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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.

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