‘Nature Gives and Nature Takes’: A Qualitative Comparison between Canadian and German Children about their Concepts of ‘Nature’

Principal Investigator: Dr. Barbara Weber

Funding: 6996 CAD


1.                 Research Project Question and Objectives

The proposed pilot study is intended to establish an interdisciplinary research cooperation between Professor Eva Marsal (Philosophy, University of Education, Karlsruhe) and the PI of this proposal (Education, UBC). We propose to empirically investigate the common concepts children have about nature. This is of particular importance, because children will be the most affected by the long term environmental changes and challenges that our planet is facing. We specifically want to understand how they relate to nature as well as what role nature plays in their identity development. These observations and their analysis will be essential for the refinement of school curricula in the field of environmental and sustainability education. We will start by comparing how children in different countries conceptualize ‘nature’: e.g. as unpredictable and threatening (e.g. natural catastrophes, the weather, etc.), as an economic value (e.g. wood, oil, water), as a place for recreation (e.g. swimming, hiking), as the root of their identity or the foundation of life (in a spiritual or scientific way) and so on. Research participants will be school-aged children in grades 5 and 6 (10-12 years old) from approximately 8 classrooms in public elementary schools of two medium size cities (Vancouver and Karlsruhe). Schools will be chosen based on their representativeness of the range of socioeconomic and racial/ethnic diversity of students in the school district. Vancouver is of particular interest for us, because of BC’s efforts to embrace and integrate the indigenous worldviews (e.g. that refer to nature in a spiritual way) into the cultural education of children in schools. This project will also support the concept of ‘social responsibility’ as advocated by the BC Ministry of education, e.g. ‘sharing responsibility for their social and physical environment’ (see www.bced.gov.bc.ca/perf_stands/social_resp.htm).

2.                 Current Research Discussions

Primary and secondary education programs are increasingly shifting their focus onto topics of environmental sustainability in the face of the call for continued economic development. This reflects the evolution of public sentiment towards a more global perspective as made evident by large international conferences on the protecting the environment. The need for well-reflected education on environmental issues has led to a revival of interest in ‘natural philosophy’ and ‘natural ethics’. But what do we actually mean by ‘nature’? The literary critic Raymond Williams said of ‘nature’ that it was perhaps “the most complex word in the language” (1984, p. 198). Indeed, in the philosophical tradition, the concept of ‘nature’ has always been very ambiguous one and has been influenced by the ever changing, culturally contingent perceptions and experiences of nature. Examples include: a. nature as provider of life (e.g. the notion of a ‘mother earth’), b. nature as a threat or destructive force (e.g. natural catastrophes or the ‘dark forest’ as dangerous), c. nature as disenchanted and controllable by natural sciences and technology (e.g. industrialization), d. nature as an extremely vulnerable ecosystem, which can be destroyed by humans (e.g. the discovery of the ozone hole and its consequences). Specifically the drastic environmental changes that were first brought on by industrialization scattered the unconditioned belief in a merely scientific concept of nature:  a “predictable, causal and mechanical context that can be grasped and is there to be manipulated and mastered by the improvement of technology”  (Pätzold 2003, p. 1). The ecological crisis in the 80s dramatized this change of perspective and revitalized more spiritual and romantic views of nature: “Nature – this what we once described as inexhaustible, indestructible, revolving, self-perpetuating and healing, mother earth, we suddenly experience as vulnerable, destructible, a precious good, that humans have to protect and preserve” (Schäfer 1998, p. 732).  Contemporary philosophers like Hans Jonas, Peter Singer or John Passmore advocate for more responsibility and protection of nature. They argue that we recognize nature as a ‘juristic person’: i.e. so that plants, animals and even landscapes would have a right to be protected. Adolf Meyer-Abich (1997) calls this ‘a legal community with nature’. This pilot is inspired by these philosophical deliberations about the very diverse ‘concept’ of nature. However, instead of developing a new ‘theoretical account of nature’, we are interested in uncovering the actual and everyday concepts that children develop around ‘nature’ as well as in understanding how these concepts are tied to their identity. This information is important if we wish the educational process to remain sensitive and relevant to how children actually think, feel and grow up in today’s culture (understanding the ‘life-world’ of children).

3.                 Methodology: Qualitative Data Collection using the philosophical Community of Inquiry (CoI) Pedagogy

The PI and Professor Eva Marsal will plan philosophical discussion sessions following the pedagogy of the community of inquiry (CoI) as developed by the ‘Philosophy for Children’ initiative (Lipman 2003, Weber 2007). Our methods are also based on John Dewey’s claim that we are not aware of our own concepts and attitudes until we engage in an open ended, but critical dialogue (Dewey 1927). Therefore, the sessions will involve the following aspects: 1) the facilitator presents a stimulus, e.g. a narrative, picture or natural material, that will elicit discussion questions from the students around the topic of ‘nature’; 2) students will discuss some of those questions and perform relevant exercises and activities so that they become aware of what they think and so that they collaboratively construct new ways of thinking together; and 3) further responses and other creative ways of expressions are encouraged (e.g. drawings, sculptures or poems, etc.) (Lipman 2003). Those sessions will be recorded and transcribed. The data will be analyzed, using qualitative and quantitative methods. For the systematic comparison of the children’s statements and drawings we will use phenomenological and hermeneutic approaches. The categories will be achieved deductively through philosophical theories as well as inductively through the statements of the children. Of course, because of the small sample this study is not ‘representative’ and only of heuristic value. The educational goal of the CoI is that children explore and reflect on ideas in a collaborative, non-competitive fashion and move towards sounder reasoning, mutual understanding, and self-awareness. The topic of nature (i.e. the environment) is chosen here because of its relevance to the ever increasing need for effective, collective reasoning and decision making to address global issues.

4.                 Timeline and Budget Justification

The PI of this proposal is an expert in implementing the CoI method and Professor Marsal (the PI of the German Research Group) is a Senior Full professor with extensive experience in developing philosophical classroom materials. Marsal is presently creating the K-12 philosophical curriculum for the Germany Ministry of Education and is considered by some as one of the most important experts in the field. The proposed study began as a pilot phase in Germany in 2012, and initial sessions have already been conducted and transcribed. We are requesting funds to complete the phase of this project here in Canada. This will be done in the fall of 2013 and will involve further development of the theoretical background, the analysis methodology, and modes of comparison.  We may also need to address issues that arise as a result of the bilingual nature of this research project. Much of this work has already been done “virtually” (i.e. via email), but the substantial theoretical and methodological work must be done in person. Marsal also needs to observe first-hand the Canadian school system in order that the materials can be properly tailored to the Canadian context.  We plan to publish the findings of this comparison in our edition ‘Philosophy in Schools’ at Lit Publisher.  Our planned publication deadline is the fall of 2014.

5.                 Student Training

This study will also include graduate student training and will involve the GRA in all stages of the research project.  His/her tasks will include learning how to facilitate a philosophical community of inquiry and how to develop philosophical material (on the subject of ‘nature’).  The GRA will also help transcribe and analyze the classroom data and will co-author the empirical study publications.

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