Noticing Deficit Disorder - How Camp Can Restore The Art of Seeing the World

Merrie Koester, PhD
November 2015
Boys drawing by stream

We are in the midst of an epidemic of visual impairment no medical doctor can fix — but which camps might cure. Back in the `60s, artist, researcher, and psychologist Rudolf Arnheim (1969) lamented that the American school system had become a “12-year apprenticeship in aesthetic alienation,” — producing children whose eyes could no longer see. Today, our children’s entire minds (and many of our own) have become serfs to technology, seduced into acquiring contrived world views presented on a dizzying array of digital platforms. Alarmed scientists have begun to ask questions like, “How much screen time is okay?” “What is digital technology doing to our highly plastic brains?” “What is lost through online instruction?” The questions I pose are as philosophical as they are scientific: “What does deep knowledge of nature look like? Why does having such knowledge matter? How can camp help us see again?”

Psychiatrist, researcher, and 2000 Nobel Prize laureate Eric Kandel discovered that when we form long-term memories, neurons in our brains not only change their physical shapes but lay down networks of synaptic connections they have with other neurons (Doige, 2007). A child whose main experience of the world is one digitized screenshot after another has formed memories and interpretations of someone else’s making and design.

More than ever before, there is an urgent need for children (and adults) to have lived experiences that are screen-free and truly natural. Camps can provide an antidote for the epidemic of what I call Noticing Deficit Disorder — a serious condition made worse when one also suffers from what author and activist Richard Louv has described as Nature Deficit Disorder (2005). Noticing Deficit Disorder (NDD) is a failed relationship with the natural world, a complete loss of the ability to see or appreciate what is directly in front of one. Without seeing, there can be no understanding, no relationship, no sense of connection.

Camps that provide deep immersion in nature study and ecology can restore among participants the innate human ability to see— to notice relationships, patterns, behaviors, and happenings. For example, what is happening in the community pictured below? What do you notice?

I had to get on my hands and knees before I could see the ant (lower third of the picture frame) gently carrying a pupa. This worker was counting on my not noticing him! See how perfectly he and the pupa blend in with the surrounding canvas of nature? An entire ecology unit might be built around what is happening in this small setting at the forest edge, where one comes face to face with timeless relationships and sustaining communities.

The subject of ecology, the science of relationships within and between communities, should arguably be the cornerstone of all school curriculum, regardless of subject matter. And yet, many science teachers themselves have little to no authentic (nature-based) knowledge of the subject. One science teacher who studies with me — I call her Sky because of her openness and extroverted nature — self-identified at the beginning of our research as “hating to teach ecology” because she “found it boring.” I suspected she might have a rather bad case of NDD and administered a simple diagnostic — the Back of the Napkin Test. I handed her a clean, white dinner napkin and a handful of markers and said, “Draw me a simple picture explaining any concept associated with the subject of ecology.”

She frowned and drew a dump truck with fumes coming off of it, some trees, and added a few words, like nutrients, recycle, and depletion. “I guess I don’t know that much,” she finally groaned.

Quite literally, Sky had drawn a blank on the subject of ecology. None of us can teach well what we don’t understand, much less care about. Clearly, Sky had no pleasing memories of learning ecology herself. Text-based school science had programmed her brain to intensely dislike the subject. And yet, Sky loves to walk in the woods, to draw, and to sing. She is alive with both potential and kinetic energy. Shortly after enrolling in our research study, she decided to transform a previously textbook-driven ecology curriculum into a nature walk in the woods with teens bearing sketchbooks. The drawings they produced were phenomenal, and equally impressive were the test score improvements on the ecology test as compared to previous years.

Something wonderful had happened to both Sky and her students during the Nature Noticing Excursions (NNEs) she implemented. One of Sky’s students, who had only ever lived in an urban area, called the first nature walk they took “the happiest day of his life.” Sounds a lot like what campers regularly and fondly remember about being in nature. This is the kind of transformation made possible through experiences, which are by design aesthetic, a word first coined by a young German graduate student named Alexander Baumgartner in 1735. He hybridized four Greek words related to sensory perception — aesthesis, aisthanesthai, aisthetos, and aisthetikos — to encompass the ways in which interpersonal relationships with self, other, and the world were established through the senses (Siegesmund, 2010). Aesthetic experiences are by their very nature participatory, transformative, active, imaginative, and joyful.

True education brings with it a sense of something new being born inside one as one becomes empowered to create the future one imagines for him or herself. However, imagining possibilities for oneself is very difficult for a child who has found him or herself the victim of institutional marginalization.

Some 30 years ago, as a new educator, I found myself struggling to teach physical science to a class of ninth graders who were all reading below grade level. Virtually all were from poor families. The moldy, old text we were expected to use was best employed as a doorstop. There was no lab and no equipment provided for this particular class of 30 (mostly boys). Nothing in my life experience or teacher education classes had prepared me for such a challenge.

How could I teach science to students, many of whom, through marginalization, tracking, and neglect, were functionally illiterate? Science made them nervous, especially because it seemed to be written in a foreign language. Certainly, teaching through lecturing was out. The textbook was a dud. A few days into this new job, which seemed completely hopeless, I had the eureka moment that changed the entire course of my teaching career. I recalled three of my college biology professors who had enthusiastically filled their chalk boards with clear explanatory drawings of the concepts being explored. In our field courses, we kept detailed journals filled with drawings and in-the-moment written observations. Learning through drawing was a completely new experience for me then, and I loved it. These gifted teachers were not just delivering illustrated lectures; they were drawing their students into a kind of jointly performed, imaginative, visually and aurally produced narrative. Ah, I thought. I must create teaching art! By its very nature, art is meant to be shared and creates connection. When connection is established, aesthetic energy sustains the experience on both a cognitive and emotional level.

That night, I practiced drawing funny little cars, pulleys, and inclined planes with little cartoon people doing physics things like accelerating, crashing, and falling. For the first time ever, I actually started getting and even enjoying physics, whereas before I had just memorized enough facts and formulae to get by.

Over the next few weeks, I set up experiments with little toys, inviting my students to draw with me as we constructed visual narratives of what was happening in and through the learning. To my delight, my students were immediately engaged, and they started filling their own notebooks with science-themed drawings. Within a week, we were developing visual narratives to explain physics concepts like Newton’s First Law of Motion: An object at rest will tend to remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.

My students and I had all become transformed.

At the time, I was too young and uninformed to understand that what I had created for my students was an aesthetic experience. I did not know that Alan Pavio had in the mid-1970s discovered the Picture Superiority Effect, that information received in image form is more likely to be stored in long-term memory than that received verbally (1973). All I knew was that students previously and unfairly labeled as being incapable or “not proficient” sat up, woke up, and became engaged learners. They now actually cared about science.

Over next three decades, I experimented with many different techniques of teaching science through drawing and the creative arts, and have taught hundreds of teachers how to enact what I now call “Performative Narrative Drawing.” Note: This pedagogy is not possible without first having deep content knowledge of the subject being taught. Second, the teacher/leader must create a story (or use a favorite already in print) in which the science content drives the plot. Third, the teacher/leader must be trained in basic knowledge of the elements of graphic design and drawing, though significant drawing talent is definitely not required. A healthy dose of humor provides a lovely, extra aesthetic quality.

Getting There

Through aesthetic inquiry of nature performed through drawing and storytelling, even the most stubborn cases of NDD can be cured. Teachers and learners both will likely experience a full system restore and re-boot back to a pure, authentic state of seeing as a child — one not yet blinded to the world by pulsating pixels. For some, it will be as if they are seeing the natural world and their relationship to and with it for the first time. Their very brains are transformed by the purposeful and aesthetic act of noticing. In the process of drawing the story of a nature excursion, one must move the eyes, the mind, and the hand. Hearing a simultaneously and artfully performed story will engage the heart. In short order, you will have experienced a deep, caring aesthetic connection with the object of your drawing. You will have, as Maxine Greene has said, “noticed what there is to be noticed” (2001).

The central themes of aesthetic inquiry are:

  • Caring for self, others, and what is being learned
  • Sharing of both feelings and thoughts through reflection
  • Expectation of, adapting to, and growing from mistakes
  • Affiliation through community
  • A purposeful engagement with one or more art forms

Again and again, teachers have reported that students rarely forget lessons learned in this highly aesthetic way. Learners’ levels of curiosity and engagement with content matter also improve. When I have asked my students to collaboratively design and present their own performative narrative drawings as part of a test review, they are invariably happy to do so and also score higher on their tests, even if interactions with nature have only been vicarious. During those times when we can learn outside, afforded direct, authentic contact with the natural communities of which we are an integral part, students report feeling free, joyful, peaceful, and happy. Then they come inside and score better on their tests. Something is definitely happening here — something that lends itself extraordinarily well to the camp environment.

Creating the Nature Noticing Excursion through Drawing and Storytelling

I propose the development of camp NNE programs, enacted through storytelling, journaling, and drawing while experiencing full-on, sustained contact with nature. To develop an NNE model, I have recruited my former student and now graphic artist, Edward Kornya, who is a counselor/mentor at Green River Preserve (GRP) Nature Camp in North Carolina, where there is strong emphasis on the creative arts and campers are regularly engaged in aesthetic inquiry and lots of noticing.

Edward, like the other staff at GRP, has had the great fortune of being trained by a gifted nature educator named Snow Bear, a storyteller whose tread upon the earth is ever gentle and whose reverence for nature so profound that one cannot help being transformed by his ways of teaching and being. Edward has also taken it upon himself to study field guides of the flora and fauna of North Carolina. He is well on his way to acquiring deep knowledge of nature.

As we headed up the forest trail near the camp one afternoon, I invited Edward to imagine that he could hear Snow Bear’s sonorous voice in his head and to try to model the great teacher’s soft yet powerful storytelling techniques. Immediately, Edward instructed me to alter my gait, to feel the soil with my feet, and to imagine I was walking solidly on four legs instead of my ungainly two. I was to amble like a bear, creep like a lizard, scurry like a fox — but quietly, making as little sound as possible, so as not to be detected. This was actually quite difficult to accomplish given the crunchy leaves beneath my solidly booted feet.

As I crept along, keeping my knees soft and my eyes sharply focused, I noticed that a lone, rather impressive, golden mushroom cap had pushed itself up near the base of an oak tree. I asked Edward, who had already begun making some botanical sketches, to draw the part of the fungus he could see (the stalked cap, or fruiting body of this variety of mushrooms commonly called toadstools) while I told him a story about what was happening under the ground — where hundreds of branched, tubular threads called hyphae entwined themselves with the roots of the oak. Botanists have learned that enzymes in the oak roots break down the walls of the hyphae and absorb water and nutrients from the fungus, which, in turn, gains sugars that are stored in the oak’s roots — a perfect symbiotic partnership. Many mushrooms have formed similar relationships with trees.

In the NNE model I propose, the Naturalist Artist (NA), a role for which Edward is apprenticing with me, would scout out an area to identify compelling types of ecological communities. Ideally, campers will have also had at least one class in nature drawing and journaling before this excursion. Along the hike with campers, the NA would stop before these previously identified ecological communities, and campers would gather around while he or she draws and talks about what is happening in this spot. By doing so, the leader provides an exemplary, contextual model of the practice of nature journaling.

The NA may begin by making written notes of the weather conditions, the date, and the time. As the NA lays in the initial sketch, he or she should ask campers what they notice and then write some of their observations as notes alongside the drawings-in-progress. The campers should then be invited to pull out their own journals stowed in their packs before the hike. Quietly (as in no talking at all), they should be given ample time to draw and write observations based on their own sensory perceptions. Their writing might also include anecdotes from the NA’s natural history stories.

As Edward drew on this first outing, I asked him to imagine that he was telling his campers the story of the mushroom’s deep relationships with the oak’s roots and the soil, and how through drawing and noticing, we humans, too, can become part of nature’s complex, interwoven, life-giving, and life-sustaining network.

I could tell that even in a few moments of drawing that mushroom, he had begun to care for it, to want to know more about its story. When aesthetic connections are made, empathy for whatever caused you to have that experience is established, and significant human growth and transformation become possible.

Nature Noticing Excursions — A Guide

Becoming proficient at truly noticing nature requires time, pat ience and, above all, the turning off of digitally streaming devices. Screens placed for long periods of time between a person’s eye and the natural world act as physical and neuro-psychological blinders. Repair of the damage to the vision will likely not happen immediately. Campers and counselors may even mourn being separated from their digital devices nearly as much as many adults (myself included) would grieve having their morning java taken away.

At first, the vision may be quite blurred, especially if one arrives at camp with no prior experience with nature or almost no understanding of its restorative gifts. I believe that the cure for Noticing Deficit Disorder lies in seeing the natural world through questioning eyes, trained through drawing practice to discern those things that are significant. As artistic seeing is developed, scientific understanding evolves in ways not possible through talking, listening, or reading. Camp is all about seeing both inside and outside ourselves with newly refreshed eyes — to be fully aware and wholly, aesthetically, and naturally human.

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