Education, Biomimicry and becoming better beings

An education with nature: Lao Tong and I in 2005, Thailand

The development of critical thinking, creativity and complex problem-solving are long standing goals of education. Recently I’ve been exploring the potential of Biomimicry to support critical and creative thinking through the unique blend of biology, creative problem solving, design, STEM and systems thinking. Biomimicry is a discipline that studies ‘nature’s genius’ and consciously emulates life’s principles of adaptation and survival, mimicking form, process and ecosystems (Benyus, 2002).

Biomimicry, perfectly aligned to transdisciplinarity, responds to the increasing demand for relevance and applicability of all types of research to societal challenges. If the goal is to understand the world in all its complexities (Nichita, 2011), then it makes sense to gain insights from other species, to employ nature as a model, measure and mentor (fig.1) (McGregor, 2013).

Fig 1. Nature as Model, Measure and Mentor (McGregor, 2013)

A test example – The elephant

We know critical thinking requires more than good argumentation, but metacognition skills and habits of mind (Costa & Kalick, 2000). Could the study of the elephant, selected on its reputation as a contemplative big thinker in tune with its environment assist? What evidence exists to justify resources being diverted into their study; their potential placement in a thinking skills curricula.

I put my hand up now to declare a bias. I often turn to nature to reflect and reboot, taking inspiration for specific personal or career challenges. My own time working with Thai elephants, as a trainee mahout being highly impactful. Observations and experiences supported by what I deem to be credible factual data converted into personal truths. In essence I ‘believe’ animals can teach us a thing or two about thinking our way into being better human beings!

High Cognitive Processing

Aristole described the elephant as “the animal that surpasses all others in wit and mind”  and even by today’s scientific standards they continue to rank high, even amongst experts in advanced cognitive ability. Asian elephants,  of all land animals, have the greatest volume of cerebral cortex available for cognitive processing (Hart et al. , 2001). Research studies assert they exhibit many human like behaviours such as grief, learning, play, altruism, compassion and cooperation (Plotnik et al., 2011). Where evidence is lacking, it’s mainly due to the “danger and difficulty of submitting the largest land animal to behavioural experiments” (ibid). Ground-breaking neuro-biological research now reveals neurons in the elephant cortex may synthesise a wider variety of input than the cortical neurons in any other mammal (Manger & Hof, 2018). The integrative cortical circuitry in the elephant supports the idea that they are essentially alike humans, contemplative animals, distinguishable from the primate brains built for rapid decision-making and quick reactions to environmental stimuli (ibid.).

Reflections on my elephant mahout days

An extract from my elephant diaries in 2005 recounts “My elephant Lao Tong has attitude, possibly even a swagger. It was immediately apparent she is one opinionated lady, although I sense a soft resilience.”  

I had already tuned into the promise of a deeper intelligence. Previous life experience prior to the rescue camp had taught her to distrust humans; she had been shackled and spirit broken. Yet, she remained open to the possibilities and rewards of a new relationship, although dictating the pace. Trust would need to come first. I would be required to tune in to her language, her sounds and body signals. This unleashed a comical Welsh accented basic Thai upon the camp. I sensed on some days she was mocking me.

I was further introduced to the deep and complicated relationships amongst the elephant community on the camp. I learnt to give Lao Tong’s ‘sister’ a wide berth, given their recent fallout, as she would often target me to knock me off my feet. Studying their habits and rituals, in such raw proximity was mesmerising. The basics of the energising standing 5-minute nap, the joy of a healthy snack, and the pleasure of a cuddle.  I was transfixed by the breadth of their individuality, and freedom of expression; yet with strong bonds that drew them together as a community.

The relationship bond grew until finally, after weeks of persistence, it had transformed. Now she would, with flapping ears, lean in, or stretch out her trunk to connect; often making sweet purr-like rumbles. I would now spend time, simply enjoying our shared space, my head buried into hers, or maintaining an eye-to-eye contact.

Walking with gentle giants

Deadlines or finding the shortest path don’t register with the elephant. Observable instead is a simple joy from the journey. The two of us meandering unshackled and carefree, along dusty pathways. I could never have before, imagined such a possibility.

Listening carefully and sensing rumblings made through vibrations in the ground, Lao Tong would employ her trunk to sweep the path in front, not too unlike a blind person with their cane, making deliberate and careful choices.

Elephants Inspirations

A capture of some of the demonstrations revealed by scientists including Plotnik et al. (2011), studying the elephant include:

  • Self-awareness
  • Empathy
  • Complicated decision-making skills, alone and in cooperation
  • Ability to “deliberate” amongst themselves prior to initiating a group action
  • Acts of celebration: lifting of heads high, clanging of tusks and intertwining of trunks.
  • Highly communal
  • Capacity for grief and the burying of their dead
  • Recognition of own bodies as obstacles to problem solving

An improved knowledge of elephant behaviour is one thing, exploring what this means in terms of their relationship to the environment, and what it should represent to us, takes it to another level. Simon (1990) argued that a serious study of cognition must explore both the mind and the environment in which the mind interacts. Getting up close and personal, either directly or through reproducible and transparent research, shedding light on how animals navigate through their physical and social worlds, potentially offers a window into the human mind (Stevens, 2010).

Biomimicry uses an ecological standard to review the validity and reliability of our innovations. After billions of years of evolution, “nature has learned three fundamental principles: what works; what is appropriate and what lasts” (Alawad, 2014). Personally, I believe my time spent with the elephants facilitated more holistic thinking. I would benefit from experiencing beyond the ordinary, and explore new types of relationship and perspective, which would ignite a desire to “understand wholes, seek relevance, and strive to create the conditions that promote synergy” (Hall, 1994). More crucially, revealing the importance of understanding, over and above that of than just knowing. Whilst we can’t export all our learners to Thai elephant rescue camps, we can, using new technologies, and creative workshop design bring the detail of the social and cognitive lives of the elephant, or any other species for that matter, into our classrooms.

It’s been over a decade since I left the Thai camp, but my time living with elephants continues to influence. A spiritual yet grounding experience, it has helped inform how I learn, how I draw from the world, and extended personal boundaries of possibility. Something I could only wish for from “an education”.

Listening is not done by the ears, but by the mind. We hear sounds, but we listen to meanings” (Meissner, 2000, p319)

References

Alawad, A.A. (2014) ‘The impact of teaching biomimicry to enhance thinking skills for students of art education in higher education’, International Teacher Education, pp. 263-268.

Benyus, J. M. (2002) ‘Biomimicry: Innovation inspired by nature’ (3rd ed.). NY: Williams and Morrow & Co.

Carere, C. & Maesripieri, D. (eds) (2013) Animal personalities: behaviour, physiology, and evolution. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Costa, A. L & Kallick,B. (2000), ‘Habits of Mind: A Developmental Series’ (online). Available at: https://www.ccsnh.edu/sites/default/files/content/documents/CCSNH%20MLC%20HABITS%20OF%20MIND%20COSTA-KALLICK%20DESCRIPTION%201-8-10.pdf  [Accessed 25th April 2019].

Hall, W. M. (1994) ‘Thinking and Planning for the 21st Century, A holistic approach to thinking and planning’ (online). Available at: https://fas.org/irp/doddir/army/usfk_j2/think.htm [Accessed 25th April 2019].

Hart, B.L., Hart, L.A., McCoy, M., & Sarath, C.R. (2001) ‘Cognitive behaviour in Asian elephants: use and modification of branches for fly switching’, Animal Behaviour62 (5): pp. 839–847.

McGregor, S.L.T. (2013) ‘Transdisciplinarity and Biomimicry’, Transdisciplinary Journal of Engineering & Science, 4, December, 2013, pp. 57-65.

Meissner, W. (2000) ‘On analytic listening’, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 69, p.317-368.

Nichita, F. (2011) ‘On models of transdisciplinarity’,TransdisciplinaryJournal of Engineering & Science, 2 (December), pp. 42-46.

Nissani, M. (2008) ‘Elephant Cognition: A Review of Recent Experiments, Gajah: Journal of the IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group, 28, pp. 44-52.

Plotnik, J. M., Lair, R, Suphachoksahakun, W., & de Waal, F. B. M. (2011) ‘Elephants know when they need a helping trunk in a cooperative task’, PNAS108: pp. 5116–5121.

Simon H. A. (1990) ‘Invariants of human behaviour’, Annu. Rev. Psychol. 41, p. 1–20.

Stevens, J.R (2010) 0’The challenges of understanding animal minds’, Front. Psychol., 19 November 2010.

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