A Crash Course in Earth Science

(Originally published in Growing Without Schooling magazine ~2001??)

by Sarabeth Matilsky

When I accepted a job working at an exhibit called “Prehistoric Worlds: Backyard Discoveries” at the Boston Museum of Science, I didn’t quite get the facts straight. My brain focused on the part of the job description that promised a chance to interact with museum guests--especially kids--in a non-coercive learning environment. The part I didn’t get was that, as an interpreter for an exhibit about fossils, I would have to be able to teach museum guests about dinosaurs and mammoths and mastodons. I knew nothing about fossils. I’d never gone through a dinosaur phase when I was little, so I’d never learned much about important periods of the earth’s history ending in “zoic.” On my first day on the job, I was hard-pressed to explain the difference between a mastodon and a mammoth, forget about the different between their BONES.

I was pretty sure that Bill, my supervisor, would tell me that morning in March that he’d made a mistake. “You did a great job at the K’nex exhibit last fall,” he’d say, “but since you evidently know less about Prehistoric Worlds than a banana slug, you’re fired.”

Instead, Bill gave me a crash course on Mastodon anatomy, Mammoth DNA, how to know whether you’ve found a fossilized egg or just a round stone, and how to spot the similarities between mastodon and human femurs. By mid-afternoon, I knew the very basic facts. I remembered the classic homeschooling mantra, “You don’t have to be a paleontology expert to be able to teach people about it.” Most importantly, I discovered that (surprise!) during all those years of unschooling, or being a self-directed learner, or whatever you want to call it, I had learned how to learn.

“Can you learn new things?” was one of those questions that generally got overlooked when strangers questioned me about homeschooling. People generally wanted to know if I could do algebra and whether I read Shakespeare. But fantastic mathematical ability and great knowledge of the classics are not what I gained from my childhood education. Learning how to learn was (and is!) the greatest skill homeschooling allowed me to develop, and it’s a skill I use and refine on a daily basis.

After the initial shock of realizing that I was working in an exhibit focusing on a topic I knew next to nothing about, I got to work figuring out what I needed to know. I asked Bill the basic questions (how big were Woolly Mammoths? Where did they live? What did they eat?) and I wrote down his answers. I remember things better if I have lists. I watched other staff members interact with guests, and I noted what worked for them. When no one was in the exhibit, I read up on paleontology topics and theories and current scientific controversy. And pretty soon I learned that the most important thing about working at Prehistoric Worlds was not, of course, to tell people everything I had learned about Mammoths and Mastodons, but to get people excited about all the things contained in the exhibit.

By the end of the first day, I’d made a board that said, “What do YOU think about cloning? Should scientists try to clone a mammoth?” Kids and adults wrote their sometimes-heated responses on post-its and put them on the board, and I made a graph, updated each week, charting the number of yes’s, no’s and maybes.

By the end of my second day at Prehistoric Worlds, I’d developed a “routine” for teaching folks about mastodons that became my favorite. I loved showing kids a real mastodon femur, dug up in 1999, which had been preserved for twelve thousand years in a peat bog in upstate N.Y. I showed them femurs from a human, a bear, and a cat for comparison. And I got to stand next to an actual leg bone of a Mastodon all day. What a great job!

It was easy to try to make the kids listen while I talked at them, but I got the message quickly when a little girl simply turned her back on me as I started to lecture about the process of fossilization. “Amy, honey! Listen to the lady!” said Amy’s mother, shocked.

“Oh, it’s okay,” I told Amy, instantly abashed that 21 years of unschooling had momentarily been forgotten. “You don’t have to listen if it’s not interesting.” From then on, my routine was driven by two key policies: get kids to ask me questions, and don’t talk too much. Too many words turned the kids off; succinct phrases like “Do you wanna touch a twelve thousand year old bone?!” drew in even bored, punk teenagers.

When I was twelve and became interested in renaissance clothing, I was learning history because I wanted to find out about what people wore in the Olden Days. The subject was a goal unto itself. With Prehistoric Worlds, I enjoyed learning about mastodons, but this time I was learning for a job--I had a REASON for learning beyond the sheer coolness factor of the subject. The other difference between then and now, nearly ten years later, is that I am better at learning and more aware of my learning processes. Before, I just sort of let learning happen, and I floated along, following my interests wherever they happened to lead. I can now focus on a final goal and arrive there--and although following random interests has its merits, I now can do both. For Prehistoric Worlds, I knew what questions I needed to ask, I’d developed ways to remember what I’d learned, and I could focus my energy on a final goal.

Working at Prehistoric Worlds proved to me, yet again, that if a person/teacher shows and shares genuine interest in a topic, other people will want to know more, too--even if the teacher didn’t even HAVE the interest until the day before.