Taking time to teach young ones

Kids can learn engineering principles by building a dam at the beach.

A good friend called me up last week to ask if I could help her with some biological samples. She needed to split her workload, because she realized that with an increased load of home schooling for her two kids, her time was going to shrink away quickly.

She had asked another biologist and mother first, who declined the part-time job opportunity for the same reason: needing the time at home to school her child.

It struck me that the COVID pandemic has a side effect on our society that is not only causing economical scaling down for these families, but is also bound to affect many women, who are now leaving the professional workforce to look after the kids at home.

I hope that a lot of dads protested when reading that sentence, because in this century, child care and education should not be a gender-specific topic. 

My friend, who is a wonderful educator and scientist herself, admitted to a little anxiety at the prospect of helping her children through modern online courses.

Teaching is about giving your children the tools to succeed in life. It seems like the new era of education is difficult to navigate, because it is so different from our own experiences, our parents’ experiences and their parents’ experiences.

For as long as we can remember, there has been public school and we have had “experts” to entrust the kids’ education to. Now, parents have to become more involved than ever.

As always in this column, let’s look to the animal kingdom to find out where education started.

I know: The kind of education to prepare children for the roles they are to play in society as adults is a purely human thing and requires a high order of communication and interaction, and even technology.

However, teaching the offspring is something that evolved in various animals. When you think of monkeys, elephants, lions and even the magpies in your backyard, you see numerous examples of how the young learn from their parents or other adults in their group. I have seen my dog teach unruly puppies by eagerly showing them what to do when I tried to make them follow a command and they didn’t get it.

Fundamentally, the purpose of teaching is to give one’s offspring a better chance at survival.

A basic prerequisite for this is that one knows and recognizes one’s offspring. I am thinking of all the life-forms in the ocean, where this is not a given. Any life-form that has a reproductive strategy involving broadcast spawning does not have to worry about teaching because they will never know their kids.

In biology, as a rule of thumb: The fewer offspring an animal has, the more time it spends giving them a better chance at survival. Whales only have one calf every few years, but the offspring stay with the mother for several years, and in some cases forever.

In last week’s paper I read about a rare white orca whale that was sighted in Southeast Alaska. The article stated it was a 2-year-old male and would be kicked out in another couple of years to find another pod.

In orca whales, the females usually stay together, while the males have to leave and find their own girls somewhere else (this is to prevent inbreeding).

However, as long as he is in his family pod, the young whale will be taught everything they know about where the food is and how to catch it. Not only his mother, but also any aunts and older sisters and most importantly his grandma, the pod’s matriarch, will be teaching him.

I have a hard time thinking of examples of actual teaching in any life-forms other than mammals and birds.

However, I recently learned that it is hypothesized that the cod in the Atlantic Ocean on Georges Bank off the coast of Massachusetts may suffer from the loss of the old and large females who might play a role in leading a multi-aged school of fish to feeding and spawning grounds. Younger cod join the large schools and swim along, and as they get older, they then know the migration routes and can lead in turn. 

The deeper concern in our current schooling dilemma is what we teach our children and how.

We are lucky in Kodiak that every student has been given access to technology and every teacher has been trained to communicate with their students in that way.

This is a truly new age and a development we could not have dreamed of even just a decade ago. Many schools in poorer parts of the country do not have the technology, and the kids have no access to public education while the schools are closed.

When you type into Google “what is the purpose of public education,” you will find a webpage by study.com that starts with this sentence: “Public education was conceived as a way to educate children in order to prepare them to be productive members of society.” 

It strikes me that our cod example could qualify as public fish education — just a thought.

Countries with the best public education systems have the highest standard of living. Thus, it is in all of our interest to save public education through the coronavirus pandemic and to emerge with a better system, adjusted to our current needs.

Perhaps this is a chance to move toward an individualized system that can teach every student at their level and speed, and eliminate some of the time spent coercing a large number of kids to coordinate their learning.

My sister, who is a teacher in Germany, said that she has never seen so many kids be glad to be in school as since they reopened the schools after the pandemic closure.

What do we really want for our children and for our future? We should think about the world that we want to have and then become a part of making it happen.

This is a time of change. This is the time to nudge things into the direction we want to see for our children and their future.

And while you are forced to be more involved: Enjoy learning, because this is a chance to learn and think freely, be creative and expand your horizon. You never know what new ideas and great insights might come your way.

If you get stuck, take the kids to the beach and include some outdoor learning; there is biology amass to observe and study, there is art inspiration, and there are a lot of physics and construction principles that can be learned from building dams and fortifying sand castles against the onslaught of the waves. The beach can be an amazing classroom with many a life lesson.

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