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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

20) Dragonfly


The first Cricket (Gryllidae) of spring is singing outside my house tonight, but even earlier than that the Dragonflies had emerged just a few days ago.  I’ve written recently on this blog about the arrival of spring, but still: it amazes me how suddenly and instantly the insects emerge as soon as warm weather arrives.  As of this week there are small black Beetles (Coleoptera), too, which I saw in their hundreds on the surprisingly few hot days last summer and which locally seem to favour the warm concrete pedestrian underpass beneath Hoddle Street.

As is usually the case with insects, I don’t know to which particular species any of these animals belong.  The Dragonflies ought to be easier to identify than the others, because they’re larger and because Dragonflies are so brightly and diversely coloured – but so far there have only been a very few of them, and I haven’t been able to get a good look at them.  Dragonflies are difficult to get a good look at, in general: they’re usually on the move, and when they do stop it’s not often for long and like most animals, particularly winged animals, they tend to take to flight if you get too close to them.  Unfortunately for those of us eager to closely examine animals, the body-language of a keen observer trying to creep closer to a resting animal is the same as the body-language of a hunter preparing to pounce.  An animal sees us coming and, not unreasonably, assumes the worst, and flees.  It pays to be cautious.

It may be possible to identify the species of a Dragonfly without getting a close look at it, though: I’m not sure whether it was in high school or university, but I remember clearly one of my biology teachers some time during the course of my education explaining that different Dragonfly species fly at different heights.  Dragonflies are hunters, and hunt on the wing, so by flying at different heights from the ground different species of Dragonfly can live in the same habitat and avoid directly competing with each-other.  As my teacher, whoever he was, explained: “When you’re driving a car, the Dragonfly that goes splat on your windscreen is a different species from the Dragonfly that goes splat on your grille.”

The reason why Dragonflies might be dying against the grille or windscreen of your car points to another fact about the animal, which I learned in the same class on the same day: they’re territorial, and they claim their territories along streams and rivers.  Streams and rivers are long, meandering, treeless expanses – not unlike roads.  A Dragonfly, so the lesson went, interprets a road as being a river, and so stakes a territorial claim above the road and spends its day flying back and forth, patrolling its territory.

On the face of it these are rather strange facts to remember, all these years later.  That’s how it is with my education: I can recount at will any number of peculiar facts about, say, the physiology of birds (Aves), but ask me to recall something even as basic as the correct order in which to place the various levels of biological classification and I’ll be stumped.  There are just particular facts which caught my imagination, and they lodged in my memory without effort.

So much else, though, was lost only days after I remembered it.  Not for lack of trying on my part: I took notes, I read and re-read chapters in my textbooks, I shut my eyes and recited facts until I was confident that I had them to hand.  This worked well enough to get me through tests in school and exams at university.  But a few days later all that knowledge was gone.

The Federal Government in Australia has been putting a lot of money recently into education, and accordingly there’s been a lot of discussion and debate about how best to educated children in particular.  I guess people never stop debating these things.  I’m no expert, and like most people my only real experience with education has been my own, but even having been out of the education system for eight years I’m struck by the thought that an education system built fundamentally around tests and exams is one which is not really very useful at all for the people in that system.  Exams are excellent at testing a person’s ability to commit facts to short-term memory, but exactly what value does that provide?  Very little, is my gut feeling.  Which makes me wonder what the point of them is.

I think all humans desire, innately, to learn new things.  Children, of course, generally don’t realise it – but childhood is nonetheless a period of constant learning.  For the last couple of years I’ve been volunteering every week with children in Melbourne’s western suburbs, and while it can be almost impossible to get one of the children to sit down and do his or her homework, that same child will devote hours to mastering new skateboard tricks, or learning about a favourite movie or sports stars, or whatever it is that takes his or her fancy in any given week.  A couple of years ago all the children in the centre I volunteer at were fascinated by iPhones; now they can all pick up a smartphone and use it without even thinking.

Learning is deeply ingrained within humans – and yet it can’t be easily forced upon us.  Every couple of weeks I take the kids through the garden behind the centre where we meet and I point out each herb and fruit tree to them, and explain to them what each plant is; I’d like to think that they remember, but in truth the lessons are probably more interesting to me than they are to the children and the fact that each time I point out the different plants to them they’ve forgotten that, for instance, they don’t like the taste of mint, or of oregano, suggests that they’ve got their own interests.  That’s fine, that’s as it should be I think.

These children are very young, so they’re just starting out in their education.  I remember when I was a similar age, and how daunted I sometimes felt at the years of education spreading out before me.  A lot of people are going to try to teach them a lot of things over the next few years, and I hope that by the time they finish school they’ve got an idea of what really interests them.  But the world is too vast, and too complex, to ever have a really good idea of what aspect of it exactly you want to devote yourself to, and I hope that years from now when the children are cramming for exams – I don’t really expect the system to change any time soon – they find their minds being occasionally, delightfully illuminated by strange and unexpected little facts about dragonflies, or about birds, or about whatever it is that takes their fancy, and that years after that they’ll still be able to remember those odd little shards of knowledge, and smile at the fact that one tiny part of the world is known, and explicable.

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