What is the potential impact of nature-inclusive education in an academic context? Does more nature lead to deeper education? And should WUR education include more of these “transformative nature experiences that catalyse sustainability awareness”? On the 26th of April, teachers, students and a wide range of other voices in the academic landscape joined an engaging dialogue about this topic in Omnia.
When entering the room, green, leaf-like lights and forest sounds offered a first nature experience which helped the over 200 participants in the dialogue to reflect on their own relationship with nature. In addition to teachers and students, the audience included scientists, policymakers, representatives of NGOs, nature guides and journalists. WUR organised this dialogue together with Stichting Natuurcollege. ‘All students should have a chance to ask questions about life and the relationship with nature’, Lian Kasper from Stichting Natuurcollege kicked off the event.
To further explore the concept of nature-inclusive education, two keynote speakers highlighted this topic from a scientific perspective. Noëlle Aarts is a professor of Socio-Ecological Interactions at Radboud University and domain leader on education and awareness for the LNV programme 'Nature Inclusive'. She explained why we need to improve our relationship with nature and each other. ‘If we saw ourselves as a part of nature, we would automatically take better care of it.’ However, that is easier said than done, because ‘it starts with recognising our dependency on nature’.
Awareness of humans’ dependency on nature is something that goes against the prevailing thoughts of most people, according to Aarts. A good start to transform these thoughts would be to change our language, which is full of expressions of human dominance over other life forms. ‘If you want to change the way people think, you should change the way they talk’, she said.
Aarts’ talk was followed by a presentation by the brand-new WUR-professor of Human-Nature Relationships in the Anthropocene Maria Tengö. Her research focuses on practices, ethics and motivations in the relationship between humans and nature and the question why this matters. ‘Decisions, based on a narrow set of market values of nature, underpin the global biodiversity crisis’, she said. To make more sustainable decisions, she thinks that including multiple perspectives on the relationship with nature would help. To further illustrate this, she highlighted two of her research projects, which are based on dialogue and coproduction of knowledge.
One of the three examples of nature-inclusive education that were subsequently presented to the audience was the WUR course Anthropology of Basic Nature Skills. This course involves an outdoor experience and a deep reflection on the human-nature relationship, which is also possible in the classroom. (See Seven-step Learning Journey)
Students appreciated this focus on nature connectedness, the intuitive way of learning and the increased consciousness about their role in and with the environment. One student summarised the learning outcomes as follows: ‘By being in nature, I understood the texts about the awareness of nature much more. I really enjoyed this, which I noticed through the enthusiasm in which I could speak about it with other classmates and outsiders.’
Nature in the back of your mind
The examples led to the main questions of the afternoon: Should WUR focus much more on nature-inclusive education? And in what way? Initially, the dialogue panel consisted of Kasper, Aarts, Tengö and Dean of Education Arnold Bregt. Throughout the dialogue, other participants could take over their place. “The Earth” was also offered a chair to make its voice heard – as is increasingly included in board rooms around the world. This chair was symbolically left empty at times, but also filled by participants representing aspects of the living planet from time to time.
The discussion was not about being in favour or against nature-inclusive education. Someone said, ‘It’s about exploring more fundamentally what we want to teach our students. Not only in knowledge and skills, but also – and especially – in attitude.’ Some students and teachers were therefore wondering why nature-inclusive education is almost completely limited to a single WUR course. On the contrary, it could be more embedded in all study programmes, they suggested. ‘This course was really impactful in my life. In the future, our generation will make the decisions and we also need to do that from our hearts’, said one of them. Someone else added, ‘One week is only a small piece of the puzzle. Nature should be in the back of your mind when you graduate.’
Bregt took on the role of a critic by pointing out the importance of clear learning outcomes and indicators of meeting these outcomes. ‘Education at WUR should focus on knowledge, skills and attitudes. However, education focused on attitudes still receives too little attention, because it is difficult to test. Human-nature relations are largely part of the attitudes domain’, he said. Bregt could, however, already refer to the concept of Boundary Crossing. This concept involves collaboration with all kinds of different people and organisations. 'This concept should be just as much about the nature-human relationship as it now is about the connections between humans.'
To move in the direction of more nature-inclusive education, a teacher asked for ‘more space for students and teachers to cocreate courses and set learning goals together’. He advocates greater trust in students' and teachers' judgment of their learning process. Students fell in with him and also emphasised the need for teachers themselves to be trained in nature-inclusive education. If teachers themselves have not had transformative experiences, they will not be effective in their teaching to students, they said. ‘Teachers need tools and personal development’, Kasper summarised their point of view.
Bregt promised to put the concept on the table during the discussions for the new education policy that start this year. ‘My take-home message is to think about a practical course for teachers to help them develop nature inclusive education.’ Kasper wrapped up the dialogue with some concluding remarks. ‘I have heard many constructive ideas and I feel momentum to build to the next step.’
To conclude, this session of Wageningen Dialogue was a moment of reflection for all participants, in which they looked at their own experiences with nature and the value of those experiences. Hearing others' experiences and reflections allowed participants to explore the question of how nature-inclusive education can be more broadly integrated into education.
A next step is to come up with a good definition of nature-inclusive education. To follow up the event, educators and experts are invited to join workshop sessions aimed to design and implement nature-inclusive learning methods for higher education.