Nature, Education, and Spirituality
A Brief Literature Review and Topic Synthesis
Seminar: Nature and the Human Spirit
Bekah Haslam and Lynne Westerfield
Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe. A spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.
Nature, education, and spirituality are each huge fields. When considering all three, we could go in almost any direction. With this in mind, we will not attempt a comprehensive literature review. Instead, we will focus on two separate areas while attempting to keep in mind the larger picture of education, spirituality and nature. These two areas of focus are 1) nature and traditional education and 2) spirituality in environmental education.
I. Nature and traditional education: using nature as an alternative to traditional school programs (Bekah)
The following discusses nature and education using two frameworks for education, and examines how those frameworks are relevant to science education. The first framework is using the environment as an integrating context for learning, followed by place- based education. Overlapping these frameworks provides a picture of why and how nature can provide educational experiences resulting in greater learning outcomes then traditional teaching methods.
Environment as an integrating context for learning
Using the environment as an integrating context for learning (EIC) is describes by Lieberman and Hoody (1998) as learning that “uses a school’s surroundings and community as a framework within which students can construct their own learning, guided by teachers and administrators using proven educational practices” (p.1) Lieberman and Hoody (1998) recognize four benefits of EIC programs.
- better performance on standardized measures of academic achievement in reading, math, science, and social studies.
- a decrease in classroom management problems.
- increased engagement and enthusiasm for learning
- greater pride and ownership in accomplishments(Leiberman & Hoody, 1998p. 4).
Awareness of the diversity of the environments that surround schools in America is fundamental for considering the types of experiences that are available to students in their communities. For example, students in rural Idaho will be able to study the environment of a forested stream, while students in Brooklyn, New York study a stream in an urban setting. Whether the local environment is a mountain range, city park, forest, or garden, EIC approaches can be implemented and students will benefit from an enriched educational experience (Leiberman & Hoody, 1998).
Using the outdoor classroom as a context for providing learning opportunities in science is my primary area of interest. The outdoor classroom is a neglected resource. Studies on field based learning demonstrate that the outdoor classroom provides context and inspiration for engaging minds and demonstrating science concepts through authentic activities (Donahue, Lewis, Lawrence, & Schmidt, 1998; Lisowski & Disinger, 1992; Means, 1998; Tessier, 2004). Authentic activities are those that model real situations. In science an authentic activity is designed around the idea that students will learn more and be more engaged if they are doing science as opposed to studying about scientists and science concepts (Means, 1998). Scientific inquiry provides a structure for modeling real-life situations and therefore authentic activities.
The traditional public school is not putting forth its best effort to teach science while using outdoor settings. Simmons (1998) reports that in order to effectively teach basic ecosystem knowledge in addition to awareness and concern about the environment, it is essential for students to be exposed to experiences in various outdoor settings (Simmons, 1998). The ecosystems that surround a school’s local community create a perfect laboratory for providing authentic learning experiences.
Place-based education stresses the need to use the resources of the surrounding community to provide students with educational experiences. Proponents of place based education are questioning traditional textbook centered learning. One teacher who works in the White Mountains of New Hampshire asks “Why are we using textbooks that focus on landforms in Arizona when we have such amazing resources right in our backyard?” (Sobel, 2004 p. 4).
One component of place-based education is school sustainability. Using school sustainability to design projects teachers and administrators challenge students to conserve resources by investigating activities that will decrease resource use (Sobel, 2004). One example presented by Sobel (2004) is a group of students that investigated the waste and cost of using polystyrene lunch trays. They compared the use of polystyrene trays with buying an industrial sized dishwasher for plastic trays or using biodegradable trays, and presented their findings to the school board. This project integrated math, science, and public speaking.
The enriched educational experience offered by place-based and EIC frameworks have resulted in greater academic achievement for students involved in programs that use these frameworks. In addition to academic achievement programs that use these frameworks show an increase of student interest in learning, marked by a decrease in the number of disciple referrals and absences.
II. Spirituality in Environmental Education (Lynne)
Should spirituality be considered in environmental education?
According to the National Outdoor Leadership School, spirituality refers to ‘the tacit knowledge that makes a person feel more spirited. This includes an insightful relationship with yourself and others, a strong personal value system, and meaningful purpose in your life’ (NOLS Environmental Education Notebook, 2002, p. 7).
This definition, and others, suggest that spirituality is connected to many facets of a person. Educator John Taylor Grotto (1999) states that ‘Nobody has to wonder aimlessly in the universe of Western spirituality. What constitutes a meaningful life is clearly spelled out: self-knowledge, duty, responsibility, acceptance of aging and loss, preparation for death. In the neglected genius of the West, no teacher or guru does the work for you, you must do it for yourself’ (Gatto, 1999).
These definitions emphasize various facets of a person such as relationship with self and others, personal value system, purpose in life, self-knowledge, duty, responsibility, and acceptance. These facets of a person have much in common with the stated values of NOLS and other similar programs, as well as with traditionally measured outcomes in Wilderness Experience Programs that incorporate environmental education. Facets like self-knowledge are valued and highlighted by programs like NOLS, and are also associated with spiritual well being.
For example, Outward Bound’s core values include compassion and service, social and environmental responsibility, and character development (including self-knowledge, acceptance of responsibility, ability to go beyond self-imposed boundaries) (Outward Bound Philosophy, 2004). NOLS explicitly states that its core values are wilderness, education, leadership (more specifically leadership is a set of skills including communication, tolerance for adversity and uncertainty, self-awareness, vision and action), safety, community, and excellence. These core values are reflected through company literature, teaching guides, instructor training, stated curriculum, and are (sometimes) identified by students as being important to the program.
Outcomes traditionally measured in similar programs include self-efficacy, leadership, values, self-concept, self-understanding, well-being, emotional stability, interpersonal communication and environmental awareness (Hattie, Marsh, Neill, & Richards, 1997; Russell & Hendee, 2000).
When the public school system was founded, morals and spiritual values were tightly linked with the practice and theory of education. Since it’s beginnings, a slow but steady progression has taken place to remove religion and spirituality from the public school system. This withdrawal has been marked by the 1947 Supreme Court ruling that laid the foundations for the removal of spirituality from education (Gatto, 1999), the 1962 and 1963 Supreme Court cases that overruled state required prayer and Bible reading, and more recently in the near ‘taboo’ nature of the topic of religion in public schools (Wright, 1999). In the past, spirituality in public schools has been taught through religion. Wright (1999) argues that it is the hot and controversial disputes between different religious factions that necessitated the split between spirituality and public schools.
Grotto (200) argues that this separation is not in the child’s best interest:
The net effect of holding a child in confinement for 12 years and longer without any honor paid to the spirit is an extended demonstration that the State considers the Western God tradition to be dangerous. And, of course, it is. Schooling is about creating loyalty to an abstract central authority, and no serious rival can be welcome in a school that includes mother and father, tradition, local custom, self-management, or God.
The Supreme Court Everson ruling of 1947 established the principle that the State would have no truck with spirits. There was no mention that 150 years of American judicial history had passed without any other court finding this fantastic hidden meaning in the Constitution.
But even if we forego an examination of the motives of this court and grant that the ruling is a sincere expression of the rational principle behind modern leadership, we would be justified in challenging Everson today because of the grotesque record laid down over the past 50 years of spiritless schooling. Dis-spirited schooling has been tested and found fully wanting. I personally think that that's because it is a liar's game that denies the metaphysical reality recognized by men and women worldwide today and in every age (Gatto, 1999).
Unlike the public school system, experiential and environmental schools such as NOLS and Outward Bound claim a value-based mission that includes values connected with the concept of ‘non-religious’ spirituality. These programs are more easily able to discuss spirituality in conjunction with their missions and curriculums.
Spirituality and curriculum.
While spiritual strength is reflected in the curriculum and mission statements of schools like NOLS, it has not been an explicitly incorporated into the NOLS or Outward Bound curriculum. It a NOLS belief that ‘we need to be sure we don’t tip the scales and make the outdoor experience too academic and abstract. It is the overall experience that provides spiritual growth’ (Gookin, 2002). A great deal of leeway is afforded to instructors in choosing to frame activities in a spiritual (or other) light.
How can spirituality be brought into environmental education?
Some argue that providing spiritual opportunities is more about how a teacher carries themselves and goes about their work than specific lessons (Neal, 1997). In other words, it is more about process than content, more about being than doing certain tasks. According to Neal (1997) to be a good spiritual role model a teacher should:
1. Know oneself
2. Act with authenticity and congruency
3. Respect and honor the beliefs of others
4. Be as trusting as he/she can be
5. Maintain spiritual practice
Others advocate that the teacher can aid spiritual growth through focus on spiritually positive processes. Gatto (1999) states that tasks that help develop the spiritual person are:
1. Purposeful work to achieve self-knowledge and self-respect
2. Genuine independent decisions where you have to chose right from wrong
3. Tasks where you have to practice self-discipline
4. Practicing tasks meaningful to society where you develop a sense of duty
Tools that can be used to foster spiritual growth in environmental education
Positive learning environment
The “positive learning environment” is stressed in the curriculums of programs like NOLS (NOLS Leadership Toolbox, 2002). A positive learning environment lays the groundwork for students to feel comfortable and supported, and consequently feel free to risk and grow emotionally, intellectually and physically. The positive learning environment is in line with writings about spiritual growth. “Authentic expression can emerge only in a climate of safety, caring and respect. It is in close, ongoing, meaningful groups when students are likely to feel spiritual connections to others” (Kessler, 2000).
Again, creating a positive learning environment is more about how you go about a course than any specific steps, but instructors can help create and maintain a positive learning environment through the use of tools. Here are a few:
- attention to tone setting early in the course
- a full value contract. A full value contract, signed by students and instructors, lays out expectations for behavior.
- appropriate conflict management. Instructors can teach and use conflict management tools like VOMPing. VOMPing is just one example of a conflict management progression where a group moves through stages of Verbalizing the conflict, taking Ownership of one’s actions, walking in another’s Moccasins, and making a Plan.
- acknowledgement and inclusion of multiple learning styles. Instructors can teach a learning styles class.
- humor, games, and stories
- non-judgmental attitude. A non-judgmental attitude has been found to be a key ingredient a positive and growth oriented instructor-student relationship (Russell & Hendee, 2000)
Small group dynamics
The positive learning environment is closely connected to small group functioning. The small group is a vital element of many courses. Small group dynamics necessitate cooperation rather than competition, and connection rather than separation. The personal awareness involved in being a part of a well functioning group aids growth. In addition, a well functioning group will be self-correcting. Participants will monitor behavior of other participants so that the group is in line with common goals and values. This requires ownership and buy-in to stated goals and values.
Capitalizing on oneness with the group and environment
If spirituality is about our relationship to ourselves, each other, the natural world, and a higher power, then highlighting our connections and integral role within group and natural systems will spiritually strengthen us (NOLS environmental education Notebook, 2002). Through a thirty-day NOLS course a person learns how his or her actions influence the group and visa-versa. Many participants in wilderness experience programs report a sense of belonging with their group (Ewert & Haywood, 1991). This sense fits well with reported experiences of compatibility and oneness that individuals report feeling with nature (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). Wilderness experience programs capitalize on feelings of mystery, extent, and connection commonly experienced in nature, attempting to draw parallels between this feeling and the rest of a participant’s life and relationships.
The wilderness setting in which programs like NOLS operate is relatively new and unknown to most participants. Ample opportunity exists to expose participants to mystery and challenge. According to Chadwick School Outdoor Education director Max Lyon, “in the confrontation with the unknown, the mind is aroused, awareness heightened. People are forced to pay attention. Old categorizations and assessments lose some of their solidity. Fresh perceptions of self and the world emerge” (Chadwick Outdoor Education Notebook, 1998, p.10).
Reflection space, alone time
Solo time, reflection exercises, and awareness of one’s place in a group can help a participant identify personal values or attitudes, aiding in self awareness (McGowan, 2000). Participants have reported that the solo is one of the most important elements of a course in terms of their own personal growth (Russell & Phillips-Miller, 2002).
Opportunities to engage in/model responsible/positive values and behaviors (McGowan, 2000)
Practicing and receiving positive feedback relating to behaviors such as honesty, compassion, perseverance, courage, effective communication, and conflict resolution will help participants to continue to model these behaviors (McGowan, 2000). In particular, wilderness aids this process. Extended trips into the wilderness make consequences more immediate and more obviously related to a participant’s actions. Awareness and ownership of consequences breeds responsibility.
Students can be given tasks that will allow for practice and role modeling of positive values and responsibility. A task such as cooking a hot dinner for one’s tent group on a cold and rainy day can give a participant a sense of responsibility and competence.
Metaphors and stories
Metaphors awaken people’s relational sense (Miner & Boldt, 1981). Through metaphor, people can experience their connection to the world without the use of logical and linear thought processes. Feelings of spiritual connection capitalize on this relational sense.
Nature can create many powerful metaphors, which instructors can highlight before an experience (front-loading/framing), during an experience (Hey isn’t this like….) or after (debriefing).
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Ewert, A., & Haywood, J. (1991). Group development in the natural environment: Expectations, outcomes, and techniques. Environment and behavior, 23(5).
Gatto, J. T. (1999). Education and the western spiritual tradition. In S. Glazer (Ed.), The heart of learning: Spirituality in education: Penguin.
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