Environment, place and social ecology in educational practice

Document Type

Conference publication

Publication details

Wattchow, B, Burke, G & Cutter-Mackenzie, AN 2008, 'Environment, place and social ecology in educational practice',in PL Jeffrey (ed.), AARE 2008 Proceedings: International education research conference, Brisbane, Qld., 30 November - 4 December, Australian Association for Research in Education.


'Environment,' like 'nature,' is an ambiguous term because of the many environments that do exist and the different ways in which they are perceived and socially constructed over time and through space. Educators must be careful about the way meaning is ascribed to 'environment' and 'nature' if sustainability is to remain a plausible proposition. For example, the same school 'environment' may simultaneously be perceived by teachers and students as a sporting arena for testing human physical performance, a landscape of shapes, light and colours for the art class, or as a ecology in need of examination and management in a science subject. These examples mark only the beginning of a very long list of the multiple, complex and even contradictory ways that various pedagogic environments may be viewed and therefore experienced. Environments can be personal, social, historical, built, natural, tame or wild. The integrity of each environment warrants study and requires a particular pedagogic response. Educators should be mindful of the various ways in which teachers and students shape and are shaped by these learning environments physically, emotionally and intellectually. Hence, a 'social ecology' of the complex term 'environment' is urgently required to enhance our pedagogical and research efforts in outdoor, environmental, movement, physical and health educations. What is needed is a conceptual shift in our thinking and bodily practices towards an 'ecocentric' or place responsive posture; a philosophical frame quite different from the anthropocentrism, or human centredness of most educational discourses. In practical terms, a social ecology of the environment, in relation to the study of movement and community experiences, entails in pedagogical practices a range of human- environment interactions, be it open-space play, active art projects, walking to school, or outdoor education expeditions. A constant in these examples is the taking of education away from the environmental constraints of the 'indoors,' and its privileging of mind/learning/knowing, to the environmental enablements of the 'outdoors' and body/mind doing, meaning-making and becoming. A social ecology of these human-environment interactions and relations address various 'other' and 'wild' forms of expression and performance - be it strenuous activity in space, graceful movement in place, or kinaesthetic appreciation over time in different places. This paper addresses some of the more 'ecocentric' and wild, less tamed concerns outlined above and leaves others to the 'Movement' and 'Community' papers. Simply, the authors' aim is to outline the major distinguishing characteristics and dimensions of 'environment' so that inquiry of an ecological type can proceed into the qualities of movement, physicality, their spatialities and geographies, and generation of active and sustainable communities. To ground this in their research efforts, they focus on 'place' study - an important derivation of the nature/environment concepts. The authors offer vignettes about 'the experience of river places in outdoor education, children's gardens and artistic representations of pedagogies of place. [Author abstract, ed]