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Animal Natural Learning Tendencies: Through the Eyes of a Raven Part II

July 24th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Jenny O’Toole, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort. Read Part I – The Birth of Curiosity: Through the Eyes of a Raven here

Like human babies, ravens are highly curious of all objects upon first leaving the nest. Fearless, they get into everything that’s in front of them and, accompanied by parents who help steer them away from true danger, they are free to explore and learn. As an integral part of exploration, play is a big part of ravens’ lives. Though admittedly difficult to define, Heinrich states that according to most definitions of nonhuman play, it is a behavior that “seems purposeless but possibly just because the observer hasn’t figured out what the benefit is.” Ravens play to have fun, not deliberately to educate themselves. Education is the side effect for which the strong drive to play came about. They play with a full range of skills that are crucial to their long-term survival and wellbeing, which Heinrich talks about in multiple chapters of his book:


Raven tug-of-war. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

Through physical play ravens develop strong bodies and graceful movement, such as: hanging upside-down, digging in the dirt, playing tug-of-war, chasing each other, snow-bathing and sliding. Much of this physical play also involves some danger, referred to as “risky play.”

Through risky play ravens learn to manage fear and develop courage, such as pulling other animals’ tails and approaching carcasses that might be equally as appealing to stronger, more threatening animals. In risky play animals also must develop effective communication. Amotz Zahavi, an Israeli biologist, describes effective communication in what he calls the “handicap principle.” Animals must learn first to have reliable signals between the communicators. In order for the receiver to know they’re reliable, they must be costly to make–attracting predators, for example. Heinrich relates two anecdotes of ravens effectively “warning” people of predators lurking, attracting attention to themselves, but also potentially providing themselves a meal if said predator attacks and kills! Through risky play, ravens have even learned to trick animals out of their food—one raven will distract the other animal, for example, and the other will steal its food.

» Continue reading Animal Natural Learning Tendencies: Through the Eyes of a Raven Part II

The Birth of Curiosity: Through the Eyes of a Raven Part I

July 19th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Jennifer O’Toole, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort. 

Curiosity is born from one of the most unlikely of places: boredom. I used to fight the feeling of boredom, as I had been trained to do by the media with its constant barrage of entertainment, the internet with its never-ending information and by my own relentless drive to be productive. But one day I decided to try something different. I was trying to write a lesson plan for my 3rd grade science class the following day and found myself feeling bored with the work. I stopped typing and decided to let the feeling of boredom wash over me, accepting that I was bored instead of rejecting it. I decided to trust that, if I stewed long enough within my boredom, a flicker of curiosity would ignite and reinvigorate my brain to continue its productivity. A few minutes later I heard the pitter-patter of rain starting on my roof and my mind wandered to water as I noted the feeling of comfort that crept over me as I listened. I thought of splashing in the puddles, racing homemade boats down drainage ditches and allowing myself to become soaked. I had a strong desire suddenly to relive the feeling of joy and freedom created in that memory and—curious, now—looked to see what weather was predicted for the following day. More rain! It was decided: my students and I were going outside to play and explore water physics tomorrow.

I have felt, during my 10 years as an educator, the forceful squashing of curiosity. Instead of allowing the space my students need to get used to the boredom necessary to discover their own interests and then pursue them, the curriculum I must strictly shove down the often disinterested throats of my students is so jam packed I haven’t the time to get through half of what I’m expected to. My students must be able to regurgitate the correct answers to the specific questions they must know to pass the tests that will determine the level of stress they will endure for the remainder of the school year. The students who fail to “perform well on” the state and national exams (selecting one too many incorrect multiple choice answers while staring at a computer screen for hours is now considered a form of “performing”) face years of potential medicating, tutoring, extra homework and ridicule from other students. It’s no wonder under such stressed conditions that a child’s ability to perform creatively, focused on topics that interest them, is significantly diminished. I found myself searching for ways to nurture curiosity in my mentoring (I no longer use the word teaching, as it implies something being done to the student as opposed to with them), which I found meant significantly less control on my part and much more on that of the students.

Photo of raven stealing food. Image courtesy of Pixabay

» Continue reading The Birth of Curiosity: Through the Eyes of a Raven Part I