What can schoolchildren learn at the zoo? A lot!

Several of the children in the junior school group were on their very first visit to the London Zoo. "What do you think there are most of here at the zoo?" the lecturer (actually Michael Boorer, director of the zoo's education office) asked them as soon as they got into the lecture hall seats.A pause, and even from the back row the twinkle in his eye was noticeable:

"People."

He was certainly correct. what a popular spot! There were dozens of school groups, most of which had some target area in mind, and most were asking their youngsters to fill out work sheets. And hundreds of adults as well.

But work time is short, and the majority of the zoo visit is an exploration for curious youngsters looking at even more curious animals, birds, and reptiles.

I talked with Mr. Boorer about what he did (and didn't do) for school groups. He was quick to assure me that the zoo's very popularity caused it to be in a mass-production market, affording very little actual instruction.

At the same time, he feels it is imperative that some learning take place, and if he has one goal, it is to get the children (and their teachers) to see the zoo animals as perfect in and of themselves.

He explained that this is particularly true of the primates -- apes, monkeys, gorillas, etc. The children tend to think of them as "deformed," or imperfect. And he feels it most important that they should learn to appreciate that they are, in fact, just as perfect as the children looking at them.

This brings forth discussions and the drawing of attention to special characteristics of all the various animals.

During the very short introduction to reptiles, for example, we learned about the backbone (by looking at the shell of of terrapin) and we learned about their special breathing apparatus.

We learned, too, that we people had to eat a great deal to keep our individual central heating system going full tilt all the time, no matter what the outside temperature, but that reptiles didn't have a central heating system and hence didn't have to eat as much or need to move about as much.

A delightful bit of humor concerned the world's record for being eaten by a huge snake, held by an 11-year-old -- and were there any 12-year-olds in the room ready to try for that record?

On the sheets is a good question: "Do snakes have their biggest scales on their backs or under their bodies?" And another size question: "Are the back legs of crocodiles and alligators the same size or bigger than their front legs?"

Because the zoo is so very popular with school groups, and because the education staff is small (four), it works out the programs, sets the age groups, and sets up slide-tape introductions to get the thinking going in specific directions.

Sometimes a lecturer will meet a group at a certain time at a specific location and give the lecture on the spot; other times the teachers will follow up the lecture; and on some occasions a lecturer will actually travel with a school group.

And yes, serious students of biology, botany, zoology, and so forth, particularly those doing projects for exam preparation, can ask the education department for specific sorts of help.

Some of the more serious school groups might have two hours of instruction in the morning and two in the afternoon, after extensive reading and observations on their own.

But Mr. Boorer does not believe much can happen on a trip to the zoo, particularly when it is conceived of as an "outing" by the teacher, accompanying parents, and the children.

Then he concluded our session by noting that "education is a matter of slight influences here and there."

From what I could tell the group I joined for a time, that "slight influence" was deeply at work -- thanks, in part, to the provocative introduction in the lecture hall.

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