), points out that contemporary American childhood is very different from the childhood my generation knew.  Television and electronic gadgets get all the attention.  Children learn very well what they see as salient:  Hollywood shows, mechanical devices, sports, brand name clothing, and so on.  They learn these by the time-honored route:  interaction, peer activity, stories.  These things also have prestige.  No American child misses the contrast between our huge, flashy, brilliantly lit shopping malls and our wretched, collapsing schools.  Thus many children now have a fantastic knowledge of popular culture while being almost completely ignorant of school learning.  The combination of peer judgements of what is “cool” and actual living engagement beats out lectures in shabby, overcrowded classrooms every time.

Environmental education requires that children be exposed to a significant extent to reasonably wild nature.  Yet urbanization and environmental degradation make it impossible for most children to get anywhere near a natural area.  Exposure to wild nature is harder and harder to get these days, as urban sprawl and industrial-style farming take over all the landscape.  Children in much of the United States, to say nothing of the rest of the world, have no opportunities at all.  Even in areas near wild mountains and waters, children rarely get out into the wild for more than a few hours of sunny daytime.  The difference from my childhood is startling.  Visits to national parks and forests, as well as hunting and fishing, have sharply declined; outdoor recreation has been declining at 1% a year since the 1980s, for a total decline of about 25%  (Biello 2008).

Nature study—what we would now call environmental education—was a major part of American education in earlier times.  In Teaching Children Science:  Hands-on Nature Study in North America, 1890-1930 (2010), Sally Gregory Kohlstedt recounts this agenda.  Nature study had been popularized in America by 19th-century naturalists such as John Burroughs.  Biologists and naturalists realized that children needed hands-on experiences, and school gardens, nature walks, and the like flourished. A leader in the movement was the great biologist and economic botanist Liberty Hyde Bailey, so we ethnobiologists can feel we were at the heart of it.  One may add that this period—and on through the 1950s—was the golden age of summer camps, when children were introduced to nature in a much more serious way; many camps provided genuine wilderness experiences.  Summer camps today are usually much more tame, urban, and electronically connected.  Even remote mountain camps rarely have the roughing-it quality of a few generations ago. 

Experience with virtual nature, tamed environments (like zoos and gardens), and books does not give children the same degree of feel for or concern for the environment (Peter Kahn, personal communication, 2006, during a visit to his lab to observe ongoing research). 

Excessive caution makes parents and schools restrict and scare children.  Young people often develop a real terror of anything beyond a manicured lawn.  In inner cities they have genuine worries, notably drugs and random gunfire.  But even suburban children are terrorized.  They are afraid of imagined snakes and spiders, unlikely tree-falls, and such.  They are not afraid of the real killers:  automobiles, home poisons, falls, and common illnesses.  The result is that children frequently know nature only from TV wildlife programs. 

Louv labels the syndrome “nature deficit disorder.”  He addresses its real risks in terms of health (starting with obesity), mental state, community life, knowledge of vitally important public issues, “feel” for the need for a decent environment, and much more.  He presents a comprehensive review of strategies to fix the problem, but there is, at present, neither the funding nor the public will to do much about it.

            Many programs have arisen, partly in response to Louv’s book (Novotney 2008), but the problem continues to worsen as more and more electronic devices seduce a more and more urbanized youth.

            The general de-funding of education—private as well as public—in the United States has led to the elimination of  field trips and hands-on experiences.   Also, specialists in education have been resistant to input from scientists.  In California, a group of scientists volunteered their time and effort to design a science curriculum for the grade schools.  It was challenging, exciting, and full of hands-on experiences.  The state rejected it in favor of a curriculum designed by people with “Education” degrees, and based on rote memorization of terms, with minimal hands-on work (Laura Anderson, high-school science teacher, personal communication). 

Incredibly, there is a large segment of the education community that believes that interacting with flashy teaching-machines and then taking standardized tests is the only way (Meltzoff et al. 2009; Pianta et al. 2007.)  Their plans would banish nature, labs, and creative writing, and would do nothing for the vast majority of schools that are too poor to afford the flashy machine-teaching gadgets.  One is regrettably reinforced in one’s suspicion that the worst enemy of education is “Education.”

We are now betrayed even by children’s dictionaries.  The Oxford Junior Dictionary as of 2009 has replaced “wren,” “dandelion,” “otter,” “acorn,” and “beaver” with “MP3 player,” “blog,” “cut and paste,” and other hi-tech words (Keisman 2009).  (“Cut and paste” doesn’t mean what it did when I was in grade school!)

Fortunately, there are much better plans afoot, that either draw on traditional learning methods or have independently invented them.  I do not know which, but I am happy either way!  National Academy of Science papers advise schools to use hands-on methods, discovery procedures, teaching for understanding, and other traditional methods  (National Academy of Sciences-Kindergarten… 2007; National Academy of Sciences 2007).  This advice and other similar counsel from other sources has led to changes in Advanced Placement courses in the high schools (Mervis 2009).  Instead of drill on rote memorization for mindless tests, “new courses will emphasize conceptual knowledge, updated legularly and learned by doing, along with teaching how scientists ask and answer important questions” (Mervis 2009:1488).  Students will, hopefully, have to understand and explain, rather than guessing at one of four machine-scored answers.  Change comes glacially slow in classrooms.  One hopes this will proceed more rapidly than most grade-school processes.  

Pursuant to this, Newcombe et al. (2009) have written a major programmatic article, with a long review of the literature, on how to teach science in the schools.  Their suggestions are appropriate, indeed excellent, for environmental matters.  Their recommendations are in line with the above.  Among other things, they include being more attentive to young children’s knowledge.  Children enter school with both natural predispositions to think in certain ways and a great deal of cultural baggage; by 5 years old they are fluent in their languages, and inevitably in many teachings (religious and other) that those languages carry.  The panel also advises practical approaches—examples, problems and solutions, concrete representations, and deep explanations.  They advocate graphic as well as verbal approaches, and more generally adapting to particular students’ learning styles.  (This is quixotic in a world of 30 students to a class, but maybe in future….) 

On tests, they are fortunately sensible: 

“In the worst scenario, tests  have the unintended consequence of motivating unproductive curricular changes such as increased test practice or elimination of curricular acitivities that are not directly measured by the test.

“Analysis of state mathematics and science tests, for example, shows that they rarely measure important abilities such as using evidence to form arguments, interpreting contemporary dilemmas, or comprehending the nature of science.  As a result, tests deter teachers form teaching the skiill that are valuable for science-literate individuals.  Some teachers infer that practice on test items would be the best way ot improve performance, and textbooks regularly include standardized items as part of class tests.  When they are evaluated on standardized test performance [of their students], many math and science teachers abandon inquiry goals and teaching for understanding and substitute memorization and drill on multiple-choice questions requiring the recall of facts….”  (Newcombe et al. 2009).

Of course, as they know full well, this is not the choice of “some teachers” but a behavior essentially forced on the schools and thus on virtually all teachers by the No Child Left Behind policy and its state-level counterparts.  If schools, principals, and teachers are all evaluated solely on the basis of student performance on the most mindless and rote-drill of tests, with teachers and principals being relocated or fired outright if their students perform low, the results can only be one thing.

AP biology in high schools has also received considerable recent attention, with the same goals and recommendations.  William Wood, a biologist who chaired the National Resesarch Council’s Biology Subpanel and edited reports that broke the logjam, reports that current thinking is for the high school curricula to look at evolution, biological systems, information, and interaction of systems components (Wood 209:1627).  He lists the recommendations for science practicies AP students need to learn:

“Use models and representations

Use quantitative reasoning

Pose hypotheses…

Plan experiments and data collection strategies

Perform data analysis and evaluate evidence

Work with scientific explanations and theories

Integrate and transfer knowledge across scales, concepts, domains, and disciplines” (Wood 2009”1628).  Of course this is all done through hands-on, interactive leraning—the apprenticeship model again /2/.

Considerable further material has appeared in the science journals.  Science, 23 April 2010 (section “Science, Language and Literacy”), has a review of some recent ideas, including a valuable article by Pearson et al. that savages the standardized test mania and other perversions.  The editors of Scientific American, in an editorial of 2010, note that kindergarten students in the United States have already developed fear of science, though they know nothing of it and normally get no education in it until much later.  Math and science phobia is common, particularly among girls—even at that tender age.  This is, of course, disturbing, and the editors make the obvious recommendations, noting the existence of a few (very few) programs to remedy the lack of science in early years.

Another development that would enormously help environmental education is teaching children about probability, risk, and uncertainty (Bond 2009).  We have always before put science in the form of settled “facts.”  Real science, and above all environmental problems, often turn on probabilities, yet we have neglected education in this area.  Such leading experts in the psychology of uncertainty as Gerd Gigerenzer are now working on this issue (Bond 2009).

Making science relevant to ordinary children’s lives greatly increases interest and performance (Hulleman and Harackiewicz 2009).  The amazing thing is that the education establishment sees this as a revolutionary new finding!

Community colleges are also a major area to work on (Boggs 2010).

The move to make traditional teachings and teaching methods relevant has recently received a boost in books by Gregory Cajete (1994) and Gary Holthaus (2008) and articles such as Michael Cole’s (2010) and the work he reviews therein.

Cajete’s book deals largely with content, especially worldview and philosophy, but also stresses the methods discussed above:  hands-on training, use of myths and personal stories, development of individual character and ability, embodied learning, and grounding in the environment.  Cajete gives some specific ideas and methods in the last parts of the book.  Cole advocates attention to context, teaching for real life, and mixing play and education.  This leads to work to design “serious” games, and cooperation between teachers, education schools, and communities to create “gardens for development” (Cole 2010:805) that integrate as much of the community as possible in many kinds of learning, including physical training and interactive practice.

Teaching conservation and environmental responsibility must be a very broad-based and broadly accepted activity if it is to have even the slightest chance of success.  We have few “green campuses” and “green curricula” at the present time.  Administrators and many professors are too specialized, too committed to the bottom line, and too concerned with linking universities to big business.  Even professional meetings seriously need to be “greened.”  Brian McKenna, Paige West, and several other environmental anthropologists are conducting research on these matters as of this writing.

The right wing must give up its opposition to the whole concept, but the left wing will also have to think seriously about some of its positions.  Broad-brush attacks on “capitalism,” “greed,” “Western civilization,” and even the entire male gender (Merchant 1996) do not get us far. 

            We should be exceedingly cautious about frontal attacks on all of western or eastern civilization.  It seems better to stress the ecological and environmentalist streams in the great religious traditions, as Baird Callicott (1994) has done.  It seems better, also, to place environmental thinking within the classic traditions of scientific and cosmological thought, rather than trying to attack and discredit 3000 years of science because (for example) Descartes can be misinterpreted as saying we should not care about animals (Merchant 1996).  I am not suggesting this solely for cynical tactical reasons.  As an approach, it seems more intellectually honest and humane, quite apart from its tactical value.

/1/  The journal Science is concerned with the matter, publishing inputs from some of the most distinguished science writers (Greenwood and North 1999; Gould 1998; Miller et al. 2008; Wheeler 1998).  Noting that this was an issue of national concern, for scientists and others, these authors lament the general decline of science in the public eye.

            Some of the reason is captured in another Science report, this one on the lack of employment opportunities for biology Ph.D.s (Holden 1998).  Clearly, there is a feedback loop.

            More recently, there are excellent recommendations by Trombulak et al. (2004) in Conservation Biology.

/2/ “Student-centered teaching” is now becoming deservedly popular; it involves a return to small groups, real-life problems, group projects, multiple drafts of written work, student evaluations of each other’s work, reflective writing or journaling, electronic quizzes with immediate feedback in class, and real papers (Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct. 23, p. A4). 


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