What we Learn by Learning
5 Questions for Eco Practicum Program Director, Eugenia Manwelyan, About Education
What’s the difference between formal and informal education?
This isn’t the most technical answer, but the biggest difference I’ve observed is that at school, from elementary school through college, even if students like the class, they would still rather not be there. Face it: even in the case of an engaging interesting class, it’s good news when class is cancelled. We have to remember that education as it is formalized and standardized in the United States is deeply ideological, in that it's designed to reflect and recreate the dominant sociopolitical paradigm. Informal education, on the other hand, is not one formal thing, so its structures reflect the goals of the educators and participants, which makes it a much more varied and creative category. Informal education is a choice. It requires more conscious buy-in on the part of the students, because they’re called on to participate in their learning in an entirely different way.
What is learning?
I’m learning a lot about learning from my two year old son. I'm convinced that learning and exploring is our natural state. In fact, we couldn’t survive without this urge to learn. The world around us and within us is just so interesting. We’re naturally called upon to mine it, engage with it using all our many senses, and try to figure it out. Since learning is a survival tool, what and how we learn is deeply impacted by how we survive in our society. Today, in this country, survival is linked so deeply with participation in the economy, that we often don’t see the distinction between the two. So, school teaches us how to participate in this particular economy, in part by stratifying us according to class, and by our ability to sit still and take instruction from authority figures. You didn't just learn math in school, you learned that math is important (more important than farming, for instance), you learned that knowledge was held by some (the teacher, the textbook) and transmitted to others (the students), and that it was the people with the knowledge that had the power to determine how much and how well you learned, and that this series of evaluations (your report card) was a permanent record of your intellectual abilities. WHAT you learn and HOW you learn it are equally important.
How does Eco Practicum do education?
We’ve pieced together an educational method borrowing principles from critical pedagogy, place-based learning, as well as democratic and experiential education. This means that we focus on deepening understanding through hands-on engagement, and we honor the knowledge and experiences that our participants bring to the table by creating a horizontal classroom, where the person implementing the curriculum is part teacher, part mentor, and part facilitator.
Who’s the best educator you've ever had or worked with?
That’s easy, that would be my partner, Tal Beery. He has an amazing ability to keep calm and confident when things get uncomfortable, and he is extremely observant. He’s creative in his lesson planning, he is versatile in his teaching methodology, and he’s charismatic. There are some things you can teach, and he’s spent a tremendous amount of time learning how to be a great educator, but I also think he was born with a certain talent for teaching.
What is the most useful thing you've recently learned, and how did you learn it?
I feel like I’m learning something new every day – how to be a partner, a mother, an artist, an educator, a decent person … and those lessons generally involve some painful and humbling experiences. But the one distinct useful thing I’ve recently learned is how to roast a whole chicken, and I learned it through a connection with an incredible farmer in the Catskills who gifted me one of his chickens and inspired me to experiment and try something new. It was the best chicken I’ve ever had.
We ask our network of alumni, experts, and educators to consider the state of the world and their role in it ... here's what they have to say.