In her sublime and poetic book Braiding Sweetgrass, plant ecologist and ethnobotanist Robin Wall Kimmerer describes the intricacies of ecological relationships in a way that is both beautiful and mind-expanding. In one passage, for instance, she describes how water steeped in moss or Alder will form larger drops than plain water as a result of the additional tannins. A subtle, yet significant, difference based entirely on the water’s relationship with its surrounding environment.
In passage after passage, she weaves tales of plant biology with culture and ecology. How her attempts to restore a pond on her property revealed a complex web of relationships between plants and animals – cattail, willows, toads, ducks – that all depend on the pond for life. How species like Cedar occupy distinct niches within a larger ecosystem that is incredibly fragile and sensitive to human influence.
The message that becomes clear in her writing is that all things exist in relationship. We cannot expect to understand the health of a plant, or a human, without understanding the context in which it lives, breathes and grows.
In the same way, we cannot expect to implement effective educational reform without understanding the equally intricate web of relationships present in a classroom, school, and community. In an industry driven by data, standards, and easily quantifiable results this discussion of relationships may seem superfluous and ineffectual – which may be all the more reason it is so critical.
Ecology, as it turns out, is a scientific field of inquiry that seeks to understand the relationships between organisms and their surrounding environment. It is a field that requires a great deal of patience, appreciation for nuance, and the willingness to participate in hands-on, naturalistic observation.
What lessons could we learn if we applied an ecological lens toward our understanding of a school system?
Here are a few of the lessons taken from Braiding Sweetgrass and applied to an educational system:
The need to pay attention
Dr. Wall Kimmerer describes one of the greatest needs of our time as the need to pay attention. “Paying attention,” she says, “acknowledges that we have something to learn from intelligences other than our own. Listening, standing witness…creates an openness to the world in which the boundaries between us can dissolve in a raindrop.”
This skill of paying attention is exactly the skill that is cultivated through a mindfulness practice. The immediate benefit of purposeful and skillful attention allocation is clear – one gains a spaciousness that allows for less reactivity to thoughts and emotions and more ability to choose an intentional response.
From a classroom eco-system perspective, paying attention in a non-judgmental way can reveal a great deal of helpful information about how relationships inform student and teacher behavior in a classroom setting. Most teachers know, for example, that a sudden change in student behavior could be an indication of something else going on in their life – a lack of sleep, a conflict at home, or difficulties in relationship, to name a few.
In one extreme example, I once dealt with a student who was in a full-blown temper tantrum teetering on physical violence. Feeling completely at a loss after my repeated attempts to calm him down, I finally let him go and followed him down the hall only to discover that he simply wanted a drink of water. Upon further inquiry, I discovered that this particular student had frequently gone hungry at home and was acting from a place of survival and fear without the skills to communicate his needs.
Without the qualities of attention and open-minded inquiry, however, I may never have discovered this particular dynamic. Now consider that most classrooms have upwards of 20-30 students, all with their own unique needs, hopes, fears, and ever-changing relationships to one another.
In the same way that a plant ecologist may take their time to make careful observations of the complex relationships between plants and their surrounding environment, we can begin to apply our faculty of attention towards understanding the unspoken relationships in a classroom. How are students interacting with one another? With the teacher? What patterns can we notice? Do our students feel safe and supported? What implicit and explicit messages are we communicating through our words, actions, and structures?
Only through paying attention, with an appreciation for the complex web of relationships present, can we truly attune to the needs of all learners.
A fundamental principle of nature is reciprocity. Reciprocity involves the exchange of energy, materials, goods, and time towards the mutual benefit of all organisms involved. Almost every organism in nature exists in a web of reciprocal relationships – recycling nutrients, sunlight, carbon dioxide & oxygen in a never-ending cycle of give and take. Simply put – reciprocity means you get what you give.
Human beings are no exception to the principle of reciprocity, although the dominant cultural paradigm tends to emphasize individualism over reciprocity. If we were to acknowledge on a deep level that we exist in a continual flow of relationship and that our responsibility extends well beyond our self, this would create a drastic shift in how we approach student behavior.
It is well documented, for instance, that students of teachers who practice mindfulness and effective social & emotional skills fare better on almost every measure. This may seem like common sense, but it is also profound. Just by shifting our presence in the classroom we can influence student outcomes.
To take it a step further, imagine if we explicitly taught students about reciprocity and their responsibilities towards others and their environment? How might a felt sense of duty towards others shift the culture of a classroom or school?
As Dr. Wall Kimmerer describes it:
“Each person, human or no, is bound to every other in a reciprocal relationship. Just as all beings have a duty to me, I have a duty to them. If an animal gives its life to feed me, I am in turn bound to support its life. If I receive a stream’s gift of pure water, then I am responsible for returning a gift in kind. An integral part of a human’s education is to know those duties and how to perform them.”
Species Isolation & Interdependency
A known phenomenon in nature is that organisms raised in isolation – be they plants, animals, or otherwise – are far less resilient and encounter far more difficulty than organisms raised in relationship. Mono-crop fields, for example, lack the resistance to disease, pests, and toxins inherent to a field of diverse crops. Mammals (including humans) raised in isolation never regain normal functioning. The bottom line is that interdependency and positive relationships are a biological necessity – not just something that is ‘nice to have.’
The term that Dr. Wall Kimmerer uses to describe this stressful state of isolation and disconnection is species isolation; “a deep, unnamed sadness stemming…from the loss of relationship. As our human dominance of the world has grown, we have become more isolated, more lonely when we can no longer call out to our neighbors.”
Lest we underestimate the gravity of this phenomenon, consider that every single school shooter, to a person, has a clear pattern of complex childhood trauma and a subjective sense of isolation. What else but a deep-seated sense of disconnection could lead a young person to act in such a horrifically violent way against the very community that is their home?
If we are to begin reform in any aspect of how we educate our children, let us begin by creating a sense of belonging. Let us create classrooms and schools that children want to attend. Let us provide teachers with the time, money, and support needed to bring all of their humanity to work. Let us recognize that when children feel safe they learn. Let us value learners based on their common humanity instead of their test scores. Let us build communities that feel like home for everyone. And, let us remember that education is the foundation of our future, and is integral to every facet of our society, our growth, our sustainability and our freedom.
“One thing I have learned in the woods,” says Kimmerer, “is that there is no such thing as random. Everything is steeped in meaning, colored by relationships, one thing by another.”
We did not land ourselves in this situation by chance, nor will we find our way out without a clear shift in priorities.