Nature in education and education in Nature

The past year has seen a surge of interest in what has been called ‘reconnecting with Nature’. It is a sign of our times that it has taken a pandemic of global proportions to bring about this surge of interest and greater recognition of the importance of Nature to our lives, health and well-being.

The one thing everyone in the UK has been allowed to do during lockdown has been to exercise once a day outdoors, and many people have spoken/written about how this has helped them to reconnect with Nature for the first time in many years. Last week I attended an online event which explored this need for re-connection.

The event was organised by  Invisible Dust  – “What will our view of nature bring to the future?” in which a panel of speakers explored the following questions:

  • What changes in how we see the natural world could lead to a brighter future?
  • Rather than seeing ourselves as separate from nature, might we see ourselves as a part of it – changing how we see non-human animals and our relationship to the natural world?
  • Can we move forward positively from the COVID-19 pandemic and act to reduce future risks?
  • What can we learn from the indigenous communities that have lived in harmony with nature rather than tried to conquer it?

The panel was made up of a diverse and very interesting group of people, who were all deeply committed to exploring these questions:

Danielle Celermajer, author of Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future

Milka Chepkorir, advocate for indigenous land rights from the Sengwer community.

Usman Haque, artist-architect and creative director at Umbrellium.

Iain McGilchrist, psychiatrist and author of The Master and his Emissary

Hosted by: Jessica Sweidan, founder of Synchronicity Earth and Patron of Nature for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature

The discussion started from the premise that we are now experiencing an ecological crisis in which our relationship with Nature is broken, and this is the root of some of our greatest problems. We are removed from the consequences of our actions and numb to the loss of our connection with Nature, but the paradox is that we, as human beings, have never been more connected, to each other, to other cultures, and to other ways of living.

Whilst panel members were coming from different perspectives, they all agreed that the heart of the problem is that we now think of Nature as something separate from ourselves, an exotic ‘Other’, something we use, something we are different from and superior to. We fail to recognise and acknowledge that there is no line between human beings and Nature. As McGilchrist said, We are Nature and Nature is us; we come out of Nature and we go back into Nature. Nature is not out there around us, but in us; it is something that is always being born. Milka Chepkorir, coming from the indigenous Sengwer community of Kenya, recognised this as a symbiotic relationship, saying that for her people there is no separation between Nature and people, and that we should know that if we harm Nature, then it will harm us. Indigenous people have not lost their connection with Nature, but are having to fight to maintain it. In a rather sad indictment of our education system, Milka said that in order to get her voice heard about this she had to get a recognised academic qualification for which she had to study what she and her people already knew! At one point she said that indigenous people don’t understand why the rest of the world don’t get it. Why don’t non-indigenous communities understand that Nature is in us and we are in Nature? The question of trust was raised in answer to this. How we can become more accepting of other cultures?

All agreed that we have to change the way we think to address the problem of disconnection from Nature. Usman Haque is just starting to work on The Eden Project in London, which aims to ‘rewild’ London; this would also involve ‘rewilding’ people! What an amazing idea! By this he meant that they would try and transform people’s relationships to each other and to non-human systems, and find ways to enable people to make a visible first step, such as growing things to eat, or bee keeping. These small individual steps would hopefully then grow into larger more collective actions.

There was a lot more in this discussion than I have mentioned here, and it is well worth watching the video of the whole event, not least because it is so enjoyable and uplifting to watch.

Of course, changing the ways people think is no easy matter, as Usman Haque mentioned, and it was recognised that education would play a key role in this.

It’s interesting that a brief look at the UK National Curriculum for schools doesn’t mention Nature in the science curriculum, but rather the environment. For example, in Year 1 Pupils should use the local environment throughout the year to explore and answer questions about plants growing in their habitat. McGilchrist does not like the word environment, which he believes reinforces the idea that we humans are somehow separate from the world, and the statement above does seem to emphasise the use of Nature. Pupils throughout school do of course study ecosystems and the interdependence of organisms, but I wonder if there is enough emphasis on our place as humans within Nature rather than separate from it, and I wonder whether a simple change of language, i.e. exchanging the word environment, for the word Nature might kick-start a change in awareness. The language we use is so powerful in influencing the way we attend to the world.

There are of course many projects which are being developed in the hope of helping people to reconnect with Nature. In my local area, there is the Morecambe Bay Curriculum (part of the Eden Project North), which aims to work with local schools to develop a unique educational tool to help unite and inspire the next generation in terms of our natural history and the immense environmental challenges we face as a society. But projects such as these will need to go beyond thinking of Nature as something ‘Other’ if we are to overcome the current ecological crisis. Studying Morecambe Bay or any other aspect of Nature from a distance, or from within a walled classroom, will not foster an understanding of Nature being in us and we being in Nature. Hopefully the Morecambe Bay Curriculum project, and others like it, will involve a lot of hands-on time in Nature. One of the richest educational experiences I have ever had was a week long field trip to Seahouses (North-East England) for my ‘A’ level Biology course.

Source of photo: https://www.trekearth.com/gallery/Europe/United_Kingdom/England/Northumberland/Seahouses/photo199218.htm

This involved days of peering into rock pools, and studying every imaginable aspect of the seashore. It was magical. This experience was more than 50 years ago, but it greatly influenced my relationship with Nature, and I still have the book in which I pressed the seaweeds I collected for identification purposes at that time.

The Invisible Dust event panel members were optimistic that people haven’t lost the ability to love and feel connected with Nature. Let’s hope so.

2 thoughts on “Nature in education and education in Nature

  1. Ron Scapp March 17, 2021 / 2:19 pm

    Dear Jenny,
    I do so hope this comment finds its way to you. I just encountered your wonderful work and ideas moments ago. And, I will return to “jenny connected” later on today to read more.
    My name is Ron Scapp. I’m the Ron who has a dialogue with bell hooks in her book Teaching to Transgress. Although I must rush off to perform some daily tasks, I just wanted to say hello, and how lucky I feel to have encountered such a wonderful and powerful thinker.
    With Respect and In Solidarity,
    Ron
    ronscapp@gmail.com

  2. jennymackness March 18, 2021 / 9:52 am

    Dear Ron,

    What a lovely surprise to receive this affirming message. Thank you so much for your kind words.

    I very much enjoyed the chapter, Building a Teaching Community, in bell hooks’ book – Teaching to Transgress, in which she records a conversation you had with each other. A great example of how people from different backgrounds can meet each other across boundaries. I loved this comment you made, ‘To prove your academic seriousness, students should be almost dead, quiet, asleep, not up excited, and buzzing, lingering around the classroom.’ bell hooks wrote this book in 1994 and hopefully there are fewer classrooms like this now than there were then, but maybe not.

    I look forward to following you and learning more about your work.

    Best wishes,

    Jenny

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