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Sustainability Education in Practice

Kneeling on the ground, Gemma gently lifts up the log to show us a small stripy brown frog half buried in moist brown soil amidst a flurry of ants. Monica asks her, 'why doesn't the frog hop away?' Gemma leans further towards its stripy brown body,

'I think the frog knows we are here because it's moving its legs and digging itself in a little bit more', she responds with fingers and hands making frog digging movements. 'It isn't scared of us because it knows it's the same colour as the ground and we won't be able to see it'. Pauses a moment then continues, 'the frog's not worried by the ants because if the ants were biting it the frog would jump away. If the frog was eating the ants they wouldn't be under the log living there with the frog'.

(Gemma, Commercial Road Primary School)

Gemma was one of about eighty Grade 3/4 children and fifty teacher education students who came together for a day at the Morwell River wetlands. In this moment Gemma enters the world of frog. She moves her hands and fingers like the frog digging into the moist soil, she thinks in frog-knowing that we cannot see it; she feels as a frog-not-worrying about the ants flurrying all around it. She enters frog-ant world through wondering how they are living there together in that hidden moist place under the log. Gemma becomes other to herself through her immersion in the more-than-human world.

This day at the wetlands was part of a year-long participatory action research study that built on our previous collaboration with Commercial Road Primary School and with Max in particular (Somerville & Green, 2012). Commercial Road Primary School is located in the post-industrial town of Morwell in the Latrobe Valley where families have been impacted by the privatisation of the power industry and consequent loss of employment. Despite the challenges of addressing issues of poverty and disadvantage, the school has been recognised for its sustainability curriculum, which integrates the Morwell River wetlands across all grade levels and all subject areas. The school has been involved in a ten year partnership with Kevin Jones, the Environmental Education Officer of the power company who constructed the part artificial, part natural wetlands. Max initiated and led this ten year programme, and our study was designed to share Max's deep knowledge with teachers and teacher education students. Max suggested that in order for the teacher education students to truly learn about his teaching practice, they should design and conduct activities in the wetlands for the Grade 3/4 school students. The teacher education students were scaffolded in their learning by presentations from Max and Kevin and by support from the teachers in their activity planning.

The group of five teacher education students who designed the activity that Gemma participated in started their planning at the small wetland on the university campus. They explained in their online post how they entered the world of place and children to explore its pedagogical possibilities:

We took a walk down to the lake [on campus] to see what might interest children. On the way we discovered poo, yabby holes and listened to birds. So our focus changed. We took pictures of different types of poo, recorded the birds, took pictures of the birds, and took pictures of the yabby holes.

From this we thought of many activities that could be of interest to the learners.

  • • Senses, mind map; close your eyes: what do you feel, think, smell, hear; then draw from their thought patterns.
  • • Water, man-made structure; what lives in the water; uses of water; classroom research what lives in static water.
  • • Yabby hole, what type of animal made this hole; from the size of the hole can we tell how big the animal is; other animals that live in holes; what role does the size of the hole mean in relation to the size of the animal; what other habitats are there and who uses them; create, build, draw, make habitats and the relevant animals.
  • • Poo, what animal did this poo; can we tell how big an animal is from the size of the poo; can we dissect the poo and then know what the animal ate; what is the water concentration to rough matter.
  • (Student group post)

It was pouring rain leading up to our day at the wetlands and we were unable to get access to our usual place. We investigated another nearby site, still part of the whole Morwell River wetlands constellation. Kevin bubbled over with excitement about the bush rats' nests evident in a little bank next to the cars. He says they have only just become active in the past week, and at the same time a pair of black swans have begun nesting. The bush rats' nests were visible by patterns of fist-sized holes across the bank with scrapings of newly dug earth excavated from inside their burrows. Kevin says they will be looking for a mate because it is breeding season. He cups his hand to show their size and says they are like small guinea pigs with little stumpy tails. He warns us not to walk on the bank because it is 'like Swiss cheese', the whole bank perforated by their burrows. The snakes will come to eat the bush rats too, so they might be in the holes. He says he once saw a fox that must have tried to get a bush rat from its burrow but was bitten by a snake inside the burrow - all that remained was its skeleton lying beside the hole. In his close identification with the wetlands he understands it as including frogs, bush rats, swans, fox and snake who inhabit this place of reciprocal learning.

In preparation for our day at the wetlands, the teacher education student groups produced running sheets of their activities for Grade 3/4 school children with a precisely timed plan.

  • 1. Discussion (5-10mins): What sorts of animals we will find here? Whereabouts will we find them? What will we look for?
  • 2. Small Groups (pairs) (15mins): Find different animals in different habitats. Question: Why they think they were there? What do they need in their habitat?
  • 3. Whole group discussion (15mins): What did we find? Where was the animal? What was their habitat like? Why do you think their habitat is like that? Who agrees, who thinks different? Why do you think they can survive here and we can't?
  • 4. Drawing (15mins): Draw picture of animal and bits of info we came to find about home and habitat (annotated).
  • (Student group post, 2011)

It was still raining the day before so we called Max to ask if he was planning to reschedule the day. 'As long as it isn't pouring', he says, 'we'll go ahead, see you there.' We woke the next morning to an unusually sunny, bright blue sky day; the weather, the season, the place, the children and all of the other living and non-living things coming together in the serendipitous unpredictability of place-based learning. In considering this unruly proliferation of life forms and forces, we became interested in the intersection of the tight timetabling of the day, the precise minute-by-minute running sheets of the students, with the spaciousness and multiplicity of the place and the infinite relations produced there. We called this a pedagogy of organised chaos in which the frame of the curriculum enables the teaching/learning activity to borrow from the 'chaos of the world' (Somerville & Green, 2011).

The idea of 'chaos' came from one of the teachers who described her experience of working with children in the school grounds: 'I went out there and it was organised chaos, there were kids doing watering, someone splashing someone, there were mattocks going and some kids getting distracted, stuff happening everywhere'. It connected with our sense of the unpredictable proliferations of place, and with the idea of the frame that allows us to borrow from the chaos of the world. For Elizabeth Grosz, philosophy, art and science draw from and simultaneously draw over the chaotic indeterminacy of the real with its impulses to ceaseless variation, drawing strength, force, material from it, 'for a provisional and open-ended cohesion, temporary modes of ordering, filtering' (Grosz, 2008, p. 8). The first step in this process is to establish the frame that enables a part of chaos, the real, to enter the realm of representation. In sustainability education, the static forms of curriculum that constitute the frame make this learning possible. It is the pedagogical relation through which the frame is enacted in practice, however, and the nature of this pedagogical relation within which teachers, children and world are produced, that is the focus of this chapter.

The pedagogical activities at Morwell River wetlands were informed by Max's different forms of being and knowing: his knowing through generations of beekeepers, his ability to know frogs from inside their moist skins, and the glisten of the spider's eye as the flood waters engulfed the board walk. It was the pedagogies that Max evolved in this school and with our teacher education students that made the particular intimate quality of Gemma's learning possible. In the next study we considered how to expand the insights gained from Commercial Road Primary School, Max and Gemma to multiple schools, teachers, children and places. What understandings does the consideration of multiple schools offer and how can the practices of sustainability be conceptualised in terms of their collective meaning across a region?

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