What can Educational Policymakers Learn from Amazonian Explorers?

Flush with cash at the turn of the 20th Century, the Royal Geographical Society was funding expeditions to some of the world’s final frontiers—including the Himalayas, Africa, the Arctic AND the Amazon. 

The stars in the Royal Geographical Universe were people like Ernest Shackleton, David Livingstone, Charles Darwin and Edmund Hillary—and with each new achievement, the Society cemented a well-deserved reputation for successful adventure and scholarship.

Look a little closer at the Society’s history, however, and you can find the story of an unmitigated disaster—a disaster that started with the Society’s concern for one of their quirkiest explorers, Percy Fawcett.

Fawcett—trained as a surveyor and mapmaker by the RGS—fell in love with the Amazon Rainforest on his first expedition there in 1906. 

The hitch was that Fawcett’s men were rarely in love with him.  He was a difficult and demanding leader, expecting his men to keep up and to carry their own weight in the almost unimaginable conditions of the remote jungle. 

Mutiny was never far away on a Fawcett expedition.

Concerned about Fawcett but determined to continue funding Amazon explorations, the RGS decided to pair the difficult leader with noted Arctic explorer James Murray on a 1911 expedition near the Bolivian-Peruvian border.

Murray—a leader in the relatively new field of microscopic research—had already made a name for himself on Ernest Shackleton’s 1907 expedition to Antarctica, where he had done groundbreaking research on everything from marine biology to meteorology. 

To put it simply, he was an accomplished explorer with a resume that could easily rival that of Fawcett.

Here’s the hitch: the skills and behaviors necessary for successful exploration in the Arctic are NOT the same skills and behaviors necessary for successfully exploring the Amazon. 

As David Grann explains in his 2009 book The Lost City of Z:

A polar explorer has to endure temperatures of nearly a hundred degrees below zero, and the same terrors over and over:  frostbite, crevices in the ice, and scurvy. 

He looks out and sees snow and ice, snow and ice—an unrelenting bleakness.  The psychological horror is in knowing that this landscape will never change, and the challenge is to endure…

In contrast, an Amazon explorer, immersed in a cauldron of heat, has his senses constantly assaulted. 

In place of ice, there is rain, and everywhere an explorer steps some new danger lurks: a malarial mosquito, a spear, a snake, a spider, a piranha.  The mind has to deal with the terror of constant seige. 

(Grann, Kindle Location 1724-1734)

Needless to say, Murray struggled—both with the demands of Fawcett AND the demands of the Amazon. 

He was appalled by the living conditions—hauling heavy packs on foot through hip deep mud, peeling maggots from under his skin and being attacked nightly by ravenous vampire bats were new experiences for him—and he bristled at the expectations of Fawcett, who simply didn’t tolerate weakness in others.

After weeks of essentially dragging Murray—a man who completely lost Fawcett’s respect after being caught stealing food from the party’s reserves—kicking and screaming through the Amazon, Fawcett came to a point of decision:  To keep moving forward with a weak, disgruntled Murray would leave the rest of the members of expedition in jeopardy. 

He had to be abandoned.

While no one was surprised by Fawcett’s decision—all were informed of Fawcett’s abandonment policy before the expedition began—none were comfortable with leaving this accomplished RGS explorer to die in the jungle either.

Instead, they diverted their mission and hauled a dirty, puss-filled, infected, gangrenous and discouraged Murray to a frontiersman who promised to lead him to safety. 

Murray’s story is an interesting one, isn’t it? 

Think about it:  He was already an accomplished explorer when he stumbled into Fawcett’s camp in the fall of 1911.  He’d learned from some of the best, experienced—and even thrived—in demanding circumstances, and been recognized at the highest levels of the exploring world.

But while they were valuable, his experiences didn’t automatically translate to success in the jungle. 

Exploring the Amazon was just too different than exploring the Arctic had been. While he was talented, he didn’t have the unique set of talents necessary for succeeding in a NEW challenging environment.  

Now don’t get me wrong:  Murray probably had a better chance at succeeding in the Amazon than you or I would—and I’m sure that with a bit of persistence, time and training, he probably could have become a successful Amazonian explorer.

But he didn’t have that time and training.  Instead, he was thrown into a demanding situation for which he was unprepared by a group of under-informed society bureaucrats sitting safely at the RGS in London.

And he failed. 

Miserably.

That’s an important lesson for educational policymakers who believe that accomplished teachers should be automatically recruited and/or assigned to high needs schools. 

Sure, accomplished teachers share common traits regardless of where they are working. 

Most of the time, they care deeply for kids AND for their content areas.  More importantly, they almost always have a firm grasp of content-specific pedagogy—the instructional practices that are most effective at delivering content to kids.

But there are unique demands in high needs schools that accomplished teachers in the suburbs aren’t automatically prepared to handle.  

The Fawcetts of our neediest schools are culturally competent, understanding how students and families from diverse backgrounds see schooling.  They are also highly skilled at pairing students with services that can address the challenges of living a life in poverty. 

Finally—even in the face of resource limitations that their suburban colleagues couldn’t possibly dream of—they are outstanding at creating differentiated lessons designed to help students struggling to succeed academically.

Simply hoping—as so many of our current educational policies do—that we can pack high needs buildings with enough Murrays to close the achievement gap between students of poverty and wealth is a narrow-sighted choice at best and a downright ignorant one at the worst.

Unless we are ready to start pairing proposals to draw—or force—accomplished teachers from the suburbs to the inner-city with ongoing, job-embedded professional development designed to prepare new recruits for the unique demands of their new environments, our ‘expeditions’ will fail miserably too.

 

_________________________________

Work Cited:

Grann, D. (2009). The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. New York, NY: Doubleday.

3 thoughts on “What can Educational Policymakers Learn from Amazonian Explorers?

  1. crazedmummy

    I love your wide and eclectic range of knowledge. I was expecting a heartwarming Shackleton being completely underprepared, but nonetheless getting his men rescued after all sorts of privations, or even all that manpower and spending for no particular reasons.
    I like your story much better.

  2. Mike Scott

    So,
    Not too long ago, in transition from one career choice to another, I moved from a rural school to an urban school. In the former rural situation, I had worked myself up the ladder, honed my professional skills and developed a really solid professional reputation. I felt like I had developed a skill set that made me an effective teacher.
    After one week in the inner city environment, I was as lost as my first year of teaching. I had plenty of instructional knowledge, but was completely unprepared for the social environment.
    Any program that attempts to place highly qualified people in high need schools must also prepare the hires for the realities of the social environment. Had I gone through a second year, I would have been more effective. The first year was a lost cause.

Comments are closed.