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The pattern which connects: teacher education and ecological understanding April 22, 2012

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Early Childhood Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
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from Dr David Wright

It is a necessary truth that as the context of education changes education systems must also change (Kalantzis & Cope, 2008). This includes teacher education systems. With scientific evidence foreshadowing significant developments in human-environmental relationships (see for example Costanza, Graumlich & Steffen, 2011), teacher education systems need to respond. This is more than an ‘environmental’ problem. It is our collective problem. In this respect Orr (1992, 2004) puts the case for a new core competency: ‘ecological literacy’. Orr describes ecological literacy as a ‘quality of mind that seeks out connections’ and says it is the opposite of the ‘specialisation and narrowness characteristic of most education’ (1992:92). How can a divergent ‘quality of mind’ be learned? How can it be taught?

Questions about ecology and consciousness are not new. They go back to the pre-Socratics. Heraclitus observed, “no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man” (Allen 1966). This brings issues of nature,  experience and understanding together very succinctly. What is new is the breadth and depth of contemporary insight into the world we experience – ‘the river’ – and the relationship between the world we experience and the way we understand and respond to that experience – ‘the man’. Inevitably, education is a part of any such response. In this respect, Thomas Berry’s argument, in his foreword to Edmund O’Sullivan’s (1999) treatise on the transformation required for an emerging ‘ecozioc’ era, is worth citing;

Every profession and occupation of humans must establish itself within the integral functioning of the planet. The earth is the primary teacher in economics, in medicine, in law, in religion. Earth is the primary educator. Ecology is not a part of economics. Economics is an extension of ecology (xiv).

Similarly, Saylan & Blumstein (2011) call for “a full integration of environmental education in a form that inspires practical and critical re-evaluation of education as a whole” (3). Other writers, for example Judson (2010), suggest that such inspiration can be furthered by reference to ‘ecological’ rather than ‘environmental’ learning. “Ecological education emphasises the symbiotic relationship between human beings and nature” (10). It refuses to allow the environment to be considered separate from human kind.

How can teacher education and professional learning contribute to ecological understanding? Contemporary politics tells this is a troubling area for learning. Diverse responses emerge, often very passionately; diverse agendas govern responses. If education – and teacher education in particular – is to engage in this field how can it position itself? Can we we identify models of practice worthy of admiration? Are there glimpses of inspiration that can lead us toward meaningful change, as a consequence of critical, ecological understanding? What forms does the required pedagogy take if amelioration is to occur?


At 9.30 each morning Kindergarten, Year 1 and Year 2 students at K…… School, a small independent non-systemic school in Sydney’s Blue Mountains, gather with their teachers and those parents who have lingered after the morning drop-off and join in what can be seen as an elegantly designed example of ecological pedagogy.

Standing in a circle all sing and recite a series of poems that, in turn, acknowledge the new day, evoke respect for all students, situate the learning in a physical environment comprising animals and plants and look forward to a rewarding day of interactive learning. This opening constructs a shared experience. Situated at the beginning of the day, it constructs a platform for the future. It uses rhythm and emotion. It uses movement and group action. It seeks to connect directly with the values that motivate students in their relationships with the world around them. It is ritual learning that anticipates and supports the learning that will follow. It begins with a short song.

The bush is dancing in a ray of sunshine, / the birds and animals are all at play, / the world is breathing with the sound of daytime, / wake up, welcome the day. / Wake up (CLAP, CLAP), everybody wake up (CLAP, CLAP), wake up, welcome the day

This is followed by a poem, recited by all, that extends these sentiments. It begins,

Good morning dear earth, good morning dear sun, / good morning dear stones and flowers everyone, / good morning to beasties and birds in the tree, / good morning to you and good morning to me…

The third element, a song performed with movement and often in rounds, celebrates those present. It begins,

Circle of friends I love, let me tell you how I feel / You have given me such pleasure, circle round again…

This is followed by another brief poem, a minute of quiet and, a third poem beginning,


Down is the earth and up is the sky, here are my friends and here am I.


The final element is a ritual ‘Good morning’ sung in turn by each staff member and a ritual ‘Good bye’ sungto all parents still present. Parents then shuffle from the room waving goodbye and blowing kisses. The staff take command and the day moves on.

This simple ritual can be seen as a form of an education that Gregory Bateson (1979) bemoaned the absence of. He referred to it as “the pattern which connects”:

The pattern which connects: Why do schools teach almost nothing of the pattern which connects? … What’s wrong with them? What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all four of them to me? And me to you? And all six of us to the amoeba in one direction and to the back-ward schizophrenic in another? (Bateson 1979:8).

The link between an understanding of connectedness and processes of learning lies in the ways in which both ecological understanding and pedagogy draw on an applied appreciation of the construction and communication of relationships. It is through an appreciation of patterns in relationships that students are able to experience themselves in relation to learning subject matter. It is here that a depth of learning resides.

The commencing ritual at K….. School is a brief few minutes in an extended school day. From the point of view of an outsider who has observed this ritual, it introduces values and attitudes to the young children present. It requires teachers to model those values and attitudes. It is not an attempt to instil behaviours or provide solutions. It indicates and communicates an approach to learning, developed over time that contributes to the identity and orientation of the school. It is an attempt to draw children into connectedness with each other and the world beyond, and thereby a sense of belonging.

The design of an ecological education goes beyond acknowledging the complexity of interconnected life. It requires reflection upon the assumptions that inform educational practice. Saylan & Blumstein (2011) argue, “change is not only possible but within reach if all of us begin to look at the problems differently and accept the collective and individual responsibilities required” (xii). Not all commentators exhibit the same confidence. Spratt & Sutton (2008) argue,

All countries, no matter what their political system… will struggle to achieve the needed change unless they engage their communities in a deliberative process to learn about the… issue (265).

If these questions are to be addressed meaningfully in educational policy and practice, they need to be addressed meaningfully in teacher education and professional learning. Ecological literacy challenges long held assumptions about educational practice. New generations of educators cannot be encouraged to limit and compartmentalise knowledge and practice in traditional ways. Change is an experience we encounter together. Our fellow teachers and students, our children and our grandchildren are our responsibility, just as we are theirs.

 References:   Allen, R.E. (1966) Greek philosophy: Thales to Aristotle. New York: Free Press.    Bateson, G. (1972) Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Ballantine Books.    Bateson, G.  (1979) Mind and nature. New York: Bantam Books.    Costanza, Graumlich & Steffen (eds) (2011) Sustainability or collapse: An integrated history and future of people on Earth. Cambridge Mass: MIT Press.    Harries-Jones, P. (1995) A recursive vision: Ecological understanding and Gregory Bateson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.    Judson, G. (2010) A new approach to ecological education. New York, Peter Lang.    Kalantzis & Cope (2008) New learning. Port Melbourne, Vic: Cambridge University Press.    Orr, D. (1992) Ecological literacy. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.   Orr, D. (2004) Earth in mind. Washington: Island Press.    O’Sullivan, E. (1999) Transformative learning. London. Zed Books.    O’Sullivan, E. & Taylor, M. (2004) Learning towards an ecological consciousness. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.    Saylan, C. & Blumstein, D.T. (2011) The failure of environmental education. Berkeley, University of California Press.    Spratt, D. & Sutton, P. (2008) Climate code red. Melbourne, Scribe.

David Wright is a Senior Lecturer in education and social ecology in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. His research interests lie in the overlapping fields of cognition, embodiment, performance, creativity, learning and systems thinking. He approaches this work through the lens of Social Ecology, which looks at the relationships that facilitate understanding.


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