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Social Ecology: Applying ecological understanding to learning June 26, 2011

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Education Policy and Politics, Educational Leadership.
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from Dr David Wright

This is a very welcome contribution from one of our social ecology academics, following on from a previous post from Stuart Hill. In this post David Wright argues that alongside the minutiae of thinking about education and learning there is an ongoing need for ‘big picture’ thinking. He reports that, in the tradition of social ecology, “this post unashamedly falls into that second category”.

At the core of education is ‘relationship’: learners’ relationships to subject matter and the process of its delivery. Deeply embedded within this is the ‘self’ the learner brings to the learning. The factors that determine that ‘self’ are intimately bound to biology and experience. This arises in a habitat through which we are constantly constructing meaning: this meaning is, in effect, our learning. This is the story we, individually and collectively, live through. When our story no longer sustains us – emotionally, politically, economically or otherwise – there is a need to change the story. Climate change, species extinction, and resulting conflicts over land, water and energy suggest there are crucial elements within our collective story that need reconsideration. In this respect Edmund O’Sullivan (2011) argues we “need new cultural stories of … power and complexity … These stories must have the power to activate the possibilities for transforming our world” (p. 32).

This thinking informs a new publication – a book: Social Ecology: Applying ecological understanding to our lives and our planet (Wright, D., Camden-Pratt, C. & Hill, S. eds. 2011) emanating from the School of Education in the University of Western Sydney (UWS). The book, comprising 27 chapters by people who have influenced or been influenced by the Social Ecology program taught at UWS since 1988, will be used by Education students – future teachers – in units in the Education Studies major in their BA as well as adult learners enrolled in postgraduate studies in Social Ecology.

‘Ecological understanding’ is a concept that extends the more familiar term ‘environmental education’, (which has come to refer to a subject, one among many, in a crowded curriculum). While ecology refers to studies of the relations of organisms to one another and their surroundings, ecological understanding, as described by Bateson (1972, 1979), admits self-reflective consciousness to the process. ‘What we observe’, wrote Heisenberg, ‘is not nature, but nature exposed to our questioning’ (cited in Capra 1996: 40). He could just as easily have said, ‘what we participate in’ or ‘what we partake of’. This is practical knowing – knowledge that is “not individually derived and held but … generated in relationships with others.” (O’Sullivan and Taylor 2004: 21)

Our understanding of our participation in what Bateson calls, ‘the pattern which connects’ (1979:8) is our subject matter here, as it is in Social Ecology. But how is this understanding arrived at and enacted? How is it learned? How is it taught? Directly and indirectly, the writings in this book trawl such questions.

For example, Barry Bignell (Ch.6.) writes of the importance of understanding how language forms knowledge. Bignell argues that because we know ourselves through language, literacy involves much more than reading and writing. It involves appreciation for the formation of knowledge through language. It involves understanding how cultural difference has a languaging base and considering what occurs, ecologically, when languages change and/or are lost.

Christy Hartlage (Ch. 21) writes of food as generating ecological understanding. She argues that we consume our culture and our environment, that “we make meaning of the world around us through the community that is fed around the table.” She continues, “I have never heard anyone say that they don’t have time to make money. Yet we often say that we do not have time to cook, sometimes we don’t have time to eat, or we rush through meals to get on to more important things. How can we help but become detached from the places and people around us if we cannot pay attention to how we feed our bodies?”

Thomas Nielsen (Ch. 15) is also concerned with how people understand relationships. He examines this through considerations on the process of ‘giving’: “… the advantage of a hands-on approach to developing generosity, empathy and compassion is that this can happen without moralizing. Through giving to others, children can experience wonderful subtle emotions that would never come about through theoretical learning alone.”

Roslyn Arnold (Ch. 16) writes directly of ways in which new understandings form new ways of learning: “In transformative experiences, pathways of possibility have been opened in the mind and with care and confidence those pathways remain accessible to further possibilities. In an iterative process whereby the remembrance of past transformative experiences and hope co-operate to generate confidence and expectation, new learning which might otherwise be unremarkable, becomes significant.”

An example of this is found in Carol Birrell’s (Ch. 22) description of her experience while travelling the Kimberly, in the company of traditional landowners, of entering deeply into ‘indigenous ways of being’. Birrell argues, “if one desires to sit comfortably with this land, surely one needs to surrender to the land in its own terms.”

There is insufficient space to summarise the contents of the collection here. While this post is an exhortation to buy the book, it is also an encouragement to imagine the transformation necessary to enable our children to grow into a sustainable eco-system: a system sustained by appreciation for that which is required to live with respect for the physical universe that is – and has been for thousands of years – the foundation of our culture and learning.

We are living, O’Sullivan (Ch. 2) asserts, in a “watershed period of history”. He argues, “the educational framework appropriate for movement into this postmodern period must be visionary and transformative and clearly must go beyond the conventional educational outlooks that we have cultivated for the last several centuries.”

This is not an argument that is technology averse. Rather it requires that the assumptions that form and inform technology be examined. “Understanding how memory works helps us understand how tribe, city and civilisation work” (Fell Ch. 12).

Central to such an education is ecological understanding. The threads of such knowledge are necessarily transdisciplinary. They are acquired through a focus upon reflection, subjective awareness, connection, communication and creativity. These are ‘big picture’ items in a transdisciplinary future-oriented curriculum. The minutiae of structuring and delivering such learning is subject matter of another discussion. In this respect Social Ecology is, in words Ainslie Yardley (Ch. 7) uses to describe creativity,“the space in which we think deeply, imagine new possibilities, make new discoveries, test new ideas, and create new things”. Here we need a sense of wonder for that which has gone before and sense of awe for the responsibility required to enable the learning of future generations in future times we can, at this point in time, only imagine.

References: Bateson, G. (1972) Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Ballantine Books. Bateson, G. (1979) Mind and nature New York: Bantam Books.  Bignell, B. (2011) The burden of normality and the prospects of a moral education. In Wright, D., Camden-Pratt, C. & Hill, S. (eds.) (2011) Social Ecology: Applying ecological understanding to our lives and our planet Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK. Hawthorn Press.  Birrell, C. (2011) Slipping beneath the Kimberley skin. In Wright, D., Camden-Pratt, C. & Hill, S. (eds.) (2011) Social Ecology: Applying ecological understanding to our lives and our planet Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK. Hawthorn Press.   Capra, F. (1996) The web of life. London: Harper Collins. Fell, B. The power and influence of the synthetic cortex. In Wright, D., Camden-Pratt, C. & Hill, S. (eds.) (2011) Social Ecology: Applying ecological understanding to our lives and our planet Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK. Hawthorn Press.   Hartlage, C. (2011) We are what we eat. In Wright, D., Camden-Pratt, C. & Hill, S. (eds.) (2011) Social Ecology: Applying ecological understanding to our lives and our planet Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK. Hawthorn Press. Nielsen, T. (2011) A curriculum of giving for student wellbeing and achievement. In Wright, D., Camden-Pratt, C. & Hill, S. (eds.) (2011) Social Ecology: Applying ecological understanding to our lives and our planet Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK. Hawthorn Press. O’Sullivan, E. (2011) Attempting an integral earth story in the new century. In Wright, D., Camden-Pratt, C. & Hill, S. (eds.) (2011) Social Ecology: Applying ecological understanding to our lives and our planet Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK. Hawthorn Press.  O’Sullivan, E. & Taylor, M. (2004) Learning towards an ecological consciousness New York: Palgrave Macmillan.  Yardley, A. (2011) Creativity country: a journey through embodied space. In Wright, D., Camden-Pratt, C. & Hill, S. (eds.) (2011) Social Ecology: Applying ecological understanding to our lives and our planet Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK. Hawthorn Press.

David Wright is a Senior Lecturer in Social Ecology and Education in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. The newly-published book from which this post is drawn comes from Hawthorn Press. UWS offers a Master of Education (Social Ecology) which builds upon the forms of ecological thinking outlined here.

“Now that NAPLAN is over I can start to teach?” June 12, 2011

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Education Policy and Politics, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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from Dr Robyn Gregson

In her first post, Robyn Gregson reviews international approaches to testing student learning and argues that NAPLAN* testing in Australia is having a negative impact on pedagogy and assessment, and contributes to a de-professionalising of teachers in schools.

“Now that NAPLAN is over I can start to teach?” is the cry of many that has been heard in the corridors and staffrooms of both primary and secondary schools.

Mirroring the USA and UK experience, Australian education reform has been driven by political agendas that seek to assign accountability for educational outcomes. Subsequently we have the introduction of National and International testing that will provide comparisons in learning outcomes across states and countries (Perso, 2009). Three such tests are the Programme for International Students Achievement (PISA), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International reading literacy Study (PIRLS). PISA tests reading literacy within ‘real life’ settings whereas TIMSS focuses on mathematics and science curriculum-based proficiency benchmarks (Kell & Kell, 2011). PIRLS is a comparative study of the literacy skills of 4th graders. TIMSS and PRILS are grade based while PISA is age based.

NAPLAN (National Assessment Program –Literacy and Numeracy) is the Australian version for Years 3, 5, 7 and 9, introduced in 2008. This test was intended to provide valuable information about basic skills, what students know and don’t know and what teachers need to focus on in their classrooms (Anderson, 2009). The data from this national test was to be used to support educational planning for individuals, classes, and schools, and would inform school systems and the wider community about how schools in their local areas compared. While the PISA, PIRLS and TIMSS provide interesting data they have not led to significant changes at classroom level. However NAPLAN is linked to the myschool website, and funding.

Since the introduction of NAPLAN, pedagogical practices in classrooms have been driven by the need for students to do well in the tests. Schools, teachers and students are being judged by the levels that students attain. Teachers are torn between the use productive pedagogies and authentic assessment that support academic progress, and with preparing their students for high stakes national testing. Teaching to the test is longer just a concern, but a reality (Luke & Woods, 2007). A study of the views of teachers by Dimarco (2009) reports that teachers are using their professional judgment to support student success in national testing that has led to a narrowing of the curriculum, teacher deskilling and attrition, corruption of testing procedure and test scores with no evidence that that the testing has led to improve student learning outcomes.

What has become apparent is that teachers are tailoring their teaching and assessment practices to match those of the national tests. There is concern about keeping students interested and engaged while preparing them for the testing. However there is much debate over the effectiveness of such practices. Teachers are concerned by the negative effects such as student and teacher stress, disaffection of curriculum, narrowing of curriculum and a shift from higher order skills to lower order forms of literacy.

Until recently research literature reported that a more positive relationship between pedagogy and assessment had developed because of the shift from assessment of learning to assessment for learning. In the latter, the focus of assessment was on helping students to learn from assessment as well as use the feedback given to improve not only what they know and understand, but how they learn. While educational research focuses on the benefits of constructivist and emerging 21st century theories of learning, the reality of many classrooms in both primary and secondary schools is that teachers are not utilising the types of pedagogy and assessment tasks that promote learning (Tierney, 2006).

What has emerged from recent literature is the destabilsation of the teaching profession with concerns about teacher motivation and engagement of students. The role of national testing is currently under surveillance with anecdotal evidence suggesting that teachers are yet again changing their teaching and assessment practices to align with national testing strategies.

References:   Dimarco, S. (2009). Crossing the divide between teacher professionalism and national testing in middle school mathematics. Australian Mathematics Teacher; 65 (4) pp.6-10.   Kell, M. & Kell, P (2010). International testing: measuring global standards or reinforcing inequalities. The International Journal of Learning, 17 (12) pp 293-306.   Luke, A. & Woods, A. (2007). Accountability as testing: Are there lessons about assessment and outcomes to be learnt from no child left behind? Literacy Learning: The middle years, 6 (3), pp.11–19.   Perso, T (2009). Cracking the NAPLAN code: numeracy and literacy demands. AMPC 14(3) pp.14-18.   Tierney, R.D. (2006). Changing practices: influences on classroom assessment. Assessment in Education 13(3) pp.239-264.

* To source other posts about NAPLAN on 21st Century Learning use our search engine at the top of the page.

Robyn Gregson is a Lecturer in Science education and  literacy for learning in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She teaches in our Master of Teaching (Secondary) program.

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