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Transformative Inquiry


welcome the awkwardness


There was a child went forth every day; 
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became; 
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, 
or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.
Walt Whitman, 1900
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Caring for Earth


Cajete suggests a sense of urgency, when he asks how do we solve the pressing environmental issues that threaten ecological systems? Yet, it is rare to find school systems engaging in environmental education, education for sustainable development, or nature-based education that goes beyond recycling programs, superficial climate science, and Amazonian rainforest conservation. This is not to say that these three curricular items are unimportant, but they sit in a sea of segregated learning experiences, like the floating plastic islands made from human-made discards, in the Northern section of the Pacific Ocean! Additionally, what binds all learning experiences together is a matrix of relationships and transdisciplinarity, suggesting that environmental education is also a perfect vehicle for larger curricular change.

First, all education is environmental education. By what is included or excluded we teach students that they are part of or apart from the natural world. To teach economics, for example, without reference to the laws of thermodynamics or those of ecology is to teach a fundamentally important ecological lesson: that physics and ecology have nothing to do with the economy. That just happens to be dead wrong. The same is true throughout all of the curriculum. (Orr, 2004, p. 12)



What and how we teach tempers the way that students engage in living on Earth. To add further complexity to this, much of the relationship to ecological systems has been one of exploitation where humans are manage the Earth for our own needs and will. In our view, it is important to talk about the concept of caring with the Earth rather than managing it - that we are not better than or more than nature, nor even nature’s caretakers. The opposite is more likely true. When we care for the Earth, we are caring for ourselves and each other (including other than humans) in a way that has the least impact possible. To do this, we need to enter through love of the Earth, as Stephen J. Gould quotes the Senagalese poet:

In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught. - Baba Dioum


For we will not fight to save what we do not love.- Stephen J. Gould


Unfortunately, some teachers have developed crippling anxiety about how to teach with and in nature, citing issues of ‘not knowing plants or animals’ or ‘being worried about students being distracted.’ How do we come to love nature? This seems to come through experiential learning that extends from a myriad of outdoor and nature-based activities. But most of all, it is a sense of wonder and engagement from learning with the environment.

One way to help with the anxieties mentioned above is to explore and teach the world through systems thinking. Systems thinking supports a more considered approach to understanding relationships beyond human to human interaction. It helps humans interact with the complexity of everyday situations. Donnella Meadows (2002) suggests that instead of just thinking about systems, we need to dance with them. By dancing, she means that we need to understand the systems we interact with in intimate and interactive ways. For instance, the school system isn’t simply a social endeavour, it affects ecological systems too, such as water systems, plant ecosystems, and even weather systems. Consider all the input and outputs that go into building and running schools, they are more than the physical structures.

So how do you dance with a system? You pay attention to it with all of your senses - and the very first concept of dancing with systems is to get the beat! The next section suggests a theory that might support you getting the beat called Panarchy. This theory provides language for describing transformation in systems and will ultimately help you care for the Earth by engaging you in systems thinking.


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