Monthly Archives: February 2016

N. Roth, L. O’Connor


The pioneering choreographer Isadora Duncan once said that “If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it.” 1    

Responding to this statement in his seminal 1972 work ‘Steps to an Ecology of Mind’, psychologist Gregory Bateson remarked “What the unaided consciousness (unaided by art, dreams, poetry and the like) can never appreciate is the systemic nature of mind.” 2

Forty-two years later, drawing upon fieldwork amongst the Runa people in the Ecuadorian Amazon, anthropologist Eduardo Kohn wins the Gregory Bateson Prize for ‘How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human’ in which he explores “the different ways in which selfhood can dissolve and the challenges this poses for beings living in an ecology of selves.” 3

Ecology is the science of relations and interactions between organisms and their environment – the study of living systems. Recognising the transformative potential of the “ecological thought” 4, in this article we link three inter-disciplinary projects that seek to shift the focus in education from structures of compliance, rote learning and specialisation towards strategies emphasising integration, creativity and collaboration.

This shift is resonant with other “patterns that connect” 5 in contemporary thought. Once, we were taught that a flock changes direction by following a leader bird. Now, our models investigate the effect of the individual bird’s movements on the whole flock. In education, developing an “ecology of selves” in our methodologies can therefore be expressed both in the organisation of subject or topic areas and in inter-subjectivity.

The concept of Arts-based Environmental Education (AEE) was coined by Finnish art educator Meri-Helga Mantere in the 1990s and has since been employed by many educators working in schools around Finland. Mantere describes AEE as a form of learning that aims to develop environmental understanding and responsibility through “becoming more receptive to sense perceptions and observations” 6. A work in action, one such project is ‘Silva – in Art Education’ focusing on “creativity and aesthetic vision in the cognition of the Finnish forest.” 7 The students visit forests in different seasons accompanied by professional visual and performance artists and produce works of art that stem from their perceptions, sense impressions and experiences.

Forests are clearly fertile ground for projects aiming to teach the inter-connectedness of living systems. Developed in Ireland in association with the Arts Council, The Ark, the California Academy of Sciences and the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), Little Woodland Heights is an interactive work for children investigating the world of forest canopy ecology through musical composition. The project is described as “a nine-week immersive educational environment that explores ecology, botany and anthropology and transforms scientific data into musical vocabulary intuitively accessible for primary-age students.”

Wider ranging still, Björk’s Biophilia Education Project “builds on the participation of academics, scientists, artists, teachers and students at all academic levels, based around creativity as a teaching and research tool where music, technology and the natural sciences are linked together in an innovative way.” 9 The New Learning Times stated that “Biophilia, as a concept, is characterised by the affinity between humans and other living systems that should be understood and valued.” 10 The pilot commenced in 2014 and a project evaluation takes place in 2016 across its collaborative Nordic network.

These three projects are representative of a wider movement that invites long-term change in our environmental practices through an immediate re-imagining of our educational environments. Across disciplines, cultures, communities and species, this work aims towards an ambidexterity in our scientific and artistic understanding. It may still prove too late to evade ecological disaster altogether, but at least it will be a fair fight.



Hanna, Judith Lynne. Dance, Sex, and Gender: Signs of Identity, Dominance, Defiance, and Desire. University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. University of Chicago Press, 1972.

3 Kohn, Eduardo. How Forests think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human. University of California Press, 2013.

4 Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Harvard University Press, 2010.

Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. University of Chicago Press, 1972.

6 Mantere, Meri-Helga. Image of the Earth: Writings on art-based environmental education. Helsinki: University of Art and Design, 1995.

7 Olsson, Pirjo. Finnish Forest – Silva – in Art Education. Art School of Vantaa for Children and Young People, 1998.

8 Roth, Nick. Little Woodland Heights. Developed in association with the Arts Council of Ireland, The Ark, California Academy of Sciences and the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), 2015.

9 Guðmundsdóttir, Björk. Biophilia Education Project. Developed by Björk Guðmundsdóttir, the City of Reykjavík and the University of Iceland in connection with the release of Björk’s album Biophilia, 2011.

10 James, Carmen. Biophilia Education Project. New Learning Times, 2015.