by David Wright
For a little over 20 years I have worked as an educator in a university based Social Ecology department. Here considerable attention is paid to the construction of ecological understanding and, in association, the ‘learning ecology’ of both students and (Hill, Wilson & Watson 2004; Wright & Hill, 2011). This is central to our process. We argue that it is one thing to observe ‘an ecology’, it is another to understand one’s self as part of it. Capra (1966), who has made a significant contribution to applying this thinking to education, draws on Maturana and Varela (1992), to describe this as ‘bringing forth our world’. With this in mind, our students are invited to pursue understanding through real world practice, self-reflection and creative, academic writing.
As an illustration of the context for this study, I quote ‘Anne’, a primary school teacher and a recent graduate of our Social Ecology program.
Before [I did the Master of Education: Social Ecology course] I didn’t have [an integrated] understanding… Ecology was a separate thing… I see everything in [connected] terms now. I see it in our relationship with the world, how our relationship with each other impacts upon the world around us… I look at the ecology of the classroom, because you see a shift when someone is away… The class… I see it as a body, an organism made of many bodies…. And I see the staff like that also… So yes… my understanding has changed totally (Personal communication, July 24, 2012).
Anne’s response demonstrates personal and social insight as well as insight into her work as an educator. She notes benefits to her work and benefits to her life outside of her work and she identifies this in relation to ‘the world’. I am excited by her analysis and keen to understand how insights of this kind can permeate education more fully. This is more than a response to an environmental problem. It is a response to ‘our’ circumstance: a social-ecological point in time, in which we are all participants (Wright, Camden-Pratt & Hill, 2011).
I argue therefore that ecological epistemologies can offer a considerable amount to the practice of education. The influence of Bateson’s thinking (1972, 1979; Harries-Jones, 1995) can be seen in constructivist approaches to learning, most particularly in radical constructivism (von Glasersfeld, 1996), where it is argued that the construction of understanding (or learning) is an individual experience built around reflection upon systems of relationship. Maturana and Varela (1992) extend this through theories of systemic self-organisation and autopoiesis. Autopoiesis (or self-making) draws on the biology of cognition to argue a process based understanding of experience, from the perspective of the participant. Varela (1999) extends this through further work on ‘enaction’, which identifies embodied experience as a generator of emergent knowledge. Such knowledge, Varela argues, creates consequences, for which responsibility must be taken. Capra (1996) captures such thinking in his discussion of the way in which we bring forth our world. Sterling (2003) argues this as the basis of a paradigm shift in education and an emerging ecological worldview.
In his work with the Centre for Eco-literacy (Stone & Barlow, 2005), Capra calls for education systems that learn from and reflect the workings of self-organising systems. He notes, “at all scales of nature, we find living systems nesting within other living systems – networks within networks” (1996, p.24). These living systems include schools. An ecological worldview draws attention to inter-relationships within a system. It does so from the perspective of those within that system, rather than that of detached ‘objective’ experts. Bowers (1999, 2011) describes this as ‘ecological intelligence’: the intelligence of the systems – including human systems of thought and action – that sustain the organization of life. He argues that the transition from individual to ecological intelligence should be a major focus in education.
The challenge will be for education professors, as well, as their colleagues in other departments, to recognize how the patterns of thinking they now equate with progress and enlightenment contribute to the ecological crisis, and to make the radical shift in consciousness that is required (Bowers 1999, p. 170).
In predicating ‘the local’ as central within such learning Bowers emphasizes local communities, local histories and local environmental practices. He argues the importance of examining the local in terms of its sustainability. This can be known better Bowers suggests, through greater awareness of place based culture, tradition and ‘elder knowledge’. This calls up the values and experience of traditional and indigenous communities and challenges the assumptions and practices of colonial cultures. Immersive experience in nature-based learning is a vehicle for such learning (Sobel, 1996). Sobel argues, “we teach too abstractly, too early” (p.5). Grunewald (2003) also seeks to build a critical consciousness of the ways in which place permeates schooling. He challenges educators to recognise and utilise place-based pedagogies. In doing so he cites Wendell Berry.
Properly speaking, global thinking is not possible. Those who have “thought globally” [and among them have been imperial governments and multinational corporations] have done so by means of simplifications too extreme and oppressive to merit the name of thought… Unless one is willing to be destructive on a very large scale, one cannot do something except locally, in a small place (Berry cited in Grunewald, 2003, pp. 633-634).
These issues of systems thinking, criticality, the perspective of the participant, reflection, responsibility, ‘the local’, nature-based and place-based learning, indigenous perspectives and imaginative and emotional engagement in the construction of relationship are core elements in an ecological understanding of education. Much literature suggests that these can be linked and interwoven very effectively (Stone & Barlow, 2005; Smith & Williams, 1999; Saylan & Blumstein, 2011; O’Sullivan & Taylor, 2004; Judson, 2010). This thinking is applied and reflected upon in a research project that looks at ecological understanding in a selection of Australian and North American schools (Wright 2013). It is also discussed in relation to the use of drama as a teaching methodology in two recent book chapters (Wright 2015a, 2015b).
Bateson, G. (1972) Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Ballantine Books.
Bateson, G. (1979) Mind and nature. New York: Bantam Books.
Bowers, C.A. Changing the dominant cultural perspective in education, In Smith, G.A. & Williams, D.R. (eds) (1999) Ecological education in action. Albany NY: SUNY Press.
Bowers, C.A. (2011) Perspectives on the ideas of Gregory Bateson, ecological intelligence and educational reforms. Eugene, OR: Eco-Justice Press.
Capra, F. (1996) The web of life. London: Harper Collins.
Grunewald, D.A. (2003) Foundations of place: A multidisciplinary framework for place-conscious education. In American Educational Research Journal, Vol 40:3.
Harries Jones, P. (1995) Ecological understanding and Gregory Bateson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Hill, S.B. Wilson, S. and Watson, K. Learning ecology. A new approach to learning and transforming ecological consciousness. In O’Sullivan, E. & Taylor, M. (2004) Learning towards an ecological consciousness. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Judson, G. (2010) A new approach to ecological education. New York. NY: Peter Lang,
Maturana, H. and Varela, F. (1992) The tree of knowledge Boston MA: Shambhala.
Saylan, C. & Blumstein, D.T. (2011) The failure of environmental education. Berkely CA: University of California Press.
Sobel, D (1996) Beyond ecophobia: Reclaiming the heart in nature education. Barrington MA: The Orion Society.
Smith, G.A. & Williams, D.R. (eds) (1999) Ecological education in action. Albany NY: SUNY Press.
Sterling, S. (2003) Whole system thinking as a basis for paradigm change in education: Explorations in the context of sustainability. University of Bath: Unpublished PhD.
Stone, M.K. & Barlow, Z. (eds) (2005) Ecological literacy. San Francisco CA: Sierra Club Books.
O’Sullivan, E. & Taylor, M. (2004) Learning towards an ecological consciousness. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
Varela, F.J. (1999) Ethical know-how. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press.
von Glasersfeld, E (1996) Radical constructivism: A way of knowing and learning. London UK: Falmer Press
Wright, D. & Hill, S. Introduction. In Wright, D., Camden-Pratt, C. & Hill, S. (2011) Social Ecology: Applying ecological understanding to our lives and our planet. Stroud, UK: Hawthorn Press.
Wright, D., Camden-Pratt, C. & Hill, S. (2011) Social Ecology: Applying ecological understanding to our lives and our planet. Stroud, UK: Hawthorn Press.
Wright, D. (2013) Schooling ecologically: An inquiry into teachers’ ecological understanding in ‘alternative’ schools. Australian Journal of Environmental Education Vol. 29: 2.
Wright, D. (2015a) Drama & ecological understanding: Stories of learning. In Anderson, M. & Roche, C. (eds) The state of the art: teaching drama in the 21st century. Sydney, NSW: Sydney University Press. ISBN 9781743320273.
Wright, D. (2015b) Drama and ecological understanding: reflections upon ecology, performance, place and indigenous knowledge systems. In Linds, W. & Vettraino, E. (eds.) Playing in a house of mirrors: Applied theatre as reflective practice. Sense Publishers.
Dr David Wright is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at Western Sydney University, Australia. He is also the Academic Course Advisor for the Master of Education (Social Ecology) program at the university.