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Dr. Grauer's Column - A Wilder Education

A Wilder Education

(The impacts of bad nutrition, nature deficit, lack of sleep, flawed relationships, obesity, and sedentary lives on teaching and learning in school)

“What we need is a great powerful tremulous falling back in love with our old, ancient, primordial Beloved, which is the Earth herself.”
- Martin Shaw, Emergence Magazine

Is teaching a process of controlling and taming our young—or is it enabling the young to find their own best natures? When you and I say we are educating our young, are we referring to two, completely opposing forces?

Stop. Close your eyes. Picture “education” in your mind. What do you picture? Where are you? Do you see anything from the natural world? (Try exchanging images with a friend.)

Grauer Visual Arts student Reya L. '21 working outside on her art project - January 8, 2019

Is there a role for empathy and connection in learning at school and in teacher lesson planning, or is it fundamentally scholastics? The fact that we care about so many others is often considered an ultimate, defining aspect of being human, but what can a history teacher do with that, or a math teacher? 

In Europe today, there is a “re-wilding” movement, restoring natural systems through ecological restoration. This is evidence-based. It turns out that, historically, humans benefit from and are in many ways at their best in nature. Take tracking, for instance. When scholars look back at what made humans survive and thrive, one of the best examples has been tracking, as a part of hunting. Picture the tracker, stalking prey: you are hyper-aware of your environment, and you must have enormous empathy for what you track, in order to predict its every move. The tracker mindset is astonishingly like meditation or mindfulness practice. At the same time, it is the ultimate fitness training: cross training and interval training really come alive, afield. 

Time in nature (just like mindfulness and meditation practices) is shown to still the mind, decrease anxiety, and increase attention and awareness. Today, researchers can show that even a walk in the park makes us perform better mentally: “modern lifestyles disconnect people from nature, and this may have adverse consequences for the well-being of both humans and the environment” [1]. San Diego local Richard Louv has famously documented this as “nature deficit disorder.” He is now documenting schools that institute time in nature (“vitamin N”) programs and tying the change to big increases in standardized test scores [2] (although I wish people would shift to other measures of success in school). And Finland is famous both for outdoor programming in schools (15 minutes per hour) even in its cold winters, and high performing schools. One teacher told Louv: “after their 15-minute outdoor breaks,” his students “were more focused during lessons.”

Neuroscience & Evolutionary Biology

As a teacher, I have long gotten inspiration from brain researchers. Neuroscience is currently on fire as a field for educators, psychologists, and MDs alike, but over the past decade I keep noticing more collaborating going on with evolutionary biologists (e.g., Stephen Jay Gould, Peter Gray, Richard Dawkins … it did not end with Darwin). Dr. John Ratey, the Harvard psychiatry professor and author, came by the school recently and re-booted this whole topic introducing his book “Go Wild” [3] (of the same theme of my own book, “Fearless Teaching”). Evolutionary biologists and people from all walks interested in education are noting violations of human well-being which are considered normal parts of the way we live, violations that are making us sick and tired. This is increasingly a focus of concerned educators (including me) who are focused on the first 15-20 years when the brain is forming.

Grauer 9th Grade Life Science students working on an experiment with their teacher, Nick Scacco - January 8, 2019

Homo Sapiens have been around for 40-50,000 years and, guesses Yuval Noah Harari, author of the amazing book, Sapiens, probably have 1000 years or less to exist. What is occurring today is not just environmental degradation, but some very new human ailments that rarely occur in the wild. These are maladies unknown by the trackers of long ago. Evolutionary biologists refer to them as “diseases of civilization,” as opposed to diseases in nature or diseases of old age. Conditions like obesity, depression, cardiovascular disease, asthma, type 2 diabetes, and suicide are caused by things like high blood sugar (i.e., high glucose intake), inactivity, and pollution. These diseases did not occur in earlier, indigenous populations. Diseases of civilization can be traced all the way back to the human clearing of forests, in association with agriculture, and subsequently, to our increasingly sedentary ways of life. Less time in nature and decreases in human movement easily correlate with increases in eating sugar and refined carbohydrates (things that don’t grow out of the ground), as well as unsaturated fats that don’t exist in nature. Ratey points out that “Every single one of the top 12 leading risk factors [for disease] today is a disease of civilization” (p. 42, Ratey; Manning [3]).

Phenomenally, as the human population increases and social media links us all over the world, we are growing lonelier as a species. We are growing less connected. And we are experiencing diseases of civilization at younger ages. Meaningful relationships, such as were the very essence of teaching in many traditional cultures, are the key: “The degree to which those relationships are healthy, especially when we are children, is the degree to which our brains are healthy” (167, Ratey). Our wellbeing (and our brain’s production of oxytocin, “the social molecule,” which enhances trust) depends upon our sense of connection to others. But, in school, the row has replaced the circle. There’s normally no place to move with learning, much less hunt.

A clear, empathic, and aware, hunter-gatherer state of mind is a healthy brain. Add to this, that throughout history, our shared attachment to nature was what kept us healthy and fit. 

Glucose, The Baddest Drug on Campus

If we could eliminate sugar and processed food from the school, here is what would happen: we’d concentrate better and be fitter. Fending off the nearly constant influx of junk food coming in to our school in the form of donuts, Starbucks, cakes, and processed foods would be a fulltime job, but probably do as much as any teacher could do to improve test scores in almost any school.

As teachers, we can do little to fend off the onslaught of glucose into the schools, but there are many things we can do. Perhaps the biggest thing we can do as teachers is to integrate movement into learning. As the neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinas notes, “That which we call thinking is the evolutionary internalization of movement.” (That’s a good sentence to read a couple times.) The whole brain flourishes as a result of movement. Exercise triggers serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle, which has come to be called “sitting disease,” is related not only to the most chronic human disorders, but to lower cognitive skills, lower happiness, and a lower IQ.
Amazing technology beaming from 12 satellites orbiting the earth puts us in a sort of cocoon—we don’t’ get our information from real people or sensations, we get it from a screen. Wind, water, earth, human touch and eye contact grow distant from our senses. We hardly can experience the plundering and polluting of wetlands, woodlands and oceans, wildfires, glaciers melting—first all this is too distant to feel, and then it becomes too painful to face. Deforestation and extinction are the new millennial spectator sports. Teens are spending record time alone in their rooms. Are we growing more numb?

Grauer 10th Grade Chemistry students working on a group experiment outside - January 8, 2019

The increasing sleep deprivation we keep seeing in school is related: sleep deprived kids crave dense carbohydrates and sugars. According to Ratey, sleep deprivation “increases cortisol [the biomarker of stress], increases appetite, and increases blood glucose (p. 146 [3]). Leading sleep researcher Robert Stickgold puts it bluntly: “If you don’t get enough sleep, you are going to end up fat, sick, and stupid.” 

One of the main advantages of the no-cut, recreation-oriented sports programming at The Grauer School is that it does not cut into sleep hours to the extent that consuming, Division 1 sports programs so. Adolescents have a rhythm of their own and we have to help them orient their lives to get enough sleep. 

One of the greatest, maybe the greatest movement activities is dance. Dance combines aerobic activity with variety of movement. Psychiatrist and author Bessel van der Kolk puts it in a fun way: “People cannot rhythmically move together without beginning to giggle. ” Classrooms and schools must become more flexible, allowing for movement. Teachers who are learning to incorporate even tiny dance, martial arts, and movement breaks into their instructions for kids at appropriate times have to be courageous given the demands teachers face to finish required curriculum--but those are very wise teachers. Interestingly, a good many of these activities are all grounded in nature.

Our mandate now is to re-wild our children and re-wild our schools. Why not try to teach our children to develop aware, attuned, receptive states of mind before worrying about how much algebra or history or achievement we require them to jam into their brains. One of my favorite statements to middle schoolers is: “Get outside!” Who’s with me on that? 

  [1] Happiness and Feeling Connected: The Distinct Role of Nature Relatedness, John M. Zelenski, Elizabeth K. Nisbet, August 6, 2012.

  [2] The School of Nature: Greening Our Schools May Be The Real Cutting Edge of Education, Richard Louv, July 8, 2018.

  [3] Ratey, J. and Manning, R., Go Wild: Eat Fat, Run Free, Be Social, and Follow Evolution's Other Rules for Total Health and Well-being. 2018, Little Brown, NY.

Dr. Grauer loves to hear from his readers. Please click on the  "Comments" drop-down box below to leave a comment about this column!

Grauer Visual Arts student Reya L. '21 working outside on her art project - January 8, 2019

Grauer 9th Grade Life Science students working on an experiment with their teacher, Nick Scacco - January 9, 2019

Grauer 10th Grade Chemistry students working on a group experiment outside - January 8, 2019

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