Interview with Alton Biggs

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Today’s post is an interview with career educator, Alton Biggs. Born and raised in McKinney, Texas, he has spent most of his life and career based in north central Texas. Over his career, he has taught high school sciences in Princeton, McKinney, and Allen school districts. He has been an educational and testing consultant since the 1980s. He has been recognized by dozens of different schools and educational organizations for excellence in education and leadership. When he was my teacher, he organized a multidisciplinary experiential learning course in biology, geology, and sociology with selected students taught in Big Bend National Park in west Texas. I was fortunate to be a part of that week-long course and am honored to be able to present and interview we had recently.

I hope that his knowledge of experiential education, coupled with his vast experience traveling the globe (he’s visited every continent!) will inform and entertain. So, without further ado…

SM: Hello, Alton. Can you tell us a little about your career as an educator?

AB: My professional career began as a nature counselor and eventually as a hiking and nature coordinator at Camp Greylock for Boys in Becket, Massachusetts where I began to work in the summers while enrolled in classes at East Texas State University, now Texas A&M University-Commerce.

Upon graduation, I spent two years at Princeton High School in Princeton, Texas, a very small district near McKinney, my hometown. There I taught physical science, chemistry and physics. I don’t know who preceded me, but I don’t think a lot of teaching occurred. I had students win the state UIL contests in science and slide rule, national science fair students, etc. Some of my students there were gifted, but the district had never provided them opportunities to reach their potential.

Then I did a “Welcome Back, Cotter” year at Caldwell Middle School in McKinney. There I taught middle school life science and eighth grade math. Some of those students still remember some of our activities and field trips.

The bulk of my career, 26 years, was spent at Allen High School in Allen, Texas. Allen was a small school at the time, with fewer than four hundred students for the first few years. I was the science chairperson and taught biology and AP biology most years. During that time, however, I also taught sections of physical science, chemistry, environmental science and meteorology. For the most part, I had supportive administrators, superintendents and boards of education. I was allowed and encouraged to work “outside the box.” That was good, because I never liked coloring in the lines. Again, many of students exceled in a variety of fields once they graduated.

While teaching in the public schools, I also taught at a couple of community colleges and after I retired from teaching in the public schools I taught a couple of courses at community colleges and the University in Commerce. Also while teaching, I began an educational consulting company in 1985 and to author textbooks, first for Merrill Publishing in 1988. Merrill was purchased by Glencoe, which was then purchased by McGraw-Hill. All of my textbooks, both middle school science and high school biology, have been successful at the national and international levels. In short, I’ve had a very blessed career and life.

SM: Give us an example of how you have used an experiential approach to engaging your students in what can be, to a novice, rather dry material.

AB: Two main methods of experiential or “hands-on, minds-on” activities were used throughout my career in every course that I taught. One of these, laboratory activities (often inaccurately referred to as “experiments” was used with consistency. Field experiences, or field trips as they are called interchangeably, were not used as often because of the length of time in class on a daily basis and the logistics of the undertaking.

In physics, for example, a laboratory activity might include measuring light reflection and refraction using mirrors, various lenses, straight edges and protractors, etc. None of the results were known to students as they manipulated these pieces of equipment, some of which could be quite complex. On the other hand, all of the results were known to the instructor beforehand as they represented actual classic experiments that may have occurred decades or centuries earlier. The important point is that students learned from manipulation of equipment and data collection general rules that were well-known.

Laboratory activities and student-conceived and student-run experiments can also be used, but they almost always build upon what has previously been learned from other activities. In the case of actual experiments, students are given various pieces of equipment or are allowed to develop ideas on their own. In such cases, outcomes may be guessed, but are not known by the instructor. Therefore, students must become more independent and simply report and describe their results as scientists everywhere do every day.

Field experiences are even better teaching tools than laboratory activities and student-designed experiments. In the school setting, field experiences may be as simple as taking a class of students from the classroom into the meadow, creek, or wooded areas nearby. The wonder of the natural world is opened to students in ways that cannot be done in the classroom. Probably the most useful field experiences I had students do involved field trips to Port Aransas, Texas, Chickasaw National Recreation Area, Oklahoma and Big Bend National Park, Texas. These trips lasted from four to nine days and allowed students to study various natural parameters including water chemistry and ecology of several very different ecosystems. Although some of these trips occurred more than half a century ago until around 1997, students invariably want to reminisce about what they learned from these experiences than from any classroom lecture.

SM: Based on your experiences with hands-on learning programs, do you see potential parallel opportunities for teaching underprivileged populations to be more self-reliant through a self-managed food supply?

AB: Hands-on learning is probably not the most efficient means to teach. However, I think it is likely to be regarded in the future as the most important and long-lasting of any teaching method. No one has yet convinced me that the status of the population, whether living in poverty or wealth, makes a whit of difference in how people are taught. Clearly those populations with higher incomes have some opportunities that poorer populations don’t. There will always be an unequal distribution of wealth, academic resources, funding, books and technologies. Populations living without such resources tend to be historically disadvantaged and oppressed when it comes to such things, but as a former professor once taught me, “Intelligence is equally dispersed in the population.” Since this is true, there is no force that demands that individuals or populations will do better or worse under any particular condition. Qualified and experienced teachers can be an advantage, but we all know of individuals, or even groups, that have overcome such hardships. I’m of the opinion that all individuals can learn. Hands-on experiences provide a platform for learning that is difficult to beat. Given hands-on experiences it is my belief that populations can become more self-reliant.

Now you are absolutely correct when you assert that a self-managed food supply goes a long way to lifting one out of underprivileged circumstances. We see this, of course, with food when groups are taught methods of sustainable agriculture for their particular area. But we also see it when groups are taught ways to make money at a level that will allow them to purchase food and other basic necessities. In this case, I’m thinking particularly of women in societies that oppress them. When they are provided ways to make a living – or even contribute to the family making a better living – the challenges that face them tend to dissipate. I don’t want to get into social issues here, but higher incomes allow women to take control of their own bodies, and this will eventually be better for the individual women and the entire population in which they live. 

SM: What challenges do you see to teaching people to be more self-reliant?

AB: Well, the challenges to self-reliance are real and they are vast. Many appear intractable at first sight. African populations often come to mind, but there are isolated problems throughout the world. Perhaps in Africa, Tanzania is a good example of a country that has many of the problems that I see as the challenges to which you refer.

Tanzania’s recent population statistics show it to be a young country, with a very large proportion of the population aged from 15 to 35 years old. This is greater than 30% of the total populations. Efforts to improve the agricultural production and productivity of the country have had mixed outcomes. Engaging the youth – those who have the greatest potential to enhance agricultural development – often fails. Instead of using the information provided to be self-reliant using newly learned agricultural techniques, they often migrate to urban areas as they seek jobs, but this only exacerbates the problems of the rural and the urban areas involved. When I visited the country, I observed that most people, especially the young generation which represent the future farmers of the country, have negative attitudes towards agriculture. This is true even though agriculture – even subsistence agriculture – is the backbone of the country’s economy and offers opportunities for a better life. Less than 6% of young people complete a university and enter the labor force in formal employment.

So, the percent of people who lift themselves out of poverty through education is staggeringly low. Apparently there is a disconnect in the education system, leaving young people with a lack of ability to transfer their formal educational training to real life situations that are necessary to allow them to be self-employed and self-reliant. Even though Tanzania enacted and implemented an “education for self-reliance” policy was in schools, with few exceptions, it failed.Some would blame this on poor economic support, but I had a superintendent (who is one of the brightest educators I have ever met) who once told me, “The root problem of education is never money.” That tidbit comes first as a shock, but then when one considers that the root problem of education is educators and their training, we see that it is not the money. It doesn’t cost that much to produce a good educator, but it does take training and people who aspire to do the work, to answer a calling to allow others to reach their potential. A single such teacher can make a tremendous difference, even in a country that doesn’t appear reachable. I have used Tanzania as an example, but any country, state, or even region that is experiencing such problems can turn around given trained educators whose goal is to inspire their learners.

SM: You told me that you have very little experience in the area of permaculture, sustainable agriculture and the like. If I came to you and said, “Alton, I know you know how to teach. How would you start to design a program where we could literally teach anybody to learn to use principles of sustainable agriculture to help better their life?” What would you tell me?

AB: I would begin with a few seeds of plants that are known to thrive in a given area. The seeds would be planted by the learners in a demonstration garden that would be cared for by the learners. Then I’d set up a method by which learners could grow some protein. That might be chickens, fish, rabbits, or some other animal. Production of plants for the animals and people, combined with teaching about cycles in ecosystems would be the basis for everything.

This would not be a short-term educational program. It would begin at the lowest grade levels, even at the toddler stage of life, and continue throughout the formal learning process. All curricula would be tied back to making it possible for sustained growth of the ecological system. It would be easy to include math, language, history, science, and literature into this curriculum. My guess is that many more students would be inspired by their own learning, directed by a few teachers who care. I’m convinced that inspiration comes more from a caring teacher than from any lesson any teacher might teach. I could go into much more detail about which subject area to teach at which level, but I think a broad framework designed locally by the individual teachers, perhaps with a little outside guidance would be better. Such a system could be scaled up and adapted for any population anywhere.

SM: You have literally traveled every continent and have met and talked with some great minds in the field of science education. Is there any consensus between the people you’ve talked to about the obvious and not-so-obvious threats we see to the environment?

AB: It’s clear that many scientists and educators in fields as diverse as ecology, geology and meteorology have reached a consensus that climate change – often referred to as global warming (erroneously, I’d say) – is occurring at a more rapid rate than at any time since the last ice age. Concomitant with changes in climate come changes in species and populations. Species are disappearing more rapidly than at any time since the end of the Cretaceous, more than 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs died. Surely some of these changes must be natural, for species have come and gone throughout geological history and Earth’s climates have warmed and cooled throughout time – all without the intervention of humans. The real question, one that I don’t think has been answered with any certainty – except in the minds of some – is whether the present changes are the result of human population growth and our carbon inputs. My own guess is that we’ve rated ourselves too highly in the production of these problems.

SM: In your travels, have you seen any good examples of countries where people had a strong tradition of living off the land while preserving the land they occupied?

AB: Cuba is a small country that lies not far off the coast of the United States. Visitors to Cuba feel that they’ve traveled back in time when they first see the small tobacco and vegetable farms, free-range chickens and other animals. Particularly eye-opening is seeing these farms worked using teams of oxen on the smallest of plots. Farming populations in Japan and China in Asia, and Ecuador, Peru and Argentina in South America all have such a tradition. Some of these populations have lived off the land with small agricultural plots. In Japan and China, large numbers of people still tend rice fields by hand just as they have done for generations. Ecuador and Peru grow more than a hundred varieties of potatoes and many other varieties of maize that we do not normally see here in the United States. Argentinians produce crops include soybeans, wheat, maize, grapes, sunflower seeds, sugar cane, and apples on small to quite large farms, while also being known for their production of cattle, milk, and chickens. The quality and size of steaks in Argentina amazes any American that visits. In all of these examples, the land and its resources have been preserved.

SM: I’ve heard some of your stories from your travels and you have some amazing stuff to tell. Do you recall anything from your recent travels that you remember particularly vividly?

AB: I’ll tell you three things, and I’ll try to keep them brief. Each occurred on a different continent.

A few years ago I was fortunate to visit Antarctica for the second time. I traveled with my wife, a former student and his wife, and a textbook consultant friend and her husband – along with approximately one hundred others. I’d previously visited in the fall of 2002 and I was surprised to see the decline of several penguin colonies and the melting of large areas that had previously been covered by ice.

I’ve visited France a few times, all with my wife who is an artist. So, any time I’m in a “civilized” country as my wife likes to call them, I’m required to visit an inordinate number of art museums and cathedrals. Everyone was saddened by the recent fire that decimated much of Notre Dame Cathedral, and one of my most vivid memories was made before the fire. It taught me that the world in which we live is a very small place, indeed – even with nearly 8 billion people. We were in the Treasury, an inner sanctum of the cathedral, viewing the beautiful artifacts, when my wife nudged me in the side and asked if I knew the women a few feet behind us and across the room. I looked and told her I didn’t know them. She told me, “Well, they know you.” Looking back again, I quietly denied knowing either of them. A minute or two later, there was a tap on my shoulder and one of the two women asked, “Are you Alton Biggs?” I never expected to be recognized nearly five thousand miles from home by two biology teachers who were using a textbook I coauthored.

Last summer I was able to lead a trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands for the Texas Association of Biology Teachers, my eleventh visit (the first having been for coursework taken at my alma mater). What are the chances that I’d be recognized nearly 2,500 miles from home by two different people? The chances were 100%, as one was a guide who’d taken me on her first professional tour and another was a traveler who’d been with me on a previous visit. I took my almost teenage grandson, his mother, and my wife. Watching this new world through my grandson’s eyes was something I will never forget.

SM: Thanks, Alton. It’s been a great pleasure to have you share with us today.

AB: Thanks, Sean.


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