Learning Together, By Dr Keith White


There is a poem which describes my philosophy of education beautifully.  It is called, “Child Though I Take Your Hand”, and is by Jane Clements.

Child, though I take your hand

and walk in the snow;

though we follow the track of the mouse together,

though we try to unlock together the mystery

of the printed word, and slowly discover

why two and three makes five

always, in an uncertain world –


child, though I am meant to teach you much,


what is it, in the end,

except that together we are

meant to be children

of the same Father


and I must unlearn

all the adult structure

and the cumbering years


and you must teach me

to look at the earth and the heaven

with your fresh wonder.


Two days ago it was as if the poem came to life.  I was in Auckland, New Zealand, with two young members of the Mill Grove family.  I will call them Abel and Samuel, boys aged seven and five respectively.  They wanted to take me up one of the fifty or so volcanoes in the city area.  This one is called Mangere.  After I had packed a very small snack in my knapsack and they had provided two plastic bottles of water, we set off.  I had no map and so was completely in their hands.  They knew the approach to the mountain like the back of their hands and we were soon on the grass-covered rim of the crater.  So far they led the way, but at this point I suggested a turn to the right that was new to them.  After some discussion they agreed to this.  (The reason for my suggestion was that I wanted to conserve contour lines rather than go a more direct route which involved descent and more ascent.)

It was a little steep and narrow in one or two places and the younger brother took my hand.  On reaching the summit of Mangere Mountain, marked by a triangulation point, the learning together really took off.  We had 360 degree views of Auckland, and that meant city landmarks, bays, bridges, islands…and, of course, volcanoes.  They pointed them out and named them with unerring accuracy: Mount Eden, Mount Victoria, St Johns, North Head…and frankly I was amazed.  For a start some of them looked pretty similar to me, and secondly how did two small boys know them anyway?  They played on the trig point as if it were a climbing frame (which it might just as well have been designed for), and then as we descended a short way a question arose about the colour and nature of the rock or scree on which we had been walking.  Samuel picked up a piece and we inspected it closely.  (I had my climbing anorak complete with compass and magnifying glass.)

It was, unsurprisingly, a rusty red colour as befits lava, and there were traces of black ash.  But it was set on a path that had some sandy-coloured material. I explained that it was probably sand that had been blown to this point over the years and compacted by the elements.  At this point things started to get exciting.  And I mean exciting because there were broad smiles accompanied by small dances of joy.  We discovered some large rocks on the rim which were of a grey, whitish colour.  They hadn’t a clue why this was, or what it was that was covering the rocks to give them this hue.

So I invited guesses as time stopped still.  Paper was one of the many ideas.  After several minutes I suggested that it might be a kind of plant.  They were sceptical, and eventually asked me to tell them what it was.  I told them it was lichen and began to explain something of the nature of lichen with its symbiotic combination of two species of plant, its many varieties, and most importantly its unique role in geology and biology: that it grew on bare rock where nothing else could take root.  They queried the last of these assertions by pointing out moss and grass on the same rock.  “They are growing on the rock” they said in unison.  “Good point” I replied, “but which came first, I wonder?”  And the penny dropped: it was because of the prior existence of the lichen that the moss and grass could survive.

Well, we might have arrived at the South Pole or the summit of Everest if you were to judge by the excitement.  With more lamb-like skips of joy and occasional pauses with the magnifying glass we jumped from rock to rock, discovering different kinds of lichen, white and yellow.  It was as if we had found the secret of life (which in a way we had), until we came across broken shells on the path around the rim.  They had no idea how seashells could have got up this high.  I ventured that they were probably from birds who had carried their seafood to a safe point and then crushed the shells before enjoying a snack.  This provoked smiles, but did not remind them at all of our own snack.  In fact we never had time to think about that, and they never once mentioned food or water in our two hours together on the mountain.

We continued around the rim and came across a group of bullocks standing astride the path along the rim.  They followed me quietly through them and then we saw a heron (variety not known to me) which was clearly eating something, probably a fish.  They speedily made the link between a sea bird and the rim, which helped to confirm my hypothesis about the sea shells now some way behind us.

Believe it or not we were pretty much alone on this wonderful adventure playground called Mangere Mountain, until on the edge of the rim there appeared a school group led by a knowledgeable Maori who sat the pupils down and told the story of the core (tholoid) of the volcano and how a single man had lived there, and cut his body, shedding blood as part of the sacred process and belief that connected heaven and earth, past and present, ancestors and future generations.  The two boys stood at a viewpoint silently as we eavesdropped on the questions and answers that helped us understand the story of this place.  It was as new to me as to them.

Moving on and finding time running out (I was to meet one of their uncles at the airport) we ran past a couple of ancient Maori dwelling places (marked by distinct rectangular-shaped dips in the ground) until we found a display that described how the volcano had formed in five stages.  I don’t know how long we spent at this spot but both boys were absorbing the diagrams as they checked the pictures with what they could see in front of them, and what we had discovered on the trip so far.

As they did so, one statement of the Maori teacher dominated all other considerations.  She had said that we should not climb the plug (tholoid) out of respect for Maori tradition.  The problem was that as we stood looking at it, someone (not from the school party of course) was doing just this.  What would happen, they wondered?

And so it was that we were left with a very big question as we started running down the slope to get home on time.  We came to some low wooden posts that were designed to prevent cars parking on a grassy verge, and I suggested that they might pretend we were on snow and doing a downhill slalom.  Abel led, and Samuel and I followed.  It was a perfect mock-slalom course, and served to aid our speed of descent.

We arrived back at the house late for lunch and with me needing to leave immediately for the airport.  As I did so I wondered why the boys weren’t at school like everyone else (uniforms are prominent in NZ).  Then I realised that they were home-schooled.  So our adventure was part of the learning process, and presumably I had been experiencing something of how they learnt things and why they were so absorbent, particularly the older brother. “Can you write down the name of that special volcano you talked about in the Philippines,” he asked, “I want to google it”.  So I wrote down the word “Tagaytay”.  And the next day when we met, he told me how beautiful it looked with the little volcano in the middle of the huge volcanic lake.  As it happened the next day we explored surfing, shells and chess together, but that is another story.

Rarely have I followed the track of the mouse together in such a literal way. Is there any way of learning that is not together?  And what are schools for, and why?

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