The holistic, nature-based education we need for our times.
Yesterday I ran into a woman I know whose primary passion in life is to create 100% sustainable clothing from our local fiber-shed. A fiber-shed is like a watershed for fibers (wool, cotton, hemp, etc). She’s a revolutionary. She grows and sources the material, grows and sources the dye for color, spins and weaves the thread into a garment and then wears it proudly.
Talking to her, she told me her current struggle is over how to actually do this “well,” i.e.: In a way that is economically generative, ignites collaboration with other local growers and artisans, creates jobs and produces a product that the people of that place can afford, so they can wear their bioregion the way local food connoisseurs like to eat theirs. “It’s hard,” she says, “when none of the structures are in place to create a piece of clothing that is both beautiful and place-based—yet.”
At that moment I realized that she is doing for clothing what my colleagues and myself are doing for education. At Weaving Earth we work to create experiential, hands-on learning that connects people to the intricate fibers of their landscapes, pulls together many threads of the local community, offers something regenerative back to people and place, has healthy and long-lasting impacts, is home-spun, creative, holistic, and which ultimately produces something beautiful that people are excited to put on and take out into the world. And, we face similar challenges: We live in a time of transition, and as an organization that aims to educate for our times, the structures that understand and support what we do are not yet in place. We are building the foundation and leaning into it at the same time.
We live in a dynamic moment. Some say that the challenges we face today are greater in scale and impact than any we have faced in our species’ history. Some also say that amidst the obstacles reside opportunities and possibilities that are equally unprecedented. One thing is certain: We no longer need to cite extensive research to explain that we live in an unstable and uncertain era. Genuine concern over the future of our species is coming from just about every area of expertise. Many of us live with a subtle undercurrent of anxiety over circumstances we cannot fully grasp. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, we know in our bones that something is out-of-whack.
“Koyaanisqatsi” is a Hopi word that is important for us in the modern world to consider. It translates roughly to “life out of balance.” Symptoms of imbalance are ubiquitous. Structures we have depended on for centuries show evidence of increasing instability: From governments, to economies, to ecologies— systems are responding to “life out of balance.” Perhaps “our times” will be defined in part by the felt urgency to look at the source underlying these symptoms. Exploring the source can be daunting, because it takes us into the obscure and intangible terrain of cultural values and worldviews. Yet this is exactly where we must go, because treating the symptoms alone has proven ineffective.
Excavating the prevailing worldview of western society uncovers a long-standing fallacy: The idea that human beings are separate from nature. In a word, the disease is disconnection (or the belief in it): Disconnection from nature, from community, and even from the full expression of self. Now, interdisciplinary research is uniting with ancient wisdom traditions from around the world to call the bluff on the perception of disconnection – naming it as a primary culprit behind life out of balance.
When we perceive something as “separate” or “other,” we can treat it in any number of harmful ways. Thus, a worldview based in a false sense of separation can have severe implications for all that it is connected to. As such, we must engage personally and collectively at the level of values and worldviews if we are to respond fully to the situation before us. If we continue with business as usual, our grandchildren will soon be asking for explanations that I doubt anyone will want to give. Disconnection is not only robbing them of polar bears, icecaps and clean water—it’s offering a legacy of diminished personal health and social injustice as part of the inheritance.
So, how does one go about changing a worldview? Given the complexity of the situation, where do we begin? How do we educate for our times?
Educating for today’s world means countering the perception of disconnection with a felt experience of connection. It asks us to look both at the future and the past, to cultivate the best of which humans are capable and to consider the unhealthy patterns we carry. Reforming current educational systems alone is not enough. Educating for our times requires a courageous willingness not to depend heavily on the institutions that are swinging out of balance, but instead to place our trust in the river beneath the river; leaning into the natural systems that have always supported us. Like natural systems, education must encourage intelligent adaptability and improvisation, so that we may keep our footing amidst unpredictable terrain. Essentially, we must learn to become life in balance.
Luckily, we don’t have to look far to find the greatest teacher of balance and interconnection we will ever need. In fact, we don’t have to look anywhere at all, but rather, we only need to see what is already here: The earth and the cosmos are the great instructor, moving always around us and upwelling from within. The next piece of good news: Humankind is good at connection. We are wired for it, and a few thousand years of conditioning towards separation has not undone the millions of years of interrelated coevolution that preceded them (1).
An array of studies show both the positive effects of time spent outdoors and the success that experiential and nature-based educational models have on the development of a creative, connected, and diversely intelligent population (2). This “new” research shows social, cognitive, psychological and physical benefits in people who get plenty of exposure to nature. Contact with nature directly engages the original operating system that is our evolutionary inheritance, our blueprint of wholeness—and it is by knowing wholeness that we come to know connection. Awakening the blueprint of our innate human nature is not about achieving something new, but about accessing what is already there in a new way.
However, not all types of exposure to the natural world are created equal. Lots of “outdoor learning” does not necessarily equate to a reawakening of our original operating system (3). It is easy to spend an entire day outside interacting with the natural world without ever really connecting. Take an outdoor science class for example: After a busy day of measurements and data-collecting, we may know more about a place, but we may not feel any more connected to it. If we are always doing while outside—whether it be academic study, mountain biking, or mountaineering—we miss something subtle and of great importance. We miss the opportunity for connection and relationship. This is not to say that no connection happens. Remember, connection is our baseline and many things can awaken it in us, but certain kinds of experiences are designed to encourage it.
For example, the methods of deep nature connection mentoring reveal that extended, unstructured time outdoors is irreplaceable for opening the gateways of connection. Something unique happens when there is time to play, interact, create, explore, imagine, climb, dig, wade, be quiet, be loud, get bored, get un-bored, get dirty, and most importantly, get to know your place. Experiences with the natural world that are tactile, sensory and embodied are an essential ingredient in educating for connection, as is the presence of capable mentors. Embodied experience does not mean that cognitive learning falls by the wayside. To the contrary, “the knowing is in the doing.” Learning which is tied to experience has a lasting impact because when information follows connection, it sticks.
Nature-based education does not only mean spending time outdoors. It means following natural learning cycles; structuring lessons in accordance with the cycles of a day, the seasons, weather, and the complexities of each particular place; utilizing the age-old wisdom of mentoring cultures; cultivating curiosity and passion to ignite the innate love of learning; permitting individual genius to awaken and evolve in concert with the rest of the world; allowing the natural values of interdependence and cooperation to emerge, not as taught rules, but as ideals synonymous with a healthy life. An education for our times encourages the inborn capacity for connection rather than the learned behaviors of separation.
Holistic learning focuses as much on the development of a mature sense of self as it does on the dissemination of information and skills. Which skills or expertise people seek to acquire will then follow the natural movement of their authentic impulse. Imagine an education that seeks to awaken people to their niche within the planet’s ecology, fostering an identity grounded in a sense of belonging both to the human community and the biosphere, rather than one based in alienation. From this sense of belonging would emerge the opportunity to fully develop one’s unique gifts, passions and place in the world. From wholeness, human creativity and genius can be accessed, and it is through creative genius based in belonging that appropriate solutions and innovations are born. The goal: Fostering holistic development of individuals and communities capable of responding to today’s complex world in an intelligent, integrated, interdependent way.
So what does education for connection look like in practice? At Weaving Earth, we have come to call it “Relational Education;” offering activities, exercises, practices, skills, content, experiences and an overall learning environment designed to open and flex the human capacity for authentic, embodied relationships with all that surrounds us. This is not business as usual, and you might not recognize it as “education” if you saw it. For example, in our adult programs we play a lot of games—games that get us out of our heads and into our bodies. We study animal track and sign, listen to the language of the birds, and practice enhanced sensory awareness, all of which help to bring the blueprint for connection “online.” We learn the wild foods in our area, study plants, harvest medicines, make fire without matches, build shelters, and learn a host of other “survival” skills and practical crafts. The misnomer with “survival” skills is that they do much more than equip people with the ability to live outside, they relate us deeply to our places and instill a sense of freedom to be at home on the earth. Today, “home on the earth” also means urban and suburban environments, so we work with applied permaculture techniques, redesigning human settlements to reflect a sense of respect and reciprocity with the landscape. We practice community competencies: Communication, deep listening, facilitation, peacemaking and regenerative cultural design. We also track the inner landscape: Bringing awareness to the institutionalized patterns we’ve inherited collectively, and to the internal obstacles blocking us individually. This whole-person, whole-community, whole-planet approach allows connection to spread its roots in a solid, integrated way, slowly replacing the perception of disconnection from the inside out. It’s deep, it’s fun, it’s practical, and it’s healthy – for all of our relations.
No single pathway or specialist will be able to respond fully to today’s world. Relational Education is but one. We need thinkers and feelers alike; generalists, scientists, social engineers, gardeners, human-relations specialists, community organizers, parents, artists, mystics, leaders, innovators, clowns and more. Systemic, interrelated problems require a systemic and holistic response. In order to be effective respondents, we need an education that encourages and enlivens the full potential of our innate genius as a species, which is but an expression of our diversely beautiful world. What has been fragmented must be brought back together, so we may re-member that we are nature responding.
1) Glendinning, 1995.
2) Bell et al. 2008; Cottrell & Raadik-Cottrell, 2010; Hartig et al. 1991, 2003; Hass, McGown & Young, 2008; Kahn, 1997, 1999; Kaplan and Kaplan 1989; Kolan & Poleman, 2009; Louv, 2005; Merriam & Sek Kim, 2008; Orr, 1994; Priest, 2007; Sweatman & Warner, 2009; Ulrich 1981; Van den Berg et al. 2007.
3) Sobel, 2008; Stuckey, 2012; Young et al, 2010.
To find out more about Will Scott, click here.