Learning at the Edge

A. & E. Exploring the edge of a stream

Any naturalist knows that the most interesting place to look for things is at the edges. Where a field meets a forest or a river flows into the sea or where the reef hangs over deep water – those are the areas that are especially abundant. The edges are where species from two different ecosystems mingle and hide and hunt. There are even plant and animal species that exist only in these edge habitats.

Ecologists call this the “edge effect,” but I think the same phenomenon applies anywhere that two different areas intersect. For instance, physics is interesting, but exploring the edges of physics and art, or physics and psychology, or physics and theology, can be even more interesting. How about the intersection of martial arts and mythology, or architecture and music, or history and dance?

Everything in this world is attached to something else. By exploring the edges of seemingly unrelated fields of study, new ideas are born. In fact, that’s where all the great thinkers are. Buckminster Fuller lamented that our modern educational system concentrated too much on creating specialists when what we really needed were more generalists. By this he meant people who studied a variety of things and could make valuable connections between them. These are the Renaissance thinkers or polymaths like Leonard da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Maria Montessori, Rabindranath Tagore, Isaac Asimov, Steve Jobs, and others who are able to see the large patterns that others may not see.

We will always need specialists in every field, because they are able to study something deeply and make new discoveries based on years of intensive research. But we need generalists too; those who have spent time and effort to learn several subjects very well, and have made something of what they learned. Simply being well-informed isn’t enough. We all tend to dabble in different subjects, but a real polymath will put in some real time and effort on several subjects (not necessarily all at once), and come up with new insights or contributions.

This is one of the wonderful things about homeschooling. Because we have the freedom to customize our curriculum, our children can study the things that most interest them, for as long as they want. For science, my daughter only wanted to study anatomy and health. Every year for six years I would ask her, “Do you want to read this book about rocks? (or electricity, or space, or whatever)” and she would say no. She only wanted more books about muscles, bones, cells, blood, viruses, etc… It could be about animals or humans, sometimes plants, but certainly nothing that hadn’t once been alive.  We read books about Florence Nightingale and medieval medicine, constructed models, did Janice VanCleave experiments, drew pictures, counted heartbeats, looked for golden ratios in the human face, listened to trees with a stethoscope, looked at nematodes with a microscope, played the Somebody game, watched documentaries about the brain, evolution, animals, etc.  When we discovered animal carcasses while hiking, she would squat down to investigate the position of the bones and look for clues as to how the animal died and who had been eating it.

It’s amazing how many different topics you can touch on with a single abiding interest. She was happy for me to find interesting things for her to read and do as long as it was related to anatomy or health. Thinking about it now, I probably could have interested her in electricity if we had researched the body’s electrical field, or space exploration if we had looked at what astronauts did to stay healthy during missions (in fact, this was her favorite exhibit at the local Air and Space Museum).

The wonderful fun thing about learning is making connections – finding out how things are related. And to see that, you must go to the edges and look.

Try this: Bring to mind two or three things that you are very interested in, and find the connections between them.

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