When I was in third grade, I became fascinated with dinosaurs. Woolworth’s used to sell small, rubber triceratops, tyrannosaurs, pterodactyls and all the rest, complete with names, sizes, and sometimes their prehistoric era on the bottom. Every time we got near the store, I was begging my Mom or Dad for one more to add to my collection. I checked out every book in our small town library on dinosaurs, paleontology, Roy Chapman Andrews, etc. I followed every lead and link suggested, so soon I knew about the eras and epochs — Jurassic and Cretaceous, I knew about the LaBrea tar pits and the early, giant mammals trapped therein, I knew about excavation techniques, and I knew where and why dinosaur fossils were most likely to be found.
I presented my hobby as a “learning project” in third grade, stunning the teacher with my knowledge sufficiently that she invited in the Superintendent to watch me do it again. I went to other classrooms to present – some kids wanted to have certain ones “fight” each other in their rubbery glory, but I would clarify and point out that the mastodon and the allosaurus lived in different time periods and probably wouldn’t have fought. I can safely say that dinosaurs occupied and defined a great deal of my intellectual life in that time period. I remember it as some of the richest learning that I ever enjoyed, including the abundance of corollary learning through the searches, reference texts, novels, photo diaries, etc. that I tracked down as a function of dinosaur explorations.
Years later, in an entry level survey class in paleontology in college, I was stunned and saddened that the course consisted of chart after chart, list after list of sub-epochs, of zones of fossil fern forestation, graphs of climate data, etc. I was bored and disappointed with the way the course was packaged, and its central points. I abandoned hope of further study in that area. How the lives of such interesting creatures, in such a fascinating time period, could be reduced to tables and charts was beyond me.
In thinking about it years later, I realized that my experience in college paleontology had been stripped of the passion and curiosity needed to pursue real learning. I also fear that if we don’t provide young people with ample opportunities for play and personal passion, for choosing and pursuing at least some of the things that bring them joy and excitement, and for building on and connecting those experiences, more and more students will be deprived of the kind of learning love affair I experienced, and, will decide that school and learning offers little to and for them.
I am thankful that I had a teacher who made space for my passion and challenged me to keep learning, parents who supported my curiosity, and a learning community that recognized the role in choice, individuality and expression as a core component of high-level learning. Supportive, individualized and challenging.