We’re standing at the top of Mount Vesuvius. Our feet hurt. It’s been a long hard slog to get up here. But it was worth it. Oh yes, indeed. We peer over the rail, and into the crater. Steam is streaming out of the side. Trees cling precariously to the inner slopes. The smell of sulphur hangs in the air. When we turn around, we can see the Bay of Naples, spread out before us. The view is breathtaking. We are here. There’s a shop. (There’s always a shop.) We buy a box of volcanic rocks, and wonder at the strange colours and names. We feel the texture of the rocks with our fingers, and smell the vivid yellow Sulphur. Obsidian is our favourite. (Not only is it hard, and black, and shiny, but you can also use it to build a portal to hell in Minecraft.) As we circle the crater we talk about Pliny eruptions and pyroclastic flows. We discuss the difference between active, dormant and extinct volcanoes. And we wonder at the deadly power of nature, lying just beneath our feet.
Yesterday we wandered the streets of Pompeii. We stood silently, sadly, looking at the casts of bodies, a mother with her arms wrapped protectively around her child. We laughed together at the dog mosaic saying ‘Cave Canum’ (‘Beware of the Dog’). This afternoon we will stand in the town of Herculaneum, buried by volcanic mud when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79AD. We will see the skeletons of the people who waited at the beach to escape, an ancient shoreline that is now 20 metres below ground level. We will shiver as we think about the terror these people must have felt. Mount Vesuvius will stand dark on the skyline behind us. A glowering presence, reminding us of how insignificant we are.
We’ve read all about volcanoes in books. We knew the stories of Pompeii and Herculaneum before we got here. But this is real. We can see it, and smell it, and touch it. We can grasp how it must have felt to be here at the very moment that Mount Vesuvius erupted into life, raining death down on the helpless inhabitants of this place. This multi sensory experience will bury itself deep inside our memories. We will never forget this. We don’t need a test to check whether it has stuck. This is understanding in context. And that’s what I reckon learning looks like.
Not just the facts and the information, or the skills and the techniques (as important as those all are). But the senses, the emotions, the sheer nowness of it all. Sadly we can’t transport all our children to the top of Mount Vesuvius. But what we can do is interweave the knowledge we teach with artefacts, stories, drama, emotion, senses, experiences. We can add richness and depth and variety to learning, until it moves beyond facts on a page and erupts into messy, slippery, dangerous life. Until we find the nugget of Obsidian that inspires a child to learn. Until we are as close as we can damn well get to being there.