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Educating for Sustainability

A Guide to Nature Institute Resources

Selections for early childhood educators.

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About this Guide

Since our founding in 1998, The Nature Institute has been practicing, teaching, and refining context-rich methods for understanding the world and for striving to ethically relate to it. Based on the fruits of that work, we offer this resource guide for sustainability education.

Much in this section is oriented toward helping educators develop the capacities they need to perceive and understand nature in more holistic, intimate ways.

The guide does not contain specific activities for younger children. But we do hope our resources will inspire educators to develop their own original, experiential activities based on their intimate knowledge of the children they are working with.

Each resource is briefly summarized and the appropriate educational levels indicated. We have organized the resources in areas of focus. To go directly to a specific area, you may click on its title below.

1. Foundations of Holistic Sustainability Education

2. Perceiving Nature — Taking Appearances Seriously

3. Visual Appearances and Phenomena-Based Physics

4. Whole Organism Biology Studies

5. The Living Nature of Life — From Mechanism to Organism

6. Sustainable and Regenerative Agriculture

7. Impacts of Mechanistic Thinking and Technology

8. Foundations of Holistic, Contextual Science

9. Goethe and Other Holistic Scientists

1. Foundations of Holistic Sustainability Education

R. abortivus

Children and Nature by George K. Russell, Ph.D. In Context #37 (Spring, 2017).

In this essay, George Russell, professor emeritus of biology at Adelphi University and founding co-editor of Orion magazine, asks how we can restore to children an essential, healthy relation to the natural world. Many children’s primary exposure to nature, he notes, is now mediated by that most severe tool of abstraction — the electronic screen. To help address that urgent challenge, he recommends many specific books and authors for educators, as well as some for children, and, most importantly, he describes the kinds of experience in nature that children need to form a lasting bond with the rest of the natural world.

As Russell writes, “We will honor and protect what we have come to love and admire, and such feelings have their source in personal experience.” He adds: “Too much emphasis on concepts and the mechanical principles of nature, especially in the early years, does little to establish the sort of deep communion with nature” that will lead to a lasting bond. “Young people, above all, need to sink their hands into things that are real and actual.”

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in Education and Developmental Psychology.

Teacher Resource: Early childhood through high school educators and postsecondary teacher educators. Also of great value for parents.

Thinking Like a Plant: A Living Science for Life by Craig Holdrege (2013).

How can we develop an awareness of the transformational nature of life that can increasingly inform our own thought and action, so that we become more conscious and responsible participants in an evolving earth? This book directly addresses that question. It is written as a practical guide that shows, through concrete and vivid examples, how we can learn from the context dependency of nature to think and act in more dynamic and context-sensitive ways.

An excerpt from this book is also available online.

Class Reading: High school courses in Environ­mental Science and Life Sciences; undergraduate and graduate courses in Education, Environmental Science, History and Philosophy of Science, and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: A basic professional development tool for all educators, from early childhood through postsecondary education, who are seeking to grow in the inner capacities they hope to cultivate in their students. In particular, the book guides educators in developing capacities to attend ever more carefully to our participation in the concrete reality of the world we are embedded in; to perceive it as dynamic, interwoven processes rather than a set of separate objects; and to become more receptive, fluid, and dynamic in our own thinking.

Education and the Presence of the Unknown by Craig Holdrege. In Context #28 (Fall 2012).

Every student has an unknown future, full of potential. How can a teacher prepare individual students for what is unknown? How can the unknown play a positive role in the life of both teacher and student as they work together toward mutual unfolding of potential. In this article, Craig provides teachers with guidance in crafting learning encounters for students – that is, opportunities to experience education as attentive exploration of the world and to participate in how living science unfolds.

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in Education.

Teacher Resource: All educators (from early childhood to postsecondary teacher educators).

Teaching to Understand: On the Concept of the Exemplary in Teaching by Martin Wagenschein (2009).

The late German physicist Martin Wagenschein, a champion for reconnecting science education with nature and with children’s developmental needs, explores here how both teaching and learning can become living experiences for the participants. Wagenschein, a longtime high school teacher and education professor, shows that covering large amounts of material is not the way to help students learn. Real learning occurs through careful consideration of exemplary cases in which the whole of the subject matter can be experienced through a concrete instance. (For other teacher resources rich in pedagogical and practical suggestions for K-12 science classes, see Experience-Based Science Education: The Work of Martin Wagenschein.)

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in education.

Teacher Resource: All educators.

Children of the Machine by Stephen L. Talbott (1995). Chapter 14 from the book, The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst by Stephen L. Talbott. (The entire book is freely available and can also be ordered in print from our bookstore.)

A provocative essay that challenges the wisdom of efforts to teach computer programming to young children. In such efforts, Steve argues, the child loses — never having fully developed it in the first place — that fluid, imaginative ability to let experience reshape itself in meaningful ways before she carves out of it a set of atomic facts. (The award-winning 1995 book from which this chapter is excerpted was prescient in predicting — contrary to widespread political and commercial hype at the time — that heavily investing in computers for K-12 classrooms would not lead to a renaissance in American education. Its concerns and critiques remain pertinent to current wishful thinking about the role of advanced electronic media in the education of children.)

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in K-12 Education, History and Philosophy of Science, and Science, Technology and Society.

Teacher Resource: All educators.

Impressing the Science out of Children by Stephen L. Talbott (1995). Chapter 13 from the book, The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst by Stephen L. Talbott. (The entire book is freely available and can also be ordered in print from our bookstore.)

This provocative essay challenges the wisdom of efforts to increase children’s interest in science and math by designing immersive experiences of electronic media in the classroom. Steve notes that the ubiquity of nature videos has not translated into a rush among young people to become naturalists, and goes on to describe why.

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in pre-K to grade 12 Education, History and Philosophy of Science, and Science, Technology and Society.

Teacher Resource: All educators.

Transformation in Adult Learning by Craig Holdrege. In Context #18 (Fall 2007).

A guide to methods for self-learning that can deeply change who educators themselves are, and prepare them to lead students in developing their own capacities for open-minded, flexible, and critically astute thinking. Includes specific group observational exercises that can be practiced with both colleagues and student to encourage the consideration of different points of view and to avoid letting assumptions and mental habits block new learning. The goal: transformational learning, rooted in perceiving, listening, picturing, and, over time, growing in self-awareness as well.

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in Education.

Teacher Resource: All educators.

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2. Perceiving Nature — Taking Appearances Seriously

leaf drawing in Brazil

Expressing the Being of Animals — a recorded talk by Craig Holdrege, with many slides, exploring the holistic vision of the German Expressionist painter, Franz Marc. (2017).

Through the story of the artist’s life, his words, and slides of his breathtaking work, Craig shows the loving attention with which Marc (1880-1916) was able to enter into, and profoundly convey, the life of animals. “I have no desire to paint animals as I see them,” Marc wrote, “but rather as they are, how they themselves see the world and feel their being.” The slides presented here begin with Marc’s early drawings and paintings (including fascinating photographs of his work as a young teacher of anatomical drawing), trace his further evolution as an artist, and end with his powerfully vibrant expressionist works.

Class Reading: High school and undergraduate courses in the visual arts, zoology, and ecology.

Teacher Resource: Pre-K through undergraduate educators in the arts, humanities, zoology, and ecology.

Meeting Nature as a Presence: Aldo Leopold and the Deeper Nature of Nature by Craig Holdrege. In Context #36 (Fall 2016).

Can we perceive “the deeper nature of nature”? Aldo Leopold’s view of nature transformed radically during the course of his life and this transformation provides the focal orientation for this essay. Leopold’s life and writings — especially his 1949 posthumous book, A Sand County Almanac — have been a significant source of inspiration for the modern environmental movement. Recounted here is Leopold’s vivid encounter with a dying wolf, as well as his profound insights into the deeper character of the natural world. He asks us to “think like a mountain” — a timely challenge.

Class Reading: High school courses in Ecology and Zoology; undergraduate courses in Ecology and Environmental Science.

Teacher Resource: Pre-K through undergraduate educators.

Reality-Based Education in a Hyperreal Culture by Craig Holdrege (2015).

In a culture filled with screens and technology-mediated experiences, how can we help children interact directly with essential realities so their ideas can be rooted in the world and not in the fantasies of the virtual world? Based on Craig’s presentation at the 2014 Techno Utopia Teach-In in New York City, this article links to a video that is best watched without sound.

Class Reading and Video Resource: Undergraduate courses in Ecology, Education, Environmental Studies, Life Sciences, and History and Philosophy of Science.

Teacher Resource: All educators.

Save the Phenomena: The Primacy of Unmediated Experience by Martin Wagenschein (2008).

From the gracefully ponderous motion of a massive pendulum to the mysteries hidden in still water, sound, and radioactivity, the late German physicist Martin Wagenschein offers here a master teacher’s insights into experienced-based learning that engages the student in a lively way. Wagenschein was a longtime high-school science teacher and university professor. (For other resources that are rich in pedagogical insights, practical advice, and experiential activities for K-12 science classes, see Experience-Based Science Education: The Work of Martin Wagenschein.)

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in Education.

Teacher Resource: All educators.

A Day in the Life of a Chicory Flower by Craig Holdrege. In Context #35 (Spring 2016).

Throughout the summer, along roadsides near The Nature Institute, the radiant blue flowers of chicory are in bloom. Bringing to life a demonstration of Goethean methods of scientific study, Craig follows the unfolding and withering of the flower over the course a day. It’s a story of beauty and evanescence, told here in a sequence of careful botanical observations and radiant color photos. It provides a clear guide that educators can follow in similar holistic studies for their own professional development, and could adapt for observational activities with older students.

Class Activity: High school courses in Ecology and Life Sciences; undergraduate courses in Ecology and Life Sciences.

Class Reading: High school courses in Ecology and Life Sciences; undergraduate courses in Ecology and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: Early childhood though undergraduate educators.

Seeing With Fresh Eyes: Beyond a Culture of Abstraction by Craig Holdrege. In Context #16 (Fall 2006).

Can we gain our scientific concepts through openness to the world instead of imposing them on the world? It’s the difference between a living thinking that respects the phenomena, and a habitual thinking that cuts us off from the phenomena. By attending to the way plants grow, we begin to appreciate the nature of living thinking. Seeds of our own transformation are created every time we catch ourselves considering a problem or phenomenon through some pre-formed conceptual lens and then drop that lens and turn back, in openness, to the things themselves. In this act, we acknowledge our ignorance and readiness to engage in the concrete situation. With heightened awareness, we can begin forming concepts out of interaction with the world rather than imposing them upon the world. “The shift from abstraction and object-thinking to a plantlike dynamic thinking would help us develop the capacities we need to truly root our understanding and our interactions with nature in nature.” (The essay includes practical suggestions to help develop such living thinking.)

Class Reading: High school (grades 11-12) courses in Ecology and Life Sciences; undergraduate and graduate courses in Ecology, Environmental Science, History and Philosophy of Science, and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: All educators (especially science teachers).

Why Is the Moon Getting Farther Away? by Stephen L. Talbott (2007).

In this essay about educational priorities in a device-saturated culture, Talbott argues that educators and parents don’t need to focus time and money on making sure that students embrace technology. Technophobia, after all, is not a dominant trait of our society. What we need is balance and connection. The adaptation, even addiction, to advanced technologies occurs all too well on its own. “Children must learn, rather, how to hold these technologies in a human balance. And I suggest that a bird in the hand – and a pine cone, and a rock, and a crawdad, and a snowflake – are the counterbalances we need if our alienation from nature is not to become more than the world can bear. These bits of nature may not seem like much to us – but that is the problem. For the child they can hold magic – exactly the magic that, in a matured form, may be required to ground the adult in a society encompassed on every side by virtuality.”

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in education.

Teacher Resource: All educators.

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3. Visual Appearance and Phenomena-Based Physics

veiled falls in the Adirondack mountains

Save the Phenomena: The Primacy of Unmediated Experience by Martin Wagenschein (2008).

From the gracefully ponderous motion of a massive pendulum to the mysteries hidden in still water, sound, and radioactivity, the late German physicist Martin Wagenschein offers here a master teacher’s insights into experienced-based learning that engages the student in a lively way. Wagenschein was a longtime high school science teacher and university professor. (For other resources that are rich in pedagogical insights, practical advice, and experiential activities for K-12 science classes, see Experience-Based Science Education: The Work of Martin Wagenschein.)

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in Education and Physics.

Teacher Resource: All educators.

Exploring the Exploratorium in San Francisco by Henrike Holdrege. In Context #32 (Fall 2014).

Henrike reflects on observations she and colleagues made of the demonstrations — and the children interacting with them — at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, a highly-acclaimed “Museum for Science, Art, and Perception.” What would developmentally appropriate activities really look like if they were to effectively nourish children’s capacities of observation, learning, and inquiry?

Teacher Resource: Pre-K to grade 12 and teacher educators.

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4. Whole Organism Biology Studies

frog and pond lily

The Nature Institute’s revolutionary approach to science is exemplified in holistic, qualitative studies of particular whole organisms. These studies demonstrate how each organism is characterized by wholeness and unity, and at the same time is intimately entwined with the larger ecology of life. For sustainability educators and their students, these studies provide a complement and contrast to conventional laboratory and textbook studies that focus on organisms as mechanisms. Below are selected resources for transforming conventional approaches to academic life sciences into a new, profoundly ecological perspective. Such a perspective is far more in tune with the irreducible reality of our living ecosphere, within which humanity is immersed and our activities must harmonize.

What Does It Mean to be a Sloth? by Craig Holdrege (2009).

The sloth is a singular animal that expresses slowness in so many of its characteristics and even slows down processes in the rain forest in which it lives. Educators and students will enjoy getting to know this remarkable creature. As Craig explains: “I have tried to describe the sloth in a way that allows us to catch glimpses of its wholeness. I can now refer to such characteristics as slowness, inertia, blending in with the environment, receding or pulling in and not actively projecting outward. Each expression is a different way of pointing to the same coherent whole. Taken alone, as abstract concepts or definitions, they are empty. They are real only inasmuch as they light up within the description or perception of the animal’s characteristics. But they are not things like a bone or an eye. They are, in context, vibrant concepts that reveal the animal’s unique way of being.”

Class Reading: High school courses in Ecology, Evolution, and Life Sciences; undergraduate courses in Ecology, Evolution, and Zoology.

Teacher Resource: All educators.

How Does a Mole View the World? by Craig Holdrege. In Context #9 (Spring 2003).

The potent methods of whole organism biology are discussed and then demonstrated here, allowing a glimpse into the radically different world of a fascinating creature – the star-nosed mole. Each species lives out a unique way-of-being. To explore an animal’s behavior, we include how it actively and selectively relates to the world around it. This we can call the animal’s intentionality – how it shapes its existence by its ways of interacting. By carefully observing an animal’s behavior and the concrete context of its different behaviors, we gain understanding of its specific intentionality. But we can’t fully penetrate this behavior without attending to how it moves and the way this movement is shaped through the form and function of its various organs. The point is to build up vivid pictures of the animal from as many sides as possible. By continually immersing ourselves in concrete observation and then connecting our observations to vivid inner images, we enter into a conversation with the animal. Through such methods, the animal begins to show itself – in this case, the remarkable star-nosed mole.

Class Reading: High school (grades 11-12) courses in Ecology, Evolution, Life Sciences, and Zoology; undergraduate courses in Ecology, Evolution, Zoology.

Teacher Resource: All educators.

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5. The Living Nature of Life – From Mechanism to Organism

No entries in this section for early childhood educators.

6. Agriculture and Sustainability

No entries in this section for early childhood educators.

7. Impacts of Mechanistic Thinking and Technology

Monoculture in lower Arkansas valley

In the Belly of the Beast: Technology, Nature, and the Human Prospect by Stephen L. Talbott. Nature Institute Perspectives #3 (2004; 74 pages).

From Odysseus to the Amazon jungle, from feeding chickadees by hand to the high abstractions of science – this booklet looks at the role of technology in human life and in the management (or mismanagement) of nature, and also assesses our future prospects. Readers may find the insights it offers outrageous or revelatory, but they will never find them conventional. See especially Chapter One: “Deceiving Virtues of Technology.” The printed booklet can be purchased from our bookstore, or downloaded for free.

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in Education, Engineering, History and Philosophy of Science, Information Technology, and Philosophy.

Teacher Resource: All educators.

The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst by Stephen L. Talbott (1995). (This 481-page book is available for purchase from our bookstore or can be downloaded for free, chapter by chapter, here.)

This prescient, award-winning book correctly predicted — contrary to widespread political and commercial hype at the time — that heavily investing in computer technology for K-12 classrooms would not lead to a renaissance in American education. The book’s concerns and critiques, in terms of the seductions of technology and the too often ignored developmental needs of children, remain pertinent to current wishful thinking about the role of advanced electronic media in the education of children and about advanced technologies in general being the “solution” to all that ails society.

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in Education and History and Philosophy of Science.

Teacher Resource: All educators.

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8. Foundations of Holistic, Contextual Science

monarch butterfly on milkweed

Doing Goethean Science by Craig Holdrege. Janus Head vol. 8.1 (2005).

Practicing the Goethean approach to science involves heightened methodological awareness and sensitivity to the way we engage in the phenomenal world. We need to overcome our habit of viewing the world in terms of objects and leave behind the scientific propensity to explain via reification and reductive models. Science is a conversation with nature and this perspective can inform a new scientific frame of mind. This article presents the Goethean approach via a practical example (a study of a plant, skunk cabbage) and discuss some of the essential features of Goethean methodology and insight: the riddle; into the phenomenon; exact picture building; and seeing the whole.

Class Reading: High school (grade 12) courses in Science; undergraduate courses in Ecology, Environmental Science, History and Philosophy of Science, and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: All educators (especially middle school, high school, and postsecondary educators).

The Experiment as Mediator of Object and Subject by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (2010). Essay originally written in 1792, reprinted in In Context #24 (Fall 2010).

Goethe’s seminal essay on the nature of knowing and scientific methodology and experimentation. Because he had learned that “in living nature nothing happens that is not in connection with a whole,” he recognized that as a scientist must always view individual facts or results of individual experiments within larger contexts. For example, individual experiments do not provide “proofs;” rather, one needs to carry out a series of experiments, varying the conditions to gain real insight into phenomena.

Class Reading: High school (grades 11-12) courses in Science; undergraduate courses in Ecology, Environmental Science, History & Philosophy of Science, and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: All educators (especially middle school, high school, and postsecondary educators).

Learning to See Life — Developing the Goethean Approach to Science by Craig Holdrege (2005).

For educators, an introductory guide to teaching methods in holistic science: “I have often thought that if a teacher wanted to have one succinct motto to hang above his or her bed, she’d have a hard time finding a better one than: “characterize, don’t define.” In order to characterize, say, an animal, we have to carry within ourselves a vivid picture of its shape, how it moves, the sounds it makes, its habitat and the ways it relates to its environment. We bring alive through our imagination and speech something of the animal’s nature . . . When we paint a picture of the animal in this way — a process in which the students are involved — the animal can begin to live in the soul of the child or adolescent.” (This article originally appeared in Renewal: A Journal for Waldorf Education, Fall 2005.)

Class Reading: Undergraduate and graduate courses in Education.

Teacher Resource: All educators.

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9. Goethe and Other Holistic Scientists

ice forms on a creek

The Experiment as Mediator of Object and Subject by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (2010). Essay originally written in 1792, reprinted in In Context #24 (Fall 2010).

Goethe’s seminal essay on the nature of knowing and scientific methodology and experimentation. Because he had learned that “in living nature nothing happens that is not in connection with a whole,” he recognized that as a scientist must always view individual facts or results of individual experiments within larger contexts. For examples, individual experiments do not provide “proofs;” rather, one needs to carry out a series of experiments, varying the conditions to gain real insight into phenomena.

Class Reading: High school (grades 11-12) courses in Science; undergraduate courses in Ecology, Environmental Science, History and Philosophy of Science, and Life Sciences.

Teacher Resource: All educators (especially middle school, high school, and postsecondary educators).

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