Feather, Falling From Nebraska, Lands in a Jungle, Changing Lives

by Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant


Deep in the Sumatra, Indonesian jungle, on an Oil Palm plantation, I had a problem.  In meetings with teachers at the PanditaNesia elementary school, I was trying to convey the concept of the teacher as facilitator of learning, assisting children in making their own discoveries.  They wanted to learn new teaching approaches, but had difficulty with this concept.

Like most schools in Indonesia, PanditaNesia’s curriculum is determined by the government, the textbooks by the school, and the basic process is to get what is in the books into the students’ heads.  My goal was not to revolutionize teaching at the school, but to convey a child-initiated learning process, with teacher as facilitator.

A few other factors conspired to render this “teacher in-service” more difficult.  Only two of the twelve teachers had been schooled in education.  The others had volunteered to teach because they liked children.  They’d had a month of internship at an area school before beginning their work at PanditaNesia.  The English teacher was on maternity leave, and the principal, the only remaining staff who spoke basic English, was my translator.  My “hello-goodbye-thanks” Indonesian was not up for the task.  I was stuck.

Then, a feather from Lincoln, Nebraska, landed in the jungle, changing everything. I’d been given the Nature Explore book, Growing With Nature, for ideas on how to connect children with nature in my Indonesian work.  The ideas were fantastic, but even the simplest examples used materials we in the U.S. take for granted, but that were difficult to obtain for PanditaNesia.  A good sketch-pad and colored pencils were a six-hour drive away.

But one story, “Falling Feathers,” involved just a three year-old girl, a feather, trees, birds, and a wise teacher.  In it, the girl, who thinks feathers fall from trees, is guided into assembling bits of information she already knows into the realization that feathers found on the ground come from birds.

With help from Google Translate, and the school principal, the teachers understood the “Falling Feathers” story as presented in Growing With Nature.  They enjoyed the story, but I knew they hadn’t “felt” it, and would leave its powerful lesson behind when they left the room.

At that moment, I realized that I’d been “teaching” them as they’d been teaching the children – simply trying to get what was in the book into their heads.  I asked them to think of a time in their lives when they solved a problem or learned something on their own.  Silence.  Afraid of the language barrier, and anxious about the risks involved with self-disclosure, they remained quiet.  What, for me, was the most crucial concept I could share, was crashing: not in flames, but in silence.

Then someone began to speak, hesitantly, because she was not a teacher.  The school cook had been attending the sessions, probably because I was such a novelty.  She spoke about how she’d been assigned her position despite lack of experience.  Others offered to teach her how to fulfill her new responsibilities.  But she wanted, for once, to figure everything out herself; which she did.  The teachers all agreed that she’d done a great job.  Lesson not learned.  Case closed.

Then I asked her how she “felt” about having learned her job on her own.  No translation was needed for the passion in her voice.  She had wanted full credit for her job, and hadn’t wanted anyone to tell her what to do.  Learning how to cook had been the first time she could take full credit for learning something useful, and the results of her learning were important to the entire community.

As the cook spoke, teachers began shaking their heads in agreement.  Even the usually austere religion teacher smiled.  All agreed that “discoveries” are more satisfying than being taught something, but that both kinds of learning are necessary.  We revisited the “Falling Feathers” story from Growing With Nature, and thought about how this kind of teacher-student relationship could happen in their school.  Although the cook had learned her job skills “on her own,” children could be assisted in discoveries by careful guidance.  The teachers saw this as a refreshing and creative approach to their work.

A feather from Lincoln landed in Muara Enim, changing lives.