We want Nature to be at the heart of our school. We understand this in two ways. On the one hand we want to study Nature and natural processes and this has implications for the content of our curriculum- what we teach . On the other hand we want to study in a natural way: this has implications for teaching and learning styles, the organization of spaces and timetables, and scale. We have clear ideas about human development and growth, the best habitats for humans, and the kind of social structures that liberate creativity and invention.
In my post on Forest Schools, I started to consider the ideas that underlie the history of Nature education. In Europe those roots go back to Froebel and Pestalozzi, and tend to be associated with little kids. The Scandinavian model is the most common at the moment and, although there is some content, it is predominantly a child-centered, natural way of learning. The implication is that there are major cognitive gains to be had from working in line with little kids’ natural curiosity, creativity and sense of adventure, and there is some evidence to support this.
This is great, but since we have a 4 to 18 school, we want Nature to thread through from bottom to top. We cannot be limited to a kindergarten model. In my previous post I identified the “veteran kids” age of 9-13 as a key phase. We want there to be a consistent approach and curriculum that develops over time, taking advantage of the energies of those “veteran kids” and linking forward into the structured, formal learning they will do as older teenagers. How do you get from poking a bonfire with a stick to Environmental Science? Where is the model for older students?
The Forest School of Cuthbert Rutter, with its roots in the youth work of Westlake and Seton, provides one possible model. It is linked to ideas about freedom and self-government and is not limited to little kids. Seton’s first experiments arose from his desire to give good experiences to disaffected adolescents. Adults taught youngsters woodcraft and survival skills They were faced with outdoor challenges and worked their way up through a structured series of levels towards mastery. Many of these challenges were pre-industrial and would not be out of place in the wilderness: swimming across a lake, starting a fire, climbing a tree.
Neither the Scandinavian Forest School nor Rutter’s Forest School make a good fit with UAE. Abu Dhabi is a modern city where the sea and the desert create the history, culture and geography of the region. A natural way of learning in a woodland setting, undertaking pre-industrial survival-style activities, does not have much relevance to modern urban living. Consider this photograph of Abu Dhabi.
In this built environment we have to find a different way of being natural. Dreaming of English woodland or the American prairies does not make sense. Woodland survival skills are not relevant.
Desert and Sea
Nature in Abu Dhabi is harsh. Summer temperatures can reach 50ºC and there is very little rain, which tends to fall in torrential bursts in the summer months. The coastal regions are extensive salt pans, which are not appropriate for woodlands of any kind, although they can be rich in bird life. The Mangrove National Park just outside Abu Dhabi is rich in bio-diversity, but mangrove swamps are not woodland of the type that Westlake and Rutter were familiar with.
It is conceivable to imagine a context-specific scaling up of Rutter’s Forest School, substituting Desertcraft Arabs for Woodcraft Indians. I do not want to take this route. The harshness of the environment would make desert survival skills considerably less pleasant than in a verdant woodland.
A school of 475 in an urban setting cannot compel children to sign up for a series of pre-industrial challenges in the desert: they won’t see the sense of it. Furthermore, freedom is a core value and we cannot impose on all the children a set of merit badges for learning skills that have little or no relevance to their daily lives. We are committed to working with the interest of children as a fundamental part of our Mission. We have to find a better way of learning that acknowledges the modern scale and dimensions of the city we live in whilst maintaining the emphasis on Nature.
Urban children do not have daily direct experience of the natural world. This is one of the reasons we want to include Nature in our school. It isn’t just a matter of filling the school with resources and curriculum content that explains to them the science of the natural world. We want to encourage them to be observant, curious, interested and analytical. These are the attitudes that underlie the skills that will make the knowledge they acquire in the formal curriculum relevant and lasting.
Perhaps it is possible to find a “natural way” that can form the underpinning of our work. If we can identify these principles, then we can apply them to the unique environment we find ourselves in and not be distracted by the specific details of the models we are looking at.
Both the European and the Anglo-Saxon models have an underlying sense of what is a natural way to learn. It clearly isn’t a classroom model. They both stress that direct contact with Nature is superior to learning from textbooks. Children learn to be more attentive, observant, competent and creative when they are outside in a natural environment. The ability to do things for themselves, such as making tools or climbing trees, gives a sense of mastery that has a direct impact on self-esteem and confidence.
We can certainly take this attitude of direct contact with Nature by:
- cultivating food within the school
- spending time on the beach
- observing, measuring and recording
- using art and writing to respond to Nature
- having quiet areas in Natural settings to encourage mindfulness
- excursions to seaside and desert parks
- links with environmental organizations
- recycling, composting and permaculture
- safeguarding free choice of action outside the core curriculum
- encouraging parental engagement
Designing the Curriculum
A conventional classroom environment with its tests and assessments obliges children to focus on their personal performance. Learning about Nature could form a part of the taught curriculum adding an additional burden of content. Children would then be assessed on a further raft of knowledge that might include natural processes, the principles of permaculture, ecological awareness, geography and science. We might see this as essential preparation for formal learning in environmental and sustainability courses at an older age.
We don’t want to take this route. We do not want to eliminate knowledge taught in the classroom: it is essential for children’s futures that they get the qualifications that will allow them to go on to the next stage in their lives after school. However, we are committed to learning about Nature in a “natural way”. Working on individually focused activities in a classroom where students are assessed with regard to objective learning targets is essentially artificial. This artificiality is valuable. It gives both teachers and students precise information about what they have and have not learnt. It enables them to achieve results that would not be possible by always following a “natural way” based on curiosity, observation and interest.
However, we recognize that focusing on what you get in examinations leads to selfish individualism. We want children to have the experience of living and working in a community, learning without the pressure of the examination, and sharing their work and results freely. We do not want them to focus on the results they individually get and we do not want any child to have the sensation that they are “not good at Nature.” The underlying principles of learning in Nature must be open to all children regardless of how well they do in the classroom. Furthermore, the precedents above clearly show that cooperative work can be a vibrant part of the non-taught curriculum. Humans have worked cooperatively for millennia- it is a part of our biology and is clearly a “natural way” of learning. The attitudes and approaches we take from the Forest School and Nature School traditions lead us to maintain that this aspect of the curriculum must include significant periods of time where children can respond freely to the natural environment, design their own projects and activities and respond to real-life scenarios.
Creating a Nature School is building a habitat where children can live and work together. They have formal learning in classrooms. Their reactions to the natural world, however, are not always filtered through academic targets. There are spaces where they can create things for themselves, times when they can talk freely, opportunities to do things together, and communities where joint activity is not measured or assessed but forms an essential part of life in the school.
The model we use for the community dimension of MBAT is at a different scale and level than either the Scandinavian model or Cuthbert Rutter’s Forest School. All of the cognitive gains in the Forestry Commission’s research on Forest Schools are comprehensively covered by the community organization of the school, the parental engagement program, and the provision of increasingly sophisticated activity rooms as the children get older. This means that we can move on from the way of working to thinking more coherently about curriculum content.
Curriculum Content: Permaculture
Permaculture is a way of looking at the environment and responding to it. It emphasizes sustainability and ecology. It is not a separate scientific discipline and relies on the results of conventional science. Its principles are at the heart of this school and I am already talking to an architect and a permaculture consultant to ensure that the buildings will be in line with those principles.
Permaculture offers a useful way of looking at what a Nature School can be without the limitations of the woodland/little kid model of the FSA and the pre-industrial and survival components of the Rutter model. It would grow quite naturally out of the attitudinal approaches that are fostered in the Early Years nature work of kindergarten models. Mindfulness, curiosity and close observation are key skills in permaculture that can grow over time and be linked with sophisticated scientific and technical modelling as skillsets grow.
There are curriculum models for permaculture. The English Permaculture Association offers certificated courses with a handy checklist of content. They rely heavily on the work of Bill Mollison, Permaculture – A Designer’s Manual (1988). Mollison’s work grew out of small-scale agriculture and sustainability in the 1970s, but over time grew to include many other aspects of what is known as “the circular economy”. Permaculture has a broadening remit that in Mollison’s own words, “has come to encompass appropriate legal and financial strategies, including strategies for land access, business structures, and regional self-financing.”
One of the largest associations at the moment is the Permaculture Research Association with courses offered by Geoff Lawton, who you can find on Youtube.
It is not unusual for the majority of courses in permaculture to be short-duration content-specific courses for adults. There are some initiatives for schools, but they tend to be plug-ins, similar to the Forest School approach in the UK: additional components that school administrators can add in to their normal curriculum. Barefoot Gardens in California, for example, offers consulting and workshops to K-12 schools with an interesting range of projects and ideas, including the creation of a food forest. In Australia there are several high schools and many middle schools that have taken on the ideas of permaculture- Warrawong is a good example. In the USA permaculture has strong links with homesteading and home education: look at Permies, for example.
There are serious attempts to bring Sustainability into schools through project-based learning, such as Project Lead the Way:
Our activity-, project-, and problem-based (APB) instructional design centers on hands-on, real-world activities, projects, and problems that help students understand how the knowledge and skills they develop in the classroom may be applied in everyday life. The APB approach scaffolds student learning through structured activities and projects that empower students to become independent in the classroom and help them build skill sets to apply to an open-ended design problem.Project Lead the Way
PLTW is a future-focused project that wants children to engage with real-world problems. It does not negate the formal taught curriculum but gives children ample opportunity to work together to think about their lives and their work in relation to the rest of the world. Permaculture can fit into this model. I do not want a whole school PBL model because I want children to have the freedom to engage in their own activities. I also value the work of teachers in conventional classrooms. However, there is a lot that can be learned from these large-scale organizations.
UNESCO has produced a draft document on sustainability for schools. It is a short document of some eighteen pages but it is written in a manner that validates the ideas and approach of this school.
Communities and experts agree that there is no one way of living that is most sustainable everywhere and always. While we can always learn from each other, it is important to remember that times change and that people and places are different. In our complex, ever-changing world, you must go beyond teaching specific, expert-endorsed ideas about sustainable development. You need to teach your students critical, creative, and futures thinking skills.UNESCO Draft Guidelines on Sustainable and Climate-Friendly Schools
It takes a long time for this kind of document to percolate through the ossified layers of the conventional education system. However, as a small private school that is already largely in agreement with these principles, we have the freedom and the motivation to innovate and create. We can create a Nature School that truly looks forward not just for Abu Dhabi and the UAE, but for the world.