There is now overwhelming evidence that humanity is living beyond its means, consuming and polluting in ways that are exhausting and degrading the natural world and impacting on the lives of the most vulnerable.
It is quite clear that business as usual is not an option. Indeed, if we are to take the challenges we face seriously, we must develop fundamentally different practices. Only by rethinking how we live in relationship with the world, will we heal and restore Nature, and in turn ourselves. It is a big and extremely urgent task.
There are calls from many, most notably HRH The Prince of Wales and more recently His Holiness The Pope in his Encyclical Letter, to find more enlightened ways of living, to consume, waste and pollute less and to protect, nurture and share more. With the global population rising dramatically, we all need to develop conservation conscious mindsets and collectively create and implement better, more sustainable practices in how we live on the earth.
This has far reaching implications for how we educate our young people and what kind of opportunities we give them to engage meaningfully in the issues of our time. The aim in this learning process is that they start to realise their role in finding and leading on the solutions to the challenges we face. Underpinning this approach are the values of care and compassion, of respect and responsibility, of service.
So where are the role models for this work? In deepening young people’s understanding of the sort of practices we need to develop to lead us to a more sustainable future, Nature’s principles of Harmony are a good place to start. In his book Harmony: A new way of looking at our world (2010), HRH The Prince of Wales highlights seven key principles.
The Principle of Geometry – Nature has a geometry
On a macro and micro scale Nature has a geometry. We see Nature’s geometric patterns and forms all around us all the time and they remind us that the natural world has an order, a rhythm and a symmetry to it that creates balance and harmony. The starting point for this geometry is the circle. When we see the geometry of Nature, we begin to understand everything in a different way.
From an education perspective, when we look at the world through its geometry and realise that its patterns and symmetries are also in us, as much as they are around us, we learn to appreciate that Nature has the most incredible structure to it. There are many ways in which we can weave this understanding into our learning, linking subjects such as Maths, Art and Science together, for example when we use circles to create the form of a six petalled flower. Educating our young people in this way helps them to make sense of their world and themselves because they start to see that the patterns in Nature around them are in them, too. It gives greater purpose to what they do as they are learning to appreciate how life works.
The Principle of Interdependence – Everything is connected
Nature’s systems are wholly interdependent and interconnected – nothing is separate. Each element within an ecosystem has a value and a role to play. When certain elements within the system are lost or in any way degraded, the system is weaker and poorer for it.
This understanding of interconnection is important for education. How can we join our learning together more meaningfully, linking subjects to projects or themes and giving greater flow to the learning, rather than teaching in piecemeal, disjointed ways? How might we engage more fully with our communities, building relationships with those who could enrich our learning and with whom we can develop a stronger sense of togetherness.
The Principle of the Cycle – Nature depends upon cycles that limit
Nature works in circles and cycles – life cycles, seasonal cycles, carbon cycles, water cycles – it is not linear. Nothing is wasted. Everything feeds back into the cycle to regenerate and renew it. Just as importantly, whilst there are times of fruitful abundance in Nature, there are also times when things die back and decay, creating a limit to what is produced and consumed. Growth is not endless.
As we learn from Nature’s cycles, how might we create better, more cyclical systems in our schools and organisations? How can we consume less, waste less or not at all, and understand the importance of limit in the way we live and act? In our throw-away culture, can we find better ways to close the loop on our practices?
The Principle of Diversity – There is strength in diversity
Nature’s great strength is in its diversity. We see this diversity in the rich variety of plant and animal species, in the myriad forms of a leaf or wildflower or fruit. And we see it in our own uniqueness and difference. This rich diversity ensures that Nature is resilient, too. Biodiversity in the natural world is something to treasure and preserve.
We often create a monoculture of learning in our schools with young people all learning the same thing in the same way. Yet if we provide the right framework for the learning and apply the appropriate skills, there are great opportunities for our young people to respond in diverse ways to the task or project in hand. Similarly, we generally grow and consume a monoculture of foods and crops, often in ways that deplete and exhaust our soils. How can we promote and nurture diversity in what we learn, what we grow and what we eat? Most importantly, how can we cherish and celebrate the diversity that exists in Nature and in one another?
The Principle of Health and Well-Being – Life needs to be healthy
The essence of Nature is health and well-being. Consequently when we are in Nature, we also feel well. Nature rejuvenates us. It heals us. It restores our spirit. It captures our imagination. It makes us feel alive. It calms us and uplifts us. It is a constant source of inspiration. When we attune ourselves to the essence of Nature, we find our peace.
So how can we nurture health and well-being in how our young people learn and how they live? The best learning combines meaningful, engaging tasks with the development of key skills and knowledge. Much of the meaning in these tasks comes from a deep understanding of how Nature works and how we respond to what we learn. So the more we can take our young people beyond the classroom and connect them to Nature, the more their well-being is likely to be enhanced.
As part of this learning process, time for stillness and reflection, and time to be mindful, has a critical role to play in nurturing a sense of well-being.
The Principle of Beauty – Beauty is inherent in the world
Nature’s outcomes are both beautiful and functional. What we see in Nature is pleasing to the eye, but there is also great purpose to this beauty. Everything created has a function that plays an integral part in the success of the whole system. The beauty in Nature is in its patterns and shapes and symmetries, in its movements and colours, in its sounds and textures and flavours. Observing this beauty at work is fundamental to creating our own beauty in the world. This is important for young people to realise.
So how do we enable our young people to appreciate beauty and what are the beautiful outcomes we want to create with them? We know that tests and assessments are a fundamental part of learning – that won’t change – but surely the outcomes of our work need to be more beautiful and have greater meaning than a test? How much can we mimic Nature’s beauty in what we design and create?
The Principle of Oneness – We are Nature
The final principle of Nature is the principle of oneness. Nature teaches us that we are all one. The patterns we see around us in Nature exist in us, too. We are Nature. When we notice that the Fibonacci spiral of our curled index finger is the same shape as that of a snail shell or an unfurled fern or the galaxy’s swirling spiral across the night sky, we understand this.
With this understanding, we also realise that when we damage, degrade or pollute Nature, we do it to ourselves as well because we are wholly dependent on the health and well-being of the world around us. Our starting point therefore is to value the natural world and to treat it with the greatest respect because it sustains us. With such demands on natural resources, we must educate our young people to understand how to value and respect these resources and live within the carrying capacity of the world.
All these Principles form an integral whole, reinforcing how important it is to create joined up, cohesive learning with meaningful outcomes that help young people to find well-being and purpose in their own work and lives. This is not an ideal. It is based on a carefully planned and delivered curriculum that sees learning in a much broader context than classroom based, teacher taught lessons. It sets learning in real life and gives young people a lead role in creating the vision and the practices that will take us to a more harmonious, more sustainable future.
There is no other way to go.
This article was first published on the SFT Website on 13th November 2015.
Photograph: Richard Dunne