Connecting the curriculum to nature can deepen learning

In recent times, nature has become the focus of many people’s attention, not least of our young people. The climate crisis and destruction of the planet due to human activity is, regrettably, familiar headline news. At the same time, particularly because of the lockdowns, we have become increasingly appreciative of the solace, reassurance, beauty and healing-power afforded by being in nature; we may even feel a sense of harmony. It is clear that each person has a life-time relationship to nature. Indeed, we are part of nature – it is not something ‘out there’; consequently, we affect the rest of nature by our behaviour. There is an interconnectedness (Lumber et al., 2017). Bloom, a nature-based community interest company that develops educational resources, aims to expand subject-specific curriculum material by exploring this interconnectedness, deepening understanding of curricular content as well as benefitting pupils more broadly – research suggests that feeling connected to nature can improve wellbeing and encourage the development of pro-environmental behaviours (Lumber et al., 2017).

The potential benefits of being outside in nature include enhancing academic learning and personal development (Kuo et al., 2019), as well as promoting health and wellbeing (Chawla, 2015). As wonderful as this may be, it can be very difficult for urban secondary schools to take whole classes into green spaces on a regular basis. Therefore, we also want to find a way for pupils to connect with nature even while they are in the classroom environment.

We have developed a programme that seeks to connect the curriculum to nature in order to expand and deepen learning. Specifically, our programme aims to:

  • apply the principles of nature to develop conceptual understanding
  • link academic and personal strategies (our ‘personal practices’) to improve the depth of learning
  • link content to pro-environmental behaviour (Lumber et al., 2017)
  • link content to a positive, personal relationship with nature; experiencing being part of nature
  • give a sense of purpose to school assignments (Kemp et al., 2019).

Natural principles: Helping pupils to engage with nature

Bloom’s programme covers the knowledge-content of subjects but approaches it through the paradigm of natural principles. This conceptual approach allows students to explore the subject knowledge content in greater depth. While challenging, this approach is, in our experience, accessible and relevant to pupils with a wide range of backgrounds and abilities.

Natural principles describe the way nature works and underlie the harmony that we experience when we are in nature. They include interdependence, diversity, adaptation, health, geometry, cycles and oneness and are described by HRH Prince Charles, a long-term champion of sustainability and organic farming, in his book Harmony: A New Way of Looking at our World (2010). These principles can reach far beyond biology, as he makes clear. Not only do they apply to our relationship with nature they also apply to our relationships with each other, to friends and family, to our place in society, to human endeavour and beyond. They are big, far-reaching concepts. They therefore provide a rich framework which can be incorporated into a scheme of learning in many subjects; they are a great stimulus for questioning, analysing and synthesising – teachers who have trialled our programme have identified this as a definite plus.

To underline this point, several years ago I was introduced to a primary school in Surrey whose whole curriculum was based on natural principles centring around the concept of harmony. Initial research into how other schools have used this approach suggests that, for teachers it ‘provides a new opportunity to connect with their educational values’ and for children, ‘it is perceived to be inclusive and supportive of their agency’ (Kemp et al., 2019, p. 3). I was intrigued – as a biology teacher with a long-standing interest in the purpose of education, I asked myself how this could be applied at secondary level. The concept of harmony had to be part of the existing curriculum if anyone was going to teach it and it had to meet Ofsted requirements. As a result, I came up with the idea of building it into schemes of learning.

The question that embraces the whole scheme of learning is, ‘What can we learn from nature?’ The scheme is broken down into teaching units based on each principle, with its own ‘essential question’.  We formulated a simple description of the principles, drawing on the concept of harmony and the Surrey primary school’s work. Some examples are listed in the table below, and all descriptions are available on the Bloom website.

Table 1: Natural principles

Natural principle Description Essential question
Interdependence In nature, everything is connected and everything is needed Can any action or being exist in isolation?
Adaptation Nature responds to change by adapting, this helps it find a new balance What is the best way to respond to change?
Health Health is to have wellbeing and reach full potential What does it mean to be healthy?

 

The units, which may be covered in one or more lessons, are built around the ‘essential question’. The same questions and descriptions are used whether we are exploring the concepts through PSHE or the English curriculum.

How we use the principles of nature to expand learning

In order to test the applicability of these principles across different subject areas of the curriculum, we created two rather different programmes: one for KS3 English non-fiction and one for KS3 PSHE – programmes for poetry and the novel are under development and there is also an outdoor workshop.

Both the English and PSHE programmes have broadly the same components for each unit.

  1. A mindful sensory task
  2. A subject-specific stimulus
  3. A personal practice

Each programme has eight units; one unit for each of the seven principles and one for exploring harmony itself.

Mindful use of the senses

The first component involves connecting with nature through mindful use of the senses; this is designed to be done in the classroom and only takes 4 or 5 minutes. Although it is only a fraction of the lesson in terms of time, its value is far greater. (If there is a chance of taking a class outside to do this, that would be even better.) The practice is to be still and to connect to something in nature with one or more of the senses i.e. hearing, sight, touch, smell or taste. Where possible, the object chosen to focus on such as water in a glass, gently moving air, a piece of apple, a sample of soil, a flower, leaf, bird song – live or recorded, relates to the subject-specific stimulus of the lesson. For example, for the principle of health the text in the non-fiction English course is about how soil is destroyed by intensive farming. The connection exercise is smelling a little sample of soil. From pupils’ observations a wealth of information emerges which deepens understanding of the text and the principle. Research by Lumber et al. (2017, p. 1) suggests that such exercises can promote ‘nature connectedness’, which is beneficial to wellbeing.

I enjoyed the sensory tasks because they made me feel like I knew nature a little more (Year 7 pupil, non-fiction programme).

The subject-specific stimulus

Subject material is explored and expanded upon through the principles of nature. In the Key Stage 3 English non-fiction programme, for instance, pupils read a number of carefully selected, thought-provoking extracts from a text about the natural world which provide a rich example of one of the principles in action. For example, the text for the principle of health is taken from The Running Hare by John Lewis Stempel. It is about the effect of intensive farming on the soil, on the creatures that live in it and wildlife on the farm. The text for the principle of cycles is taken from Wilding by Isabella Tree. This is about the re-colonising of a dying oak tree. The reading of the texts in class requires significant thought and attention. We provide suggested discussion questions and other response activities to ensure that students are, firstly, comprehending what they read, and secondly, thinking deeply about the content. Tasks are scaffolded to aid comprehension and differentiation.  There are some ‘reflective questions’ for students to consider after reading each text.

The programme is assessed with a piece of extended writing that aims to bring out the pupils’ authentic viewpoint. Pupils choose one principle and the text that goes with it to demonstrate their understanding of, and personal connection to, their chosen principle and their ability to communicate challenging ideas with clarity, coherence and imagination. It takes the form of a manifesto. The success criteria for this is based on the approach created by James Durran and concerns the purpose/audience, the desired effect on the audience, and finally the language and structural features. This is used as a reference sheet for students to consult while writing.

Our experience of this assessment is that students find a real vision for themselves, that they are inspired by at least one of the texts and the principle it relates to, and that they are able to write with conviction and purpose.

Comments from Year 7 pupils on the non-fiction programme include:

  • The texts gave me a new perspective on nature.
  • It made me realise there is much more to nature.
  • When we got to discuss it (the text), we got to say how we felt about it… when we discussed it I understood the texts really well.
  • I chose Oneness because people need to realise that if they harm nature they harm themselves and others.
  • I chose Interdependence because everyone right now we need to start coming together.

Non-fiction writing can be difficult for students if their knowledge and understanding of the given topic is superficial. Our scheme of learning attempts to make good this shortfall and has been appreciated by the teachers who have trialled it. Feedback comments include:

I love the concept. The content and the texts are so high level, so challenging, but at the same time, everything is accessible because of the way it’s framed. I find the approach to non-fiction exciting: it’s pitched high, but accessible to students working at a lower level.’ (Year 7 teacher non-fiction programme)

I really enjoyed using the Harmony Principles as ways to explore texts; the students engaged well with them. ……… it allowed students to see a connection between subjects as well as their own lives outside of school.’ (Year 8 teacher non-fiction programme)

Personal practice

Like the mindful use of the senses, this is only a very small part of a lesson – about five minutes – but its benefit is greater than the time given to it, at least as far as we can tell from our trials so far.

It involves reflecting on what has been learnt from nature through the principle and applying that to everyday life. The practices students choose are firstly about what they can do in their own lives for nature and secondly what they can do for others. Essentially this means pupils need to practice a value such as integrity, generosity, patience, self-control etc. during the week.

A choice of possible practices is provided, although we encourage pupils to create their own. This works well as a homework task: students can keep a journal of what they have tried and how it affected them and others. There is a great deal of evidence that our relationship with nature is strengthened when we are personally involved in it and take responsibility for our actions on an everyday basis. For example, see Glackin et al.’s work (2018) on environmental education in secondary schools.

Evaluating the impact of this programme

Our intention now is to collect evidence of the impact of Bloom programme’s on:

  • Quality and depth of learning of the subject content
  • Enthusiasm for learning e.g. by wanting to read; greater curiosity
  • Pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours
  • Overall wellbeing

This will support the informal evidence that we already have from our trials. We will use feedback forms completed by teachers and pupils, pupil focus-groups plus final pieces of work: manifestos, poems and for PSHE, a ‘Pupil Booklet’ for recording personal practices.

Last words: why connecting the curriculum to nature matters

If we and our pupils understand both intellectually and in our hearts that we are part of nature, that it is not something ‘out there’, that what we do to nature we do to ourselves, that we can work with nature rather than against it, there is a chance that we can help to heal the natural world and live in harmony, knowing the interconnectedness of all things.

Key questions for further reflection and conversation

  • How could we encourage pupils to connect with nature outside of these lessons?
  • Can you see cross-curricular opportunities here?
  • Can you see how this approach might work in other subjects?

 

For more information on Bloom, please email info@bloomeducation.co.uk

 

References

Chawla L (2015) Benefits of Nature Contact for Children. Journal of Planning Literature 30(4): 433–452.

Glackin M (2018) Understanding environmental education in secondary schools. Available at: https://www.kcl.ac.uk/news/understanding-environmental-education-in-secondary-schools-in-england-1 (accessed 5 February 2021).

HRH The Prince of Wales (2010) Harmony: A new way of looking at our world. Blue Door Harper Collins.

Kemp N et al (2019) The Educational Potential of the Harmony Project. Research Report. A study of primary/infant schools using harmony principles. Canterbury Christchurch University. Available at: https://repository.canterbury.ac.uk/download/f13449effd4a80a637573daaccfcd88b6d04a470ba873f0797145fd1e1c2226f/486139/harmony-project-research-report.pdf (accessed 6 February 2021).

Kuo M (2019) Do Experiences With Nature Promote Learning? Converging Evidence of a Cause-and-Effect Relationship. Frontiers in Psychology 2019 10: 305

Lumber R et al (2017) Beyond knowing nature: Contact, emotion, compassion, meaning, and beauty are pathways to nature connection. PloS ONE 12(5)  DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0177186.

 

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