Author's note: This article was inspired by an educational conference at Brockwood Park School in August 2013, titled 'When is Teaching'. The lead speaker was Eleanor Duckworth, a recently retired Professor of Education at Harvard University. She is described in Wikipedia as 'a cognitive psychologist, educational theorist and constructivist educator'. She was a student of Jean Piaget. My favourite quote of hers is: 'Knowing the right answer requires no decisions, carries no overall risks and makes no demands. It is automatic. It is thoughtless'.
'What we have loved, others will love and we may teach them how.'
Environmental education is an ideal forum to put into practice some of the educational insights of Eleanor Duckworth (see note at the end of the article). Her discoveries, such as putting the student into direct contact with the subject matter so that it becomes the authority rather than the teacher, proposing dilemmas to create imaginative thinking and her 'democritization of ideas', all have important implications for environmental education [EE]. I would like to focus in this essay on the subject matter as the authority, in particular, the educational potential of 'nature as teacher'. But first I will introduce you to my interest in the subject and then go on to give a critique of current practice, finishing with some proposals for filling in what I feel may be gaps in the teaching and practice of EE.
Having been brought up on a farm but educated in my local town's public school in Canada, I felt intuitively that there must be more to education than preparation for the job market. I don't think Canada is alone in this. I watched my fellow students graduating with so-called 'good' degrees, going out into the world ecologically illiterate while orchestrating the investment and legislation that is ruining the planet. I began to feel that a 'good' education in the conventional sense was no guarantee of wisdom or prudence when it came to looking after our local landscapes, let alone the planet. Looking elsewhere for guidance, I read Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry and Krishnamurti. I sensed from them that there was an alternative to the present disconnect our education system has with the natural world, and that there may be a way to live in it without destroying it. Much time in my teens and twenties was spent in the wilds of rural Canada, gleaning what nature could teach me about living, about how I belong in the world and not how much of it belongs to me. Fifteen years were spent at Brockwood Park School in the UK, learning to garden and experimenting with teaching different forms of EE. For the last twenty years, I have been mostly gardening and restoring ecologically degraded land, and that has made me think that EE, more than ever, should have a central part to play in the modern curriculum. Still, EE has come a long way since the Rio Summit in 1992. Before then, the subject was a fringe one or a tag-on to biology and largely based along the lines of environmental science. Outdoor education, with its emphasis on recreational and adrenalin sports, was a separate, after- school activity. Third-world development was usually incorporated into geography. After Rio, the United Nations came up with Agenda 21, a prototype for sustainability that was to be practised at the local level and in education. Remember its catch phrase, 'Think globally act locally'? Thus an all-embracing idea under the banner of 'sustainability' inspired pedagogues to merge the disparate subjects of environmental science, development (within socio-economic and political contexts), outdoor education and conservation. EE had morphed into Environmental Education for Sustainability [EEFS] which is how it is taught in schools today. Quite a step forward, really.
Although now more holistic in its approach, EEFS has its critics, myself included. Much of this criticism is levelled at teachers as well as environmentalists in general. We are, for example, often seen by neo-liberalists as moralists and judgers restricting their freedom to live as they wish. We seem to only have bleak messages about the future. Our opinions are often rooted in anger, frustration and despair, thus turning some people off environmental issues and values. Teaching environmental education in politically influenced education systems such as here in the UK, where politicians of all the main parties insist that nature cannot be allowed to get in the way of economic growth, is a considerable challenge in itself.
Some of the questions I have regarding the teaching of EEFS echo these sentiments. For example, although there is broad agreement about the aims of sustainability, there is much dispute about the paths to it, depending on one's ideological and political value system. Are we teachers politically literate and balanced enough to bring awareness to the student about these different paths, and in so doing, avoid indoctrination? Do we confront, and go beyond, our own despair and guilt that accompanies the planet's ecological decline, rather than just bury our heads in the sand or blame others? Can teachers stray out of their own particular disciplines and embrace an interdisciplinary approach, incorporating EE into their own curricula, even without the confidence of knowing other subjects very well? Why does EEFS still remain largely issue-based, focusing on economic, political and technological solutions to our planetary crisis and neglecting the real battle which is over hearts and minds? Although each of these questions could warrant an essay in their own right, it is this last criticism I would like to focus on in this paper and where I think Duckworth's insights into education can be of value in EEFS. Put another way, students are taught to learn environmental issues in the classroom and comprehend our planet's plight intellectually, but shouldn't we, as their teachers, also find positive experiential ways of encouraging them to feel, to engage their emotions, by immersing themselves in the natural world, to be drawn in and experience affection and wonder for a place?
Nature as teacher
The metaphor 'nature as teacher' uses Duckworth's notion of putting the students directly in contact with the subject matter. Nature becomes the authority, and not the teacher's ideas about nature. The awareness that comes from a student's real experience outdoors, with gentle guidance and support from the teacher, will most often lead to that virtuous learning circle—direct observation, leading to seeking knowledge on the subject, to understanding the wider implications, to concern and a sense of responsibility and then on to action. The outcomes of that action will lead back to further observation and the learning circle begins again. Real knowledge grounded in observation unleashes the joy of learning and is thus self-sustaining.
An example to illustrate this could be to send students outside individually (since being alone activates the senses) to different parts of the campus or locality and record in a journal what they see, think and feel about what is around them. Ask them to bring back some natural materials to construct a small installation in the classroom that sums up and helps communicate their experience, whether positive, negative or ambiguous, to the rest of the class. In these sessions, comments that often arise are: 'I became more aware of my senses, especially listening', 'My thoughts distracted me from what was going on around me', 'I thought I would be bored, but for some reason I wasn't'. When listening to their own, and their fellow students', questions in a forum such as this, a learning community becomes established that is inclusive of the local wildlife.
Feeling at home in the outdoors with plants, insects, animals and beautiful places ought to become a normal part of students' daily experience and their affections. Beautiful places and their ecologies inspire feelings of love, awe, wonder, curiosity and a healthy concern and attachment to a place. All this in spite of their having to face some of their peers who think that nature is for geeks and softies!
I would like to add another example to illustrate how a subject matter can be absorbing in itself, integrating so many aspects of experiential environmental education. I am referring to the practice of gardening. By engaging with plants first-hand—planting seeds, nurturing growth and working the soil—students feel they are taking part in creation, in something larger than themselves. Gardening has its own discipline, which improves both the land and the student. It teaches a student patience, as it takes time between planting and harvest; it teaches humility, as it is a collaboration with nature and therefore a check on our hubris; it insists on the student being present (when slugs eat their lettuces they must face the garden as it is and not how they imagined it); it encourages care and open-heartedness, making space for other species to thrive (although not usually slugs!); it acquaints them with the necessity of death and decay and the recycling of nutrients. A garden is sometimes our most immediate contact with nature, especially in an urban setting. It is where a student's relationship with the natural world becomes real and not an abstraction.
The natural world has its own stories, often merged with ours over centuries. It is a shame that in our education system today the story-telling species (Homo sapiens) is neglecting to take full advantage of the possible narratives that can be found in a marriage between nature and human culture. Up to now, the mark of an educated person was to be a good citizen and to be successful in our economic system. It is not enough today, if it ever was. Our education from here onwards must stress that there is no civic or economic competence without ecological competence and a sense of responsibility to our localities and native landscapes. We think knowledge is power, but this explosion of knowledge in a digital age has produced a planet in crisis. Surely a central aim of education, the root of which comes from the Latin educare ('to draw out'), is to reveal to ourselves as teachers, and to our students, our innate affinity for life. All forms of life. We just need a catalyst. Nature teaches us what is important—the interconnectivity of everything and what our needs really are. They are beauty, wonder, passion and love. Sadly these words are still missing in the aims and objectives of most Environmental Education for Sustainability curricula.