Recently, I was able to visit the Experimental Lakes Area to hang out with the students participating in the first ever high school field course.

This learning experience allowed students to fully immerse themselves in the ecology that is the ELA and interact with world-class scientists as a means for understanding how scientific research can lead us to understand our relationship with even the smallest system on Earth.

It was truly inspiring to hear these young people talk about their own research questions while using scientific and ecological literacies.

I was blown away by their critical thinking and their wisdom. In my two-day stint with them, I learned more about the ecology of the Precambrian shield and whole ecosystem research than I had ever before in my life.

When I spoke to the students informally, they also relayed a similar sentiment.

One evening, I sat down by the fire on the shores of Lake 240 and began chatting with Connor, a student participant in the field course. He spoke at great length about his experience at the Experimental Lakes and how much he had grown, both intellectually and emotionally.

One thing that he said, however, stuck with me and made me really evaluate my role as an educator and as someone who is involved in the practice of “schooling.”

Connor remarked, “I have learned more in two weeks out here than I have in an entire year at school.”

A kick to the teeth?

As a teacher, this was a kick to the teeth. How could he possibly learn more in a fortnight compared to 200 days of rigorous classroom education?

Then it hit me: what most of us are actually teaching is the business of school and the process of schooling. By this, a great deal of time at school is not devoted to self-examination, inquiry, knowledge creation, and fellowship; rather, a great deal of time is devoted to learning how to exist in a building and follow the rules.

High school student at Experimental Lakes Area

A student participant in the first ever high school field course in the Experimental Lakes Area. (Submitted by Matt Henderson)

Most of us have been through some sort of formal education. Think about the many Septembers you endured and how much time was carved up for assemblies, drills, award ceremonies, et cetera.

How much time is wasted each day changing classrooms when a bell tells you to do so? How many times are classes interrupted by inane announcements? Many of these obstacles to learning, I suspect, are created by adults and for adults as a means to control students — not as catalysts for learning. I have fond memories of finding new ways to escape Kelvin High School when it was assembly time!

John Dewey famously posited in 1897 that education “is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.”

A century later, however, our understanding of education still calls for a static, uniform, and uninspired process of socialization whereby students are conditioned to follow rules, bells, whistles, and the commands of adults.

Rarely are adults seen as elders or guides, and far too rarely are students able to explore their connection to the Earth and each other in meaningful ways.

While at ELA, I watched Connor and his colleagues become curious about leeches, hydrology, zooplankton, fish populations and a myriad of things that I didn’t get. I eavesdropped on their conversations at lunch, where they excitedly spoke about setting traps up at midnight, where they expressed frustration over sample irregularities, and where they asked each other powerful questions related to what one student called “the big picture.”

The teacher, Dean, was masterful. He sat back, supported, pushed, suggested, nudged, and floated great questions throughout the learning experience. Dean purposely stood to the side so that learning could take place.

This is what master teachers do. He did not impose his rules on students, but rather allowed the learning community to democratically and organically evolve and develop its own working and social relationships. This is what we do as adults, no?

Schooling versus learning

By 1933, Dewey was still convinced that schools should be about something different, more than preparing drones for factories through mass socialization and, as Ivan Illich suggests, a degradation of values.

In the New York Times, Dewey famously outlined his utopian school and opened with this line: “The most Utopian thing in Utopia is that there are no schools at all. Education is carried on without anything of the nature of schools….”

Here, Dewey, just as Illich and Freire have done, made a massive distinction between schooling and learning. Learning is about transformation, experience, and growth. Schooling is about control and the commodification of values and the fabrication of credentials.

Sitting at the campfire and chatting with Connor opened my eyes to his learning and his transformation. Within two weeks, he had become a different person — one with incredible ecological knowledge, mad scientific skills and an understanding of his place on this planet. That certainly trumps my high school experience.

Based on this, I am challenging myself, as September quickly approaches, to push the notion of schooling aside and allow for greater opportunities for learning. This might mean stepping back, listening to the learners and occasionally nudging them further in their inquiry.

It might mean getting to know the learners and using their experiences to help create meaningful educative experiences in which growth and transformation can happen.

This might take hard work, time, tears and courage, but I think I am up for it. I certainly know our learners are up for it. I owe it to them each time I am allowed to step into their learning community.

Matt Henderson is a teacher at St. John's-Ravenscourt School in Winnipeg. You can find him on Twitter: @henderson204.