You may be looking at this article just to find out who this guy Freeman Tilden is and what he has to do with teachers. That is okay in the world outside of environmental education and the U.S. National Parks he is not well known. Even as a field biologist major in college I didn’t hear about him until I got out in the field and spent a summer working at a state park in Minnesota (whoop whoop shout out to Fort Snelling State Park!). He is the second person, after Enos Mills, credited with laying the foundation for natural, historical, and recreational interpretation that are forms of interpretation that have continued to confuse the general public to this day. How can it be interpretation if the interpreter and listener both speak the same language?
Let’s clear up some of this confusion. Think about something you are both very knowledgeable and passionate about and how you would explain it to someone. You must explain it in a way so that they can 1) learn the information 2) understand how it applies to them and 3) have the chance to form their own opinion about it and maybe even form an emotional connection. Now what would you call that?
In the late 1800s and throughout the 1900s to today the best fit people could come up with was interpretation. This is because the park guide or naturalist (not the same as a naturist/nudist) does not simply give dry information or talk about all the warm fuzzies of a place. They show and tell information about a place as it applies to a visitor in a way that connects to a visitor and their world so that they can form their own opinions and make connections with a place. Some of my friends in college said it best,
“I like going on hikes with you, you always take these scientific things and explain them in a way I can understand. You make the hike fun and interesting. I always learn something new and actually remember it and I wish my classes could be more like that.”
Kelly and Kelsey thank you so much again for helping point my career in the right direction toward environmental education your compliments on our hikes in college meant a lot to me more than I am pretty sure I ever let on so here is both your shout outs!
But what does Freeman Tilden’s Principles for Interpretation have to do with Teachers?
For many years I have been studying in my free time what makes great naturalists, environmental educators, teachers, and parents since they are mostly the ones raising and teaching our future. I have watched TEDtalks, read Jane Goodall’s studies on the parenting styles of chimps, watched Youtube vidoes, read Grit by Angela Duckworth, read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (too many times), curriculums, articles, blogs, trainings, conferences, watched teachers in their classrooms, and watched friends and families parent their kids while thinking about how my parents raised my brothers and I and what strategies worked and turned us into the people we are today. You get the idea the question of what makes a good teacher and how can I be a better teacher and hopefully a good parent someday, has been on my mind or at least in my subconscious most days for many years now.
This is what strikes me about the six principles Freeman Tilden created. Tilden created them with the intent they would be used by park staff to create a certain kind of experience for visitors coming to our national parks but the meaning behind them translates as well to teachers and in some cases to parenting as well. So below check out Tilden’s Six Principles for Interpretation and how the meaning applies to teaching, #6 is by far my favorite principle!
1) Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.
You may have heard students before complain about why are we learning something? Or is this even important to me? I am never going to use it again even! This principle is about going that extra step to connect what you are teaching in class to the interests and lives of your students or their near future. This is the teacher who shows how math connects to the real world and in the processes increases their students’ interest in math.
2) Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However all interpretation includes information.
If you think back to any movie that had a boring teacher or professor the way they showed this was a person at the front of the room droning on boringly lecturing on a subject. They were giving pure information as robotically as possible. Teaching or in my opinion good teaching is more than only giving information. There is a reason teachers are called jacks of all trades because teachers are constantly finding new and improving old ways of engaging students so they can learn better. That being said though all teaching like interpretation includes information but combined with other techniques.
3) Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical, or architectural. Any art is in some degree teachable.
As said before teachers are jacks of all trades and like interpretation teaching combines many arts or ways of sharing information with your students. Additionally elementary school teachers have the task of teaching multiple subjects and even coming up with creative ways to make learning more interdisciplinary as they try to cover multiple ever increasing standards. This is okay though because you can always learn how to be a better teacher and every year you spend teaching no matter how long you have been at it you are always improving and learning new tricks. So keep practicing and trying new things whether it is using popular culture things like harry potter for teaching English or skateboarding for teaching Physics. You go make that learning memorable and relatable for your students!
4) The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.
Many teachers say they would be happy if one of the few things their students left their class with was a love of learning. There are lots of sayings about leading horses to water but not being able to make them drink. Students are no different we love them but sometimes they are like herding a bunch of riled up crazy kittens. So keeping with the cat analogy teaching children subjects and more crucially how to continue learning should be like teaching a kitten how to play. You do it in a way that makes them interested and so they have fun doing it and they will be able to continue to learn and play the rest of their life – or nine lives! In all seriousness though most young animals on our planet learn crucial skills for survival through play and as I have worked at preschools, a STEM school, and as an environmental educator I firmly believe through my experience that our children are no different and learn better and remember more when learning through play.
5) Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole man rather than any phase.
The one thing I always enjoyed learning about with nature was how connected all the different living and even nonliving things are. Even if you are learning about a specific fish you are learning about what it eats and what eats it but also all the cycles that put oxygen and nutrients in its water, cleans the water, provides shelter, and many other things. We as humans are not so different; we are connected, interact with, and experience the world on so many levels. This principle is a reminder that when teaching about nature make sure to talk about how it interacts with other parts of nature and to relate it in the same way to your audience. By relating it to the different ways people experience the world like mentally, emotionally, and socially to just name a few.
6) Interpretation addressed to children should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should follow a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best it will require a separate program.
THIS IS BY FAR MY FAVORITE PRINCIPLE. With this principle Tilden put into words something I had noticed for years and experienced as both a student and an educator. Kids like other people can tell when you are talking down to them or purposely “dumbing things down” and depending on their age they act accordingly from being disruptive to ignoring you. So when teaching students something it is easier to “get on their level” gage them figure out what they know and then approach what they still need to learn in a way that engages their age group and does not belittle them. Overall my experience has taught me that people learn really well through play and exploring but these take different forms depending on the age group.
Young kids love sharing stories. So combine a think and pair activity with exploring and have students tell their partner what is something they have heard about the thing you are learning about today or a memory it brings up. A lot of the time teenagers don’t like to look uncool so it can be hard to get them to have discussions or do game like activities in class. This doesn’t mean to simply lecture at them the whole time instead give them some time to go and explore on their own (where you can see them) on a specific topic and then journal about it for example. They are going through a point in their life where they are figuring out who they are, testing boundaries, and their prefrontal lobe and giving them a safe space to try things out and learn by doing or exploring might be all they need to discover curiosity or even passion for something they had never considered before.
I am sure a lot of you if you have made it this far are probably going humbug or rolling your eyes at this. However this has been my personal experience when working with teenagers outdoors that if you set good boundaries but still allow the students the freedom they crave as part of your class they will show you sides of themselves that you never knew existed.
My mom has always said about the preschoolers she works with that the hardest students are the ones that need your care, support, and someone to believe in them the most. I believe this applies to all students and especially when taking kids outside. That some of the hardest students need time learning outdoors the most and when you take them outside you discover you had nothing to worry about with them in the first place. So this is how I believe Freeman Tilden’s principles for natural interpretation also apply to teachers, students, and education. I hope you will keep these principles in mind in the future whether you are teaching indoors or outdoors, but I hope this can help motivate you to take them time to take your class outdoors!
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