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Teach Like A Park Ranger: What Teachers Gain From Learning About Interpretation.

“We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” If you are a teacher, these words probably resonate with you as they remind us why teaching as a profession is essential today and will continue to be in our future.

At first glance, these words sound like they could have easily been written by a teacher, or an author, or perhaps a professor, but they were in fact written by Baba Dioum, a Senegales forest ranger.

The above quote helps to illustrate my reason for starting this blog and working to develop it further; to highlight educational practices and valuable knowledge every day by park rangers and public lands educators that could have even greater value when applied towards common problems of practice inside the classroom.

Why should you spend what little time you have reading a post about career tree huggers when you could be reading about more relevant stuff like teaching your kindergartners to code or how dressing up like a pirate will make your bad students get better grades? Because both overlook an essential ingredient to student engagement and deeper learning.

Park rangers and teachers are natural allies with many commonalities between their professions, but there is one area where park rangers FAR EXCEED your average teacher when it comes to their pedagogical approach to learning; they are all about the “why” while teachers tend to exist in the “what” much to the detriment of their students.

In case that didn’t land the way I was hoping it would allow me to illustrate further; if we were to get 100 classroom teachers into a room and I asked them if they know “what” they teach, or what standards they need to teach and in what order, about 95% of the hands in the room would go up with confidence. If I then asked them if they know the “how” or the best way all their students, including those with the greatest needs, are able to understand those standards and you might lose a couple of hands but you’d probably have better than 90% up in the air. However, if I were to ask the same room if they figure the “why” into their lessons so that their students fully understand the significance of the “what” and are able to recognize where the content can be applied into the context of the real world around them, the hands almost completely disappear. Follow that up by asking the same group of teachers how many of their students would be able to answer “why” they need to learn what they are taught if randomly asked during a lesson and the room will fall so deathly silent that you half expect to see men in white coats harvesting organs walk through the aisles. And if you’re not sure about those percentages, I can assure you as someone who has posed this exact series of questions to teachers all across the country that the above scenario is accurate.

Classroom teachers spend so much time obsessing over covering the “what” and working on the “how” that they nearly always neglect explaining the “why” to their students. What’s worse, when they do come across an inquisitive student who asks them “why” they have to learn what is being taught, many teachers respond in the absolutely worst way possible by saying, “because it’ll be on the test” And just like that, curiosity, interest, and engagement go on life support. The single worst thing you can do to cultivate a classroom environment where students are genuinely interested in learning is to say, “because it’ll be on the test” to a student whose interest in school is already tenuous.

Moments like these give teachers a bad rap but are not exclusively the fault of the teacher. They are the product of and exist within a system built around the perpetuation that “why” always means “mandated standardized test”. A recent study by the Council of Great City Schools found that on average, a student will take 112 of these “mandated standardized tests” during their K-12 career[i], many of them being of particularly low quality or painfully redundant. And just so it doesn't seem like I’m becoming too high and mighty here I want to share that I too was one of these “what”-centric teachers when I first began my teaching career in northern California. I knew my standards backward and forward. I LOVED my subject and was passionate about sharing it. If you were also a history nerd then my class was going to be your favorite class. However, if history wasn’t your end all or if you weren’t sure how the deeds of dead people from long ago connect to your daily life, you were out of luck most days because like many other teachers, the emphasis on the “what” and my struggles when approaching the “how” took up 105% of my time available time.

Park rangers, thanks to the nature of the teaching and learning methodology they use, focus almost exclusively on the “why” when they begin teaching. The entire reason their job exists is to explain, or interpret, the significance of the park or monument they work at to their audience. By beginning with “why” they are able to immediately move into leveraging the interests, experiences, and natural curiosity of their diverse group of learners on their way to explaining the “what” as opposed to the other way around. Park rangers do this by designing their lessons around universal themes, grounding their practice with authentic and tangible examples, and focuses on making sure lessons are enjoyable and relevant more than they cram them full of fact-based knowledge.

So, if you can honestly say to yourself that your students always understand “why” what they are learning is important to them and to the world we are preparing them to inherit then feel free to shut this book and continue binge-watching your favorite streaming service.

But if you honestly say that, and you’re open to learning a thing or two that might make your job easier and you’d like one more tool in your teacher toolbox then keep reading. I guarantee you’ll find some tidbits in the next few chapters that’ll be worth your time.


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