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Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

I refute it thus.

Last week, Felisa Wolfe-Simon et al. published on GFAJ-1, a bacterium she discovered in California’s Mono Lake. Whereas life as we knew it uses carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur to sustain itself, GFAJ-1 seems to dig arsenic. In fact, GFAJ-1 might even be able to use arsenic in building cellular structures like DNA.

Science being science, there’s more work to be done to verify what’s going on in GFAJ-1.

But what if GFAJ-1 has figured out a cellular switcheroo? Move over DNA Legos. DNA Mega Bloks are coming to town.

Do you remember those awesome, squirmy scenes in The Abyss with the fluid breathing system [NB: language]? Liquid oxygen allowed the divers to survive under deep pressure; the divers’ lungs could use the oxygen in liquid, as well as gaseous, form. However, the divers breathed the same element regardless of medium. GFAJ-1 may have gone a step further by element-hopping down the Periodic Table.

So what does any of this have to do with the canon of English letters?

Public schools and standards – the idealized cathedrals and scripture of pop #edreform – don’t disprove the existence of other, nobler, obvious and experiential types of living and learning. Our schools and standards are not ideal, and I refute them thus:

Last week Felisa Wolfe-Simon published her findings on a new flavor of life.

Virginia’s 2010 Science Standards of Learning are set to be implemented in 2012-2013. Public comment closed on October 25th, 2010. Search here for “Biology – Page 7.”

Instead of wasting generation after generation in money pits of compliance and test-prep, we’d best serve students by developing a system of public education like GFAJ-1, a system capable of making learning out of anything – even the freedoms and joys of curiosity and inquiry that, like arsenic, seem toxic to tradition and usually react badly to the status quo of life as we know it in schools.

If we want innovation, we need a school system that seeks to imitate life rather then control it.


About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.


6 thoughts on “I refute it thus.

  1. And right now we’re sucking arsenic.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | December 7, 2010, 10:06 am
  2. A school system that seeks to imitate life rather than control it. Hmmm…

    Most often the key to getting what we really need (in education and in life) lies in letting go of the compulsion to control, but control is so hard to give up! We hang on to the belief that if we don’t exert control over the situation, it will run amuck and chaos will surely ensure. The knee-jerk reaction (in education and in life) when we aren’t getting the results we’re convinced we need is most often to tighten down control ever more firmly in a desperate attempt to control the outcome by controlling the input. This hardly ever actually works, but we still are compelled to do it, and many “experts” make millions convincing us that this time will be different and it will work.

    Maybe our school systems already imitate life more than we’d like to admit.

    Posted by Anne Kemp | December 7, 2010, 1:23 pm
  3. It is interesting to me that an institution that is designed to prepare people for life does such an effective job of stripping and separating itself from life. A sad state indeed.

    Posted by ktenkely | December 21, 2010, 9:28 pm
  4. Chad,
    I, of course, love this post. I’m sorry it took me so long to sit up and take notice. There are so many ways that we return again and again to the self-evident notion that we are life. The more we learn about the biosphere the more we learn about ourselves. I would offer that instead of imitating life in schools we should continually consult with life in schools. Take counsel, extrapolate philosophy from life, search for guiding processes from life and act with life in mind. I’ve been working with these ideas over the past few months and I love your highlight of the wisdom of arsenic feeding bacteria as making life from anything and everything.

    Anne, you’re comment about school systems already imitating life is brilliant. The resiliency of the people within school communities is amazing and heartbreaking. I’m watching the Louisville community struggle agains state mandates which are forcing 5 high schools to “restructure.” They’ve already fired their superintendent and now 2 principals are being held in place “Provided that test scores rise sharply next year.” Their jobs being threatened and dangled in front of them.

    Kelly, I connect deeply with your highlight about the notion of a system which seems to continually strip the properties of life from a school. Qualities like creativity, self-organizing momentum an the positive tension of purpose. The analogy I make is that the consolidation of valued ways of thinking in a testing culture seems to support the invasive species of “quick fixes.” I think about the debate over standardization in schools as being the perfect answer to a system which seems motivated by industrial backed short sighted goals of life.

    Thanks for making the connection Chad. I think you’d enjoy Wes Jackson’s latest book, “Consulting the Genius of the Place.” I haven’t read it yet but if you’re interested maybe we could have a mini-book club?

    Posted by Jeff Steele | December 31, 2010, 1:40 pm
    • That sounds like a good read, Jeff – the Coöp is hopping with good recommendations right now. Thank you for the suggestion and for your comment! I’ll let you know when I get me hands on a copy of the book.

      I don’t know that curriculum gets any better than inquiry, observation, reaction, and communication – if we left the inert school building we’d find all sorts of dynamic curriculum all around us at every level of life and community.

      Standardization is antithetical to life in certain regards. Darwin’s voyage would have been much less interesting if he found identical flora and fauna wherever he went. I think we mistake hierarchy for diversity and go about our merry way perpetuating, enjoying, and complaining about the status quo. It’s time to be more subversively lively and vivacious.

      What are some ways you can imagine teachers connecting what they teach to the living world?

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | December 31, 2010, 7:30 pm

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