THE VALUE OF TEACHING AND LEARNING ABOUT EARTH
This volume began with a discussion of the nature of geoscience and geoscientists. We were motivated by the desire to articulate geoscientists' contribution to solving societal challenges, and to better plan for the development of new geoscientists.
At the end of the book, a broader vision emerges, informed by the perspectives of philosophy, history, anthropology, learning science, and cognitive science. Studying the Earth system can benefit all inhabitants of the planet. Individuals benefit as they develop new cognitive abilities to think spatially, temporally, systemically, and to extract insights from the raw material of nature. Knowledge of the workings of Earth is a source of awe and beauty that—like music and art—enriches the lives of those who are introduced to its wonders. At the same time, humans benefit collectively. A global citizenry that lacks a geologic perspective on time, or views Earth as responding in simplistic ways to human actions, jeopardizes civilization's prospects for living sustainably and in peace on Earth. Thus, geoscience literacy for all is an important goal for our educational system and our society.
The development of a geoscience perspective is underpinned by the four central themes of this book—geologic time, spatial thinking, Earth as a complex system, and learning in the field. Each of these alone is a difficult expertise to master. Each provides important skills that improve the ability of the holder to live in the world. Spatial skills underpin the ability to play sports, travel across the globe, and engage in intellectual pursuits from science to art. The ability to make first inscriptions—to convert sensory observations into a lasting, transportable, sharable record—requires one to selectively perceive significant aspects of the world and make meaning from these observations. The ability to construct and work with a history, personal or otherwise, and to make causal explanations based on that history, is a fundamental characteristic of human thought. Development and expansion of these skills are of central importance in preparing new geoscientists. Geoscience is not the only way to develop these skills, but it is a powerful and interesting one. Developing geoscience literacy thus is of high utility beyond mastery of specific knowledge.
If broad geoscience literacy (1) is important to the ability of our civilization to make decisions, (2) is a source of culture, and (3) is of high utility in developing fundamental human skills, where does geoscience literacy stand in the educational agenda of our nation? Geoscience literacy is not yet an agreed-upon goal for the U.S. system of public education. It appears prominently in documents describing desired outcomes (AAAS, 1993; NRC, 1996, 2011), but it is implemented as a widespread course of study in only a few states (American Geological Institute, 2011). Geoscience departments in institutions of higher education are being closed or disbanded, their work thought of as peripheral to the core curriculum and too vulnerable to boom and bust hiring cycles (Feiss, 2010; Gonzales et al., 2009). Perhaps this is why, in part at least, our civilization is debating the reality of climate change; struggling with the challenges of energy, food, and mineral resources; and is still surprised when hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanoes, earthquakes, or floods strike. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR RESEARCH ON TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE GEOSCIENCES
Developing geoscience literacy and preparing future geoscientists rest heavily on both the ability to teach about the four central themes addressed in this volume and to support students in integrating this learning into a usable knowledge base that can be applied in their personal and professional lives. By bringing together geoscientists, cognitive scientists, and educators, we have new insights into the challenges faced in each area:
Teaching about geologic time requires an understanding of the ways in which humans process information about time and events, a long-standing area of research in psychology. Temporal thinking is ripe for collaborations among psychologists, educators, and geoscientists. Research has shown that humans are most facile with time spans that align with human life: intervals from a day, to a season, to a year, to a lifetime. Geoscience educators have developed many ingenious instructional techniques to try to stretch students' imaginations to encompass the vastly longer expanses of geologic time, but there is limited theoretical framework or empirical evidence about how—or how well—these techniques work. From the point of view of human well-being, a high-priority challenge is to stretch students' event horizons so that natural events with long repeat intervals but devastating impacts come to be seen as expected rather than surprising.
The area of spatial thinking, more than any of our other themes, has already benefited from strong collaborations among cognitive scientists, geoscientists, and educators. Collaborative work has demonstrated that geoscience is an expertise that makes sophisticated use of spatial thinking, and it has begun to map the relationship between specific spatially demanding geoscience tasks and generalized perceptual and cognitive processes. A strength of the existing work is its incorporation of developmental approaches beginning in early childhood, which offer the possibility of improving access to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) for all students. The next step is to leverage these understandings to develop and test evidence-based instructional techniques, to go beyond understanding spatial thinking to improving spatial thinking. A high-priority long-term challenge, in our view, is research on the ways in which students and experts make inferences about causal processes from spatial information—to go beyond how humans manipulate spatial information and illuminate how they turn spatial information into insights.
Teaching in the field is a tradition in the geosciences that is fiercely defended by practitioners and described as transformative by participants. In this area, cognitive and educational research is still in its infancy. Progress will hinge on a better understanding of the cognitive and affective impacts of field experiences, along with better ways to measure the effectiveness of field-based instruction. Given the cost of field education in terms of logistics, money, and time, a high priority is to distinguish between learning goals that can only be accomplished in a field setting and goals that could be accomplished by strategic use of laboratory, classroom, or virtual experiences.
Learning to think of the world and its components as complex interacting systems is a paradigm shift. It changes one's perception of events and processes, whether they involve humans, finances, or natural systems. Educational research on teaching complex systems is sparse compared to the impact that this paradigm has made on scientific understanding. It is clear that teaching about complex systems is fraught with challenges and will require more than an introduction in a single science class; a learning progression that builds across years must be constructed and tested, informed by research on how humans accomplish conceptual change. Our highest-priority recommendation would be for research on understanding reinforcing (positive) and balancing (negative) feedback loops, because reinforcing feedback loops underlie most environmental problems, and balancing feedback loops underlie most plausible solutions.
The papers on expertise and knowledge integration (Manduca and Kastens, this volume; Kastens and Manduca, this volume) have not benefited from the commentary that illuminated the ideas in the four core papers. A broad discussion of the ideas in these two chapters, aimed at articulating the nature of geoscience expertise and understanding how experts and students integrate their knowledge, is a next step that could be enhanced by collaborative interdisciplinary research.
INTERDISCIPLINARY STUDY: HIGHPOINTS AND CHALLENGES
In our experience, this Synthesis project marked a high point in interdisciplinary discussions of teaching and learning about Earth. The players involved were experts in a wide array of disciplines and engaged in protracted interaction, discussion, and synthesis. The resulting ideas are powerful and would not have come from any discipline in isolation. Geoscientists are too close to, and psychologists and educators are too far from, the experience of a geoscience expert. Moreover, each individual already has a brain full of information and ideas accumulated through their own academic and personal experiences—work at this scale required more than one brain can hold or learn.
This project demonstrated to all involved that interdisciplinary discussion and co-writing can be both exhilarating and generative. Geoscientists learned a new language—“disembedding,” “embodiment,” “community of practice,” “epistemology,” etc.—which allowed us to conduct purposeful discussions of concepts that we had previously grasped only as vague intuitions. We dug into literatures we would not otherwise have read. The necessity of explaining concepts and thought processes to puzzled colleagues raised the level of metacognitive awareness on both sides of the conversation.
Here are a few specific examples of this interaction: Discussions with our collaborating anthropologist, Chuck Goodwin, helped us to understand that living and working together in the field serve a function in inculcating apprentice geoscientists into a professional community of practice, a form of growing into adulthood that is powerful and deep-seated in our cultural evolution (Mogk and Goodwin, this volume). Once we had absorbed the concept of “community of practice,” this idea then underpinned our articulation of a suite of common perspectives, approaches, and values, which are broadly shared throughout the geoscience community and not identical with those of other science communities. Discussions with our collaborating philosopher, Bob Frodeman, helped us to recognize that grasping deep time is not merely an annoying stumbling block for beginning geology students; it was a profound accomplishment in humanity's intellectual history (Cervato and Frodeman, this volume). Out of our interdisciplinary journal club discussions of complex Earth systems, there emerged the idea that many large-scale Earth processes (e.g., storms, ocean waves, seismic waves, erosion, atmospheric circulation, plate tectonics) can be understood as processes for dispersing energy (Kastens and Manduca, this volume). Developmental psychologist Lynn Liben helped us to understand that geoscientists' own strong spatial abilities can blind them to the difficulties that their students face (Liben and Titus, this volume), and learning scientist Neil Stillings helped us understand some of the specific cognitive challenges that students face along the path toward a systems way of thinking (Stillings, this volume).
However, interdisciplinary collaboration does not always come naturally; it needs to be purposefully fostered. Synthesis participants learned (again) that interdisciplinary collaboration is hard. Collaboration across disciplines can involve tears and shouting and talking past one another and hard feelings. This point seems to be seriously underappreciated by planners and pundits who casually propose interdisciplinary collaboration as a pathway though various societal challenges. One reason that interdisciplinarity is hard is that the set of perspectives, approaches, and values that characterize the microculture of one field do not align exactly with the perspectives, approaches, and values of another field. To the extent that these are implicit and unarticulated, as well as unaligned, they can lead to misunderstandings, as would-be collaborators differ on standards of evidence, acceptable forms of reasoning, appropriate means of conveying findings, and even on what vocabulary to use. Articulating these perspectives, approaches, and values, as we have now done for geosciences (Manduca and Kastens, this volume), should help to smooth the path of interdisciplinary collaboration, by making it clear that some differences are systemic or cultural, not personal.
To other groups who may be planning a collaborative interdisciplinary synthesis, we found the following structures helpful: the virtual journal club, writing pairs with one coauthor from each discipline, the extended writing retreat, discussants, commentaries, concept maps, the blog, and sessions at professional societies. Continued focus on a goal that is clearly defined and of high value to all participants—improving how humans think and learn about Earth—provided motivation and context for negotiating common ground. To those charged with educating students for the twenty-first-century's complex problems, finding ways to foster interdisciplinary discourse, practices, and ways of thinking should be a high priority.
We came to view geosciences as a learning community that has been optimized through a process of cultural evolution for understanding the Earth system. The perspectives and methods of geoscience—the obsession with time and timing, the demand for extreme feats of spatial thinking, the combination of historical and experimental approaches, the willingness to combine multiple incomplete lines of evidence, the primacy of complex rather than simple explanatory narratives, the insistence on empirical evidence from Earth itself—have been shaped by raw material on which our intellects feed, much as the idiosyncrasies of hummingbirds' bills have been shaped by biological evolution in response to the attributes of the flowers on which they feed.
Geoscientists are obsessed with time and timing, because rates and sequence provide causal constraints on Earth processes and because the enormous age of Earth allows time for slow processes to accrue gigantic results. Likewise, geoscientists push the bounds of human spatial thinking to its limit, because configuration, shape, trajectory, orientation, position, and distribution of Earth objects record the processes that created and positioned those objects. Geoscientists have learned to make meaning from incomplete lines of evidence because erosion has bequeathed us an inherently incomplete data set. Geoscientists tend not to privilege simple explanations over complex, because so many phenomena of interest lie at the level of emergent phenomena, benefiting from integrative rather than reductive thinking. Geoscientists insist on empirical evidence from Earth, because the history of the field is littered with models that were logical and internally consistent but did not turn out to be the way that Earth actually works. If Earth does it, it must be possible. As Hamlet reminds us: “… there are more things in heaven and Earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy …” (Shakespeare, 1603, Act I, scene V).
The evolution of geoscientists incorporates more than 200 years of human experience and knowledge. It is worthy of preservation, study, and wide incorporation into our culture.