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A Yen for Teaching (and Learning)

Published online: Jan 09, 2024 Education And Arts Gregg Losinski
Viewed 1823 time(s)

This piece is being written while I am taking time away from my regular job as an environmental educator at the INL to teach and lecture in Japan. I’m teaching workshops called WILD About Bears, which I created 20 years ago in Idaho. Japan has had an increasing amount of conflict between humans and bears and the Japan Parks Foundation invited me to visit and provide information about reducing conflict between humans and bears.

While I have never been a teacher in the traditional sense of the word, I have been fortunate to spend most of my adult life helping people learn about the natural world and the role that they as humans play in it. More than anything I hope that I have helped people how to learn on their own.

Teachers of all types play a critical role in helping children and adults to function in the real world. Some subjects are academic in nature, others are more practical, of the real-world variety. Currently, there is a tremendous focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). These are very valuable topics that students need to learn as they move through our educational system.

I think that it was summed up best back in 1965 by the comic lyricist and math teacher Tom Leher who said when introducing his song New Math, Today, the important thing is to understand what you’re doing rather than to get the right answer.” Now we’ve figured out that both understanding and getting the right answer is a better goal.

This renewed focus on accuracy is because we discovered that somewhere along the way, students really should be getting the right answers and not just feeling good about understanding how to do something. If you want to get a rocket to Mars your calculations have to be perfect. Close just won’t do! Today we have supercomputers and AI, but these are all still based on work initially done by humans. AI is pretty incredible at searching and gathering information together, but it still can’t process context as well as we do. The amount of creative BS that AI comes up with is truly impressive. It understands the process but doesn’t necessarily get the right answer.

One of the guiding principles of the Project WILD curriculum that I have taught for years is that we try to teach people how to think and not what to think. In today’s data-heavy, but strongly opinionated world, we get our information pigeonholed by algorithms that give us what we want to see. Nearly everything we receive becomes what is called confirmation bias. We process the data through our personal lenses and call the answer correct because we were part of the process, even though it may truly be the wrong answer scientifically or mathematically.   

STEM education is important because it provides experiences that help to make sure that the basics of our observation and decision-making processes are based on solid facts. Knowing the basics of math and science helps to validate more complex processes. Part of the basics of learning is trying to gather all the information possible and weed through it until what you have left is valid for use in the decision-making process.

The challenge is that not all decisions are based on pure science and logic. Otherwise, Star Trek’s Spock would always have been right. Many issues are a complex mix of right and wrong and require the humanity of a Captain Kirk to arrive at a solution that is a workable compromise. The key is basing those emotional decisions on as much factual evidence as possible.

Today’s world faces many difficult issues. Perhaps the most challenging thing for us as humans to process is how they are all interconnected and how to prioritize what is truly important.

In Japan, like in the United States and Europe, conflict between humans and bears is increasing because of conflicts between human activities rebounding bear population numbers. Giving people the basic information about how bears live is the first step towards solving the problem. Bears will be bears, but humans are capable of change. Making sure people have all the facts is critical.

It is important we all never stop learning. Hopefully, a few more people in Japan have the information they need to make decisions to benefit both men and bears.

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