Reality Is Boring

July 31, 2011 in Education,Family | Comments (0)

Late last night my family returned home from what we dubbed our "mini-vacation."  Rather than taking a big, expensive family vacation this year, we stayed relatively local and took a small (still, somehow far too expensive) mini-vacation.  We stayed a couple of nights in a hotel, because to a kid hotel = vacation and treated ourselves to some of the Dallas area attractions.

On Friday we went to the enormous Grapevine Mills Mall, and while there visited the Rainforest Café.  If you've never been there, I'll give you a quick summary- overpriced, mediocre quality food in a pretty amazing environment.  The entire restaurant is a "recreation" of the Amazon rain forest.  There are huge aquariums filled with exotic fish, and giant fake trees and vines all around, complete with bird and animal sounds piped in over the PA.

The real showcase, though, are the animatronic animals.  Gorillas, elephants, birds, snakes and other animals surround the tables and periodically "come to life-" moving around and making loud noises.  Every hour or so there's an indoor thunderstorm, complete with lightening and even a bit of synthetic rain. 

It's really a great experience and even more so for young children.

Saturday we went to Fair Park in Dallas (the site of the Texas State Fair) and visited the sister museums of Science and Natural History.  First we went to the Science Museum, which is a vast expanse of hands-on exhibits covering everything from archeology to the human genome.  We moved from room to room literally digging for fossils, touching relics, exploring over-sized models of DNA chains and even picking a giant nose!

The museum is also currently hosting the traveling "Chinasaurus" exhibit, which includes several complete skeletons of dinosaurs found in and around modern-day China.  Along the way, interspersed with the dry, dead bones, are full-size animatronic recreations of these prehistoric beasts.  They move, they roar, they blink, they breathe.  They're inches away almost begging to be touched.

The next stop was the museum of Natural history across the way.  In this building we found a Lego room filled Lego recreations of modern Dallas landmarks such as the American Airlines Center and Reunion Tower.  There were even tables set up in the back of the room with thousands of Lego pieces strewn about, where kids (and parents!) were encouraged to build and create for as long as they want.

Next door was a room dedicated to light and optical illusions.  Huge wall-sized displays encouraged kids to turn knobs and press buttons and see what happens.  What happens when we change the oscillation frequency of a flourescent light? What happens when you put two pieces of polarized glass together and rotate them?  How bright can you make this bulb by turning the attached hand-crank generator?

All of these questions were asked and answered by the eager hands of my 8,7 and 2 year-old daughters.

Finally, we moved downstairs to the more classic exhibits- dead birds and rodents stuffed and put behind glass in the 1930s.

My kids were bored.

I was bored.

Taxidermy reality behind foggy glass simply couldn't compete with roaring dinosaurs.  Even the fierce 9-foot grizzly bear posed menacingly in the center of the room barely managed to draw a glance.

I quipped to my children and then later on Twitter that these exhibits were a lot more impressive before you could see the same thing (and better, frankly) at the Bass Pro Shop down the road.

I tried to imagine what this room looked like to the 8-year-old boys and girls of 1936, when it was first unveiled. 

Was it as awe-inspiring to them as the robotic giants my kids had just seen were to them? 

Did they stare, slack-jawed at the huge white wolf with fangs bared?

Maybe.  Probably.

My kids were ready for some chicken nuggets and the McDonald's Playland.

I'm not going to try to lay down some heavy-handed analogy here, but I do have to wonder which of these two experiences most resemble what my children (and yours) will encounter when they walk back into the classroom in a few weeks. 

Will they be challenged to learn by doing?  Will they have their curiosity piqued and then be given the tools to satisfy it?  Will they come face-to-face with fierce learning?  Or, will they be asked to look at dusty relics behind hazy glass?

If you're a teacher or school administrator, which of these do you want to describe your classroom?  Which describes it now?