Ducks, Acorns and Questions Worth Asking
by Phil Teeuwsen
We arrived at the cottage at about 11:00 pm after a three hour drive.
The cottage conjures images of serene northern landscapes and
loons. Things were not so serene that night. The “we” who had
arrived included twenty plus boys, somewhere between Grades 3 and 8,
and some dads. They were ready, junk food in abundance, devices wellcharged,
all-nighters planned. More than that, however, they were gearing
up for the ritual of jumping off the dock into the frigid October Lake of
Bays, an important rite-of-passage that simply had to be honoured.
The next morning, I grabbed a coffee and, stepping carefully over a number of sleeping kids, left the cottage heading for the dock. The cottage was at the end of a small bay, and so looking out from the dock, you could see water surrounded by trees, jutting out into the main lake. Across the lake were more trees, coloured in various shades of red, brown and yellow. There I was, alone at the end of a dock, right in the middle of a Group of Seven painting. If I were looking at that painting, I might ask what that person on the dock was thinking about— the meaning of life, the beauty of northern Ontario in the fall?
The deep questions of life were far from my mind, however. In that moment of peace, I was thinking about ducks. There were ducks in the bay that morning. The ducks were coming close to the shore and diving repeatedly. I was curious about what they might be diving for. I noticed that the trees that lined the bay were mostly oaks. Looking down into the water, I saw acorns covering the sand below me. Seeing no other plant life that the ducks might be eating, I wondered if the ducks could possibly be eating the acorns. I asked a couple of the boys who had joined me on the dock what they thought. They didn’t know.
We had a great day. We ate well, we laughed a lot. Some of the boys jumped off the dock into the cold water, keeping the tradition alive. It wasn’t peaceful, if by peace you mean quiet, but was peaceful meaning things being the way they should be. And through it all, there were the ducks. They never left, but kept diving close to the shore wherever the oak trees hung over the water.
Sitting around the fire that afternoon, I asked the question that had been on my mind all day: “Do ducks eat acorns?” I was surprised—although I shouldn’t have been—when a number of people pulled out their phones and began thumbing in the question. Within moments, I had my answer. Yes, ducks do indeed eat acorns. Apparently, it is one of their favourite foods in the fall. In fact, and I quote from a discussion board we found online, “When the mallards are eating acorns, you can almost kill them with a stick, they want them so bad.” I accepted that statement as factual without presenting it as an option to any of the boys—I wasn’t going to be the one to introduce a new ritual for the annual trip to the cottage.
Recently I have been reflecting on my experience at the dock with those ducks and their acorns. Educationally, a number of things stand out for me: first, my observations led me to ask an important question. I understand that it was not a question upon which the hopes and dreams of the world rested. All I wanted to know was whether or not ducks ate acorns. Was this a question worthy of study? Let me ask another question: Is it important that students know which products Canada imports? Is it important that they know what a pulley is for? These questions are no more important than my duck question. However, students in Ontario will learn the answer to the imports question in Grade 6 social studies and the pulley-question in Grade 4 science. The imports and pulley questions have become curricular through their inclusion in the Ontario curriculum. Students learn about imports and pulleys in Grades 4 and 6 whether they want to or not, whether it is meaningful to them or not, whether they are ready or not. Are these things good to know about? Absolutely, but no more so than knowing that ducks eat acorns.
Second, my question was answerable first through experience and observation and then through readily available information technology. By the end of the day, I was pretty sure that ducks did eat acorns. However, I was not certain, which is why I asked about it around the campfire. I became certain when my question was immediately answered by a number of well-connected, tech-savvy cottagers. Even in the middle of the woods, we were connected to a wealth of knowledge. All I needed to do was ask.
Learning means paying attention to the world and the people around you. When we narrow learning to mean paying attention to the teacher and/or the textbook, we limit ourselves greatly. I am not suggesting that students stop paying attention to their teachers. Rather, I am asking us all to pay attention to the real questions of students. What questions do the students bring with them to class? What experiences can we engage them in, in order to get them to ask new and more questions? It seems to me that when students stop asking questions, we have done some real damage to humanity’s potential to know and care. After all, if anything, it is the job of the young to ask questions that get us to rethink the taken-for-granted.
Today, access to knowledge and the world is limitless. Curiosity can be nourished by teachers who understand their role as caring yet critical learning guides. Limitless access to information requires that careful attention be paid to critical questioning, thinking about thinking (metacognition), and respectful, responsible participation in learning communities. Students need teachers to help them understand what it means to be learners in the 21st century. Back to the ducks. It turns out that if some of the boys at the cottage were in Grade 4, and were paying attention to my question that day, they may have achieved an important “Overall Expectation” of the “Understanding Life Systems” strand of the Ontario curriculum*, which states that by the end of Grade 4, students will investigate the interdependence of plants and animals within specific habitats and communities. For the rest of us, it was just good to know.