Thoughts on Educational Reform Series: Reversal of Knowledge, From Needed to Wanted!

The following was written after in  December of 2012, following a Garden Club unit on Conifers. I recently came across this saved piece of writing and decided to share.

I found something this morning that caused me to have an “aha” moment! It was a recent copy of National Geographic Magazine with a story about Giant Trees featured on the front: The Giant Sequoia. It reminded me of the student at our last garden club meeting who came up at the end of our class on conifers and asked, “What about the Giant Redwoods? Aren’t they conifers, too?”

Of course they are! How could I have forgotten to cover this giant of giants in our North-Western forests? The stately magistrate of the Western temperate zone? Well, to put it simply, during what I thought was my very complete lesson on conifers, I provided information I deemed essential and useful.  You know, the most common information.  One of my past supervisors would call this the information regarding horses. Horses are common, zebras are not. He’d say that you would be better off knowing about the horses in the world rather than the zebras. It would be more useful. Right?! But, would it be as satisfying? For a nine-year old, I am not so sure.

During my garden club lesson on conifers we looked at information on the “horses” of the conifer world, not the “zebras.”   I lost sight of the fact that students want information on zebras but adults provide information on horses!  During our year-long theme on plant adaptations, many zebras were explored: venus fly traps, epiphytic plants, pitcher plants, etc. Yes. Redwood trees would have fit, nicely!  Unfortunately, for this particular unit, I fell back onto providing only the information about conifers I deemed necessary for the students. We explored the answers to questions such as:

  1. What is a conifer?
  2. Where do they grow?
  3. Are they really evergreen?
  4. What adaptations do conifers have?

All useful information. Right?! The “horse” information. Right?! I had my reasons, of course. But, had I even thought to cover the Giant Redwood? NO! There are a number of reasons I could cite for not including the Giant Redwood. First and foremost, I had no intention of covering each type of conifer. That would have been impossible! Additionally, I like to keep the information locally relevant. We do live in Wisconsin, after all. So, naturally we discussed the species of fir, pine, and spruce local to our home environmental. These are the trees the students see every day.  We did spend a great deal of time exploring all the unique adaptations conifers have. And, there is some really cool information there, especially about needles and cones. Useful, “horse” information, right? Maybe.


However, when I started planning this unit, I had just returned from a trip to California where I was able to see the Torrey Pine tree growing in its native environment; the ONLY environment in which it grows in the world, just north of La Jolla, California on the Pacific Coast, in a protected property called the Torrey Pines State Reserve.  I had every intention of including details and discussion about this unique pine tree in our conifer unit. However, due to time constraints and thinking I was already providing some of the most essential, as well as some of the most interesting material on conifers, I left it out! 

Obviously, as indicated by this inquisitive third grader’s question, I had missed providing something he was after in our exploration of conifers. This morning after seeing the issue of  National Geographic Magazine with the Giant Sequoia story on the front, I realized what it was! An inquisitive, bright student, he was looking for information on “zebras” not “horses.”  I had provided the  information on the “horse.” And, no matter how necessary I thought it was, it just wasn’t enough for this particular student! He needed the “zebra” information! This was an enrichment club, after all!  Seeing this magazine issue, brought me back to my Johns Hopkins Hospital Supervisor saying, “horses, not zebras, Carol!”  Ahhhh, but the “zebras” are far more interesting. And, without a doubt, can still be useful, too! 

So, here are my thoughts as they pertain to education. As adults, we get caught up in acquiring the knowledge we feel we need. We seek knowledge we need to perform well on the job, or knowledge we need to be a success in life, or live up to a challenge. As teachers, we are often consumed by providing information we feel our students need to have; information to pass a test, or meet a benchmark, or be advanced to the next grade level, win a scholarship, or be an honors student. 

Somewhere, during the process of growing up, we have a reversal of knowledge. We forget about looking for and learning about the unusual, just for the sake of learning. We get caught up in the information we need, not the information we might like to have or information that is fascinating to know. Or, we have a supervisor like mine who did such a good job of ingraining his mantra of “horses not zebras” into me, I forgot about how exciting the unusual can be – especially, for nine-year old students! 


I needed this “aha” moment. It reminded me that while we do need to provide children with the information they need, we must NOT stop helping them find the information they want or find personally fascinating! That is the root of passionate learning and we must not lose sight of it! 

So, while moving on to prepare our next garden club unit, I will also be gathering some information on the Giant Sequoia to provide this inquisitive student with the information HE wants.  You can be sure that the next time I teach our conifer unit, I will make time to provide the students with some information on the “zebras” in the world of conifers.

This moment inspired five additional years of creating curricular content for environmental education on not only common and relevant place-based material, but also on the unusual we can find in our everyday lives that often goes unnoticed! Today is Slice of Life Tuesday! Thanks for stopping by!

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