Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Crows Talking, Tacit Knowing

Crows Talking (M.A. Reilly, 2011)

I made the image above last summer while out walking.  A cawing, polyphonic nasal sound, caught my ear and had me turning toward it, camera lifting simultaneously, shutter whirling.  Between trees, green with summer, two crows sat on a large branch in the thick of the woods talking.  Between us: an exchange of energy. At that moment, I knew more than I could say.


Later, as I walked on I wondered if perhaps they were mates or neighbors--what they might have been talking about.  Crows, like us, are social beings.


I've always found crows fascinating: these birds whose vocal range is so significant. At 8 I entered a crow calling contest, surprising my family, as we were passing through a town and had stopped for lunch and in the town center there was a small autumn festival happening and on the posted schedule was a crow calling contest and I signed on.  My family cheered me.  I only knew the "caw-caw" of the bird and sounded it loudly--and was even more delighted to hear the other contestants make their varied sounds. They helped me to know that voice of the crow is varied, beautiful.  All the way home I looked for crows and made crow sounds.


Regardless of living in a city, suburb or rural space--crows have always been a backdrop to wherever I've lived--be it the hooded crow found in Ireland or the black crow I've come to better know here in the States.


Like the humans I joined who imitated the crow, so too have crows been known to imitate human voice. In Gifts of the Crow, John Marzluff (2012) describes a situation in which a crow rounded up local dogs by calling to the dogs in a human sounding voice, "Here, boy. Good dog." The crow lead dogs to a nearby college campus, gathering them beneath a tree. When the students let out of classes, the crow flew low with the dogs following it and their movement disrupted the students as they made their way across a large green, dislodging lunches in the process. The crow returned to eat. A trickster, for sure.

A Chance of Crows (M.A. Reilly, 2011)

Crows, like many songbirds, sing to define their territories and to attract mates.  But crows also interact with regular neighbors, engaging in sustained social relationships. 


Like crows, we too seek to make meaning--to frame and figure out problems, to talk our way in and out of ideas, hunches, and relationships.


Do birds dream?  Songbirds, like crows, do. They rehearse their songs in sleep.

On birds and dreaming: "During undisturbed sleep...The neurons spontaneously fired the same complex song production patterns in bursts. Interestingly, these activity patterns were at slight variance, as if the bird was rehearsing a variety of slightly different songs, sometimes with slower or faster tempos." (from here).


Here's an idea: Take one field. Add some children. Add some crows.

There's so much to know and (un)know through observation that I wonder why we don't make it a main activity of school.  Keenly watching and at times using tools to help us notice and understand what we notice is the stuff of conjecture, theory making, composing, experimenting, and insight.  It helps us code and fail to code.


There's so much one can and does learn that expressing the 'totality' of it in neatly and logically written standards is rather foolish and dangerous especially when coupled with a manic desire to test public school children constantly and narrowly.  We need to consider Robert Frost and the advice from the speaker of his poem, "Mending Wall" who has this to say about boundaries:
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
The very things that are 'walled in and out' through our understanding of standards, Common or otherwise, may be the necessary keys to learning for some.


Knowing is embodied in learners, their social networks, and in the processes and things that they create. Tacit knowing is the stuff we cannot list or code.  Much of that uncoded knowledge is systematically being diminished from school experiences, as what counts as content is what can be found on lists of things to know via standards. In our hyper attention to standards and the tests that measure students' acquisition of these coded bits of information, what will become of embodied learning?


Think about the crows who sat on the limb of the tree, calling.  I didn't know what their calls meant at the time or what that scene remembered might mean again and again or how such knowing might find expression.  I could not have anticipated you, dear reader.  It was a nothing moment, and one that was and is ripe with possibility.

Like learning, lifting the camera to make a moment was part reflex, part faith, part cooperation, and part coding. 



What might it mean for the generation coming of age if the majority of things we teach them to value are limited to that which can be coded?  What might our children learn about intuition, cooperation, community as knowledge?

Might we be teaching them to turn away from hunches, from self, from other? 

Omen (M.A. Reilly, 2011)


  1. ah... love this:

    At that moment, I knew more than I could say.

  2. That might be the point of the CCSS--to create drones instead of persons who know themselves and have a voice...
    Beautifully written as always. I will send part of this to President Obama.


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