TOP > Papers & Essays > New Directions > lessons from a naturalist

Papers & Essays

lessons from a naturalist

During the past three years, since moving to Australia, I've become familiar with the work of the broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough. He's not very famous to the general public in Japan or at least I had never seen him on TV when I was living there. Perhaps, since I'm now living on a mountain, surrounded by nature, I'm more likely to watch nature related documentaries on TV, whereas when I was in Japan, I wasn't living so close to nature. I'm told that programs of his work have been broadcast in Japan.

David Attenborough has traveled throughout the world exploring and presenting life of all sorts in many documentaries produced by BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), often in collaboration with NHK or other educational or public TV networks.1 His programs now appear on national TV in Australia during prime time, showing that his work is very popular, most likely due to the fascinating way he presents his subject matter -- nature in all forms -- and his unpretentious and endearing personality. Now 82, he still travels to remote regions of every continent and gets as close to nature as he can, though always with a great deal of respect and a sense of mystery and wonder about what he is observing and presenting. Much of what is said in an Attenborough documentary is spoken in a whisper, so as not to disturb the animals or other living creatures he is near - and also to express his wonder and amazement about what he is observing.

There aren't many public figures I admire, but David is one who tries to speak for those with less voice or power and bring some sort of enlightenment and understanding into the world. I was curious about other aspects of his life and was lucky enough to catch an interview on TV with him and was able to learn a little more about him.

In talking about his father, who was a teacher, he said:

He was a great teacher...he knew what any decent educationalist knows, which is that teaching isn't a question of pouring information into empty pots and persuading people to learn things by rote and drilling it into them. Education is finding out. Education is what the child does in order to discover. So when I produced a fossil and I said to my father, "Look at what I found", he said "Ah, that's extraordinary, absolutely. What is it?" And I said, "Well I don't know what it is."
And he said, "Well you could find out what it is. Why do you suppose you find it in the middle of England when it's obviously a sea creature there?"
"Well I don't know."
"Well you better find out. I ... you could go to the university, you could go to the museum to find out what its name is and I've heard of some books that would tell you that..."
And so I found out and then I went to him and said, "Father, I've found this out"
And he said, "Amazing."

(emphasis in the paragraph in italic is mine - hw) 2


Later in the interview, Attenborough talks about his mother and how she took in other children who had some trouble in their lives -- from poverty or because they were war refugees. He spoke of how he and his brother, the movie director Richard Attenborough, developed a social and moral awareness, learning to think of others through his parents' actions.

Hearing the story of his parents, it made me think of how nowadays many parents expect the schools to take on certain roles that previously parents had filled: one was helping children discover the wonder of learning, and the other was some sort of moral education. I wondered, how can schools do this?

Take the first story about Attenborough's father. Although his father was a teacher, the story is more about their relationship as a father and son. Yet it is also a story about education. Teachers can play the same role as his father, by asking questions, by helping students find their own answers, and finding real wonder in what they discover because it can be something unknown and unexpected by the teacher. In my opinion, this is the real role of teachers and education, not learning answers to pass tests or by filling empty pots, as David noted.

Another metaphor similar to the idea of filling empty vessels has been written about by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire in what he calls the banking concept:

Narration . . [in which the teacher talks about reality as if it were motionless, static, compartmentalized and predictable] leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated content. Worse yet, it turns them into "containers", into "receptacles" to be filled by the teachers. The more completely he fills the receptacles, the better a teacher he is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.
Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize and repeat. This is the "banking" concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing and storing the deposits.3

The issue of moral education is also really important. It seems to me that moral education isn't something that we learn from a book or from a teacher's talking, but rather from facing real world problems: what do we do when a classmate is different from "normal"; what is "normal" and who defines it; should we care when we see someone bullied; how is bullying a problem throughout society and even in nature; what is my government doing, what is my family doing, what is my school doing, what can I do to protect our environment; what can we do to help others, both inside and outside Japan, whose lives are in danger because of poverty, natural disaster or war; what can we do if our parents don't make time to talk with us because they're too busy working -- all of these are issues which a young person confronts in some way everyday.

Again Freire has something powerful to say: "Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry men pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other." (emphasis in the paragraph in italic is mine -- hw)4

But often schools and educational boards and sometimes even parents, conspire to keep real life dialogue with the world out of the classroom. The story of the class in Japan that tried to raise a pig -- now made into the movie, "Buta ga Ita Kyoshitsu" (School Days with a Pig) -- tells of some of the problems about trying to bring real-life issues into the class. These issues of where our food comes from and others of war, economics, poverty, politics, mental and physical sickness, love, sexuality, death -- are given no place in most classrooms, so much of what is called "moral education" seems empty if it doesn't connect to issues meaningful to the lives of children.

I was pleased to see in a recent edition of Edutopia News (Information and Inspiration for Innovative Teaching in K-12 Schools from the George Lucas Educational Foundation) that more schools in the US are now teaching with and about food, not through talking or reading but actually growing, cooking, serving and eating.5 This means that important issues for young people relating to food, health and diet such - as being bullying of overweight kids, bulimia and anorexia, dangers of additives and chemicals - can be addressed in meaningful ways.

I seemed to have moved a bit off the topic of David Attenborough and his amazing documentaries about nature. But his fascinating amazing stories of various forms of life can teach us to have respect and wonder for our world, just as the story of his life also has messages we can learn from and apply to other questions facing us as parents and educators. It seems to me that he is someone who has done something useful and helpful with his life and I find this quite inspiring.

Have you seen any of Attenborough's documentaries? Do you have any opinion about his work or any of the ideas in this article? Please write your ideas to Let's Talk!


1. Many documentaries and books by David Attenborough are available. A web search in English brought up 16 BBC documentaries. Searching in Japanese brought up a similar list of materials, either in Japanese or with Japanese subtitles

2. "Elders Part 1" - with Andrew Denton, broadcast on abc (Australia public TV) on June 16, 2008

3. Freire, Paulo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Continuum Press, NY. 1970, pp. 57-58. Freire is responsible for raising the consciousness of many educators in both North and South America, and indeed all over the world. Particularly, he wanted people to begin to see that knowledge was something that came from within them, rather than was given to them. He felt that this was an empowering way to see themselves and learning, necessary to free them from oppression. (See also, Freire, Education for Critical Consciousness, Continuum Press, NY, 1973, p81)

4. ibid., p 58

5. November 5, 2008 on-line issue of Edutopia News. The article can be seen at

Write a comment

*CRN reserves the right to post only those comments that abide by the terms of use of the website.


Japan Today

CRN Child Science Exchange Program in Asia

About CRN

About Child Science


Honorary Director's Blog