It started with a seed.....
Jane Macrae, Founder of Bloom
With a background in biology and more than twenty years working as a teacher I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the role of nature in education.
As a biologist, I observed the principles of harmony, interdependence, diversity and adaptation, over and over again in the natural world. Everything is dependent on everything else; everything is part of a system.
Coronavirus has really brought this home to us. Contrary to what modern Western culture tells us to believe, we humans cannot survive as individuals. We too, are dependent on many other things – we are part of something much bigger than ourselves.
My vision or ‘seed’, for Bloom was a strong feeling that education should have a bigger, overarching ideal for our young people. I can sum this up in one word: harmony. It already exists in the natural world and in the human heart, yet it is not evident in our schools.
Harmony and its seven principles
Taking this further, I decided to build an educational program around each of these seven principles of harmony diversity, adaptation, health, cycles, interdependence, oneness and geometry. This way our young people could truly learn from nature in education.
Bloom focuses on secondary schools particularly, because most primaries have a lot of nature-related activities. Exam pressures seem to dictate that children over the age of 11 aren’t offered these options.
At the start I was anxious about how my proposals would be received. What head teacher was going to entertain the whacky notion of learning to live in harmony when there is pressure to strive for exam results, personal achievement and league tables? What school dealing with disadvantaged pupils - knife crime and drugs, struggling to keep teachers and strapped for cash - was going to think that this ‘nature in education’ idea was anything other than pie-in-the-sky?
Sowing the concept of 'nature in education'
I had to be prepared, like anyone who starts something new, to go down lots of blind alleys; to make mistakes; to listen to criticisms; to be persistent; look for opportunities and ask for help when needed. At the same time I had to hold on to the essence of the seed. Reflecting on this for a moment: self-
doubt can get confused with doubt in the project. Self-doubt is about me, whereas doubt in the idea is not. It’s important to discern one from the other.
In order to make my ‘nature in education’ manifesto workable, I wanted to create courses that could be incorporated into the national curriculum. We would not be asking teachers to squeeze something new into their already packed timetables but, instead, to re-think what they were teaching in their various subjects; adopt a new framework for teaching topics that they were already teaching; add another layer of meaning to enrich what already existed. For example, in English this would mean bringing in new texts from well-known nature writers and thinkers.
A milestone on this journey was getting our first two pilot courses up and running in 2018. One was in non-fiction English for Key Stage 3 at School 21 (ages 11-13) and the other in PSHE (personal, social and health education) for the same age group at Douay Martyrs RC School. The teachers whom I worked with to develop these courses came up with invaluable new thoughts, insights and formulations.
Throughout the pilots, I observed most of the lessons. Pupils were of very mixed ability and from a wide range of backgrounds; all were totally unprepared for what they were receiving. It was therefore a pleasure and a relief to find them receptive, interested and sometimes even enthusiastic!
What are we asking pupils to do?
The English course involved pupils reading and analysing seven excerpts from texts by mostly contemporary nature writers. Each excerpt was chosen because it encapsulated something about one of the seven harmony principles.
We also included a practical connection exercise related to the text, often a simple activity using the senses. An example would be: smelling a little heap of damp soil while reading about the effect of poor farming practices on soil health. Final lesson reflections asked pupils what they could learn from nature that could be put into practice in everyday life.
The course culminated in a writing competition, the title: ‘A manifesto: my vision of harmony now and in the future.’ Pupils were asked to choose the harmony principle that meant the most to them and were given guidance on how to structure their manifesto. They could draw on the class work they had done as well as the original texts that they had studied. Apart from these inputs, they were on their own.
These children had to enter an unfamiliar space. Many were initially disorientated by the 'what if?' but found themselves gently coaxed into the unknown by skilled teachers and other pupils.
• Firstly, they had to make their own independent connection with one of the seven harmony principles by choosing one and explaining it in their own words.
• Secondly, they had to re-read the relevant text on their own to recall its detail and meaning.
• Thirdly they had to explain how their chosen principle shows itself in the natural world and the write a paragraph describing what difference it would make if this principle were to be put into practice.
• Lastly - the biggest leap of imagination - pupils had to put forward their own ideas for what could be done to put this into practice and how that would help to create more harmony in the world.
One pupil’s manifesto
Here are some excerpts from a pupil’s manifesto. This eleven-year old boy is from a Somali family and his English was competent but not fluent. He wrote:
“Have you ever noticed that humans treat nature like a piece of paper? We use it and chuck it away like it is not valuable. “We are part of nature and not apart. We are all one and if there was no nature we would all cease to exist . . . . The principle of oneness is important to me personally because where I live in London there is [sic] a lot of murders. . . . So I think there should be more nature around to smooth and calm people down. I sometimes shout so I’m going to think before I do because we are all part of the same community. The principle of oneness also teaches us the value of humanity. I believe we can make a difference to the world if everyone knew about oneness because they would think before they waste food, shout at each other and hurt people because they appreciate the connection between people . . . . My vision for harmony is that there should be more peace in the world. One way it could happen is when every school has a quiet room. So they can calm down . . . . so we should thank nature for all the stuff it's done for us.”
We hope that teaching young people how to reason from principle deepens their level of thinking in general. It might enable them to relate issues of a practical, moral, social or academic type to a bigger idea or a wider whole.
Hopefully the pull towards partial, divisive, one-sided thinking would lessen as they moved towards a more essayistic and heuristic approach, allowing space and time to respond to issues that may otherwise provoke unreasoned or reactive responses.
Much is said about the need for tolerance but what we see in education, and in the world at large, is too often the opposite; there can be violent intolerance for those ideas we disagree with. A central part of the Bloom ‘nature in education’ approach is to connect with others and that includes listening - deeply, and with an open mind, without preconceptions. Speaking about generosity, patience, forgiveness, self-control, resilience and loyalty, for
example, gives young people alternative reference points to those used in social media and modern culture, which might draw them unwittingly into self-absorbed, ‘me first’ individualism.
From what we’ve seen in the pilot projects, most young people are open to all these possibilities. They have confirmed my belief that children can learn to connect with themselves, with each other and with the natural world. Given the right support they might create a powerful and imaginative vision for humanity.