Connecting with Nature: Learning to be a Part of the Dance

December 10, 2020

By Shaila Shams

What is education? What is the purpose of education? Can the current education system help sustainable co-living with nature? These are some of the questions that have been floating around in the academic discourse of educational philosophy for some time. After all, the Earth is the only planet that we have. No other time than now would be as suitable and as relevant to feature the work of Dr. Sean Blenkinsop and Dr. Mark Fettes, when the world is grappling with ecological disasters, biodiversity loss, and the latest COVID-19 pandemic that is forcing us to rethink about our life, our education and our understanding of the world.

In this special feature, we explore the research of Drs. Blenkinsop and Fettes and how they envision the education system to be inclusive of nature, community, people, and to be guided by the principles of imagination, inquiry, and justice.

Dr. Sean Blenkinsop and Dr. Mark Fettes at the faculty of Education at SFU have been pioneers in imaginative and place-based learning and schooling. Their journey at SFU started as post doctoral researchers in the Imaginative Education Research Group led by the former Canada Research Chair in Imaginative Education, Professor (now Professor Emeritus) Kieran Egan — a philosopher and educator who has changed the landscape of the philosophy of education by rolling philosophy into practice. Professor Egan was looking for researchers whose work was not based on the traditional schooling system of education for his research team, and the wide-ranging teaching and research backgrounds of Dr. Blenkinsop and Dr. Fettes appealed to him. Over time, their work on imaginative education came to connect deeply with the researchers’ long-standing interests in place-based, ecological, and indigenized education.

Beyond Human and Language

The philosophy of education propagated by Professor Egan contributed significantly to the educational practices. Drs. Blenkinsop and Fettes are carrying the torch of Egan’s tradition while sculpting and infusing their own philosophy with his. While Egan’s work was centred on humans – especially human mind and language – Drs. Blenkinsop and Fettes see its relevance as wider. Understanding the environment as a part of it is foundational to their research, as they say, “knowledge is held by living relations.” This means taking away the human privilege and positioning oneself just as another living being in the design of nature, as according to them “we are kin with all living things and non-living things.” It also means to go beyond the human language system and scribed knowledge and develop a framework of non-languaged understandings of the world, an “epistemic diversity” – an orientation in which they have been influenced, among others, by Indigenous ways of knowing and learning.  Nurturing and applying this philosophy in practice has been the driving force behind the three place-based schools Drs. Blenkinsop and Fettes collaborate with.

The philosophy of Place-based Learning and the Schools that Embraced the Vision 

It was during the year of 2008 when Dr. Blenkinsop and Dr. Fettes were wrapping up a SSHRC funded Community University Research Alliance project that they began to develop the idea of a place-based public school with a focus on environment and local community- in collaboration with educators from the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school district. After a year and a half of writing proposals about the project and building relationships with community members and educators, a SSHRC grant in 2010 facilitated bringing the project into being. At the heart of the Maple Ridge Environmental School Project is a philosophy of education that values ecology, community, and engagement. In this school, learning does not happen within the four walls of a structure, but it happens through engagement in places like parks, libraries, and public places where nature is seen as “co-teacher.” Indigenous ways of learning about nature and place are fostered by collaborating with the members of the local Katzie and K’wantlen communities.

Drs. Blenkinsop and Fettes’ philosophy of education does not just incorporate nature into learning, it calls for a more inclusive way of understanding the world that abandons anthropocentrism. They argue that the current educational system and the epistemology that drives learning through a human-centric approach is incapable of teaching us to live cohesively with nature. To put things into context, Dr. Fettes says that the recent coronavirus pandemic is nothing compared to the ecological disasters awaiting: “It’s a drop in the bucket,” he says, if human civilization, especially industrial civilization, does not question and challenge the cultural assumptions that privilege humans over nature. Thus, they call for a reconceptualization of education to question the existing educational system and what it is producing. The Maple Ridge project was a way to initiate a dialogue between philosophical thoughts and educational practices, and to develop the practices more congruently with the context where they are being applied.

Their work at Maple Ridge garnered attention from different quarters of the education world and their research has now expanded to two other schools that are transitioning to place and land-based learning: Davis Bay Elementary School on the Sunshine Coast and Gabriola Elementary School in the Nanaimo-Ladysmith school district. Consonant with the philosophy of place and land-based learning, all three schools have their distinctive identity.

The first, the Maple Ridge Environmental School[1] has been running since 2011 and has a particular focus on nature as “co-teacher” (Blenkinsop and Beeman, 2010). Over the years the school has built boats, drums, paddles, knives; been involved in ceremony and fishing camps; been gifted with songs and stories; and, been engaged with many different land restoration and reclamation projects.  Recently the researchers delivered a two-year Master of Education program in the district, in collaboration with the two First Nations, that was designed to build on and deepen these emerging practices and understandings. 

The second school, NEST (Nature Education for Sustainable Todays and Tomorrows),[2] spends more than a third of its school week outdoors exploring forest, ocean, and creek ecosystems.  And while they, the teaching staff, have taken on a commitment to be on land for their learning they are more actively political in some ways than Maple Ridge.  Using work from Wild Pedagogies (Jickling et al., 2018) and interpreting themselves as activists as well as teachers they are doing interesting work with the community in terms of re-working the language around schooling, around relationships to the natural world, and around what counts as knowledge.  In order to best honour the local Shíshálh First Nation, NEST has partnered with one of the district Indigenous educators and pooled their scheduled times with said educator.  This has allowed, for instance, two classes to spend an entire morning together at the creek mouth, hearing stories, preparing salmon, learning protocols, and practicing the language.  It has also helped teach the settler teachers more about protocols, reciprocity, respect, and responsibility with the Nation and towards the land.

The third school, Gabriola Elementary, is the only school on the northernmost of the Southern Gulf Islands. Gabriola Island is part of the territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, and the school has over the last few years begun to expand its growing nature-based focus to include a focus on reconciliation and indigenization.  Teachers, researchers, community members, and Indigenous knowledge holders are working together to rework the entire curriculum from a land-based perspective grounded in Coast Salish values.  This includes a long-term effort to (re)build relationships with Snuneymuxw and neighbouring Indigenous communities, involving not just the school but the students’ families, community organizations, and the land itself. An intriguing development from the past year is that the local school district, Nanaimo-Ladysmith Public Schools, has adopted a framework for reconciliation grounded in language, culture and land.[3]

Scalability of the Project

Ecological education is certainly what the world needs for sustainable living, but can the concept of place-based schools be conveyed extensively? Is it possible to promote place-based learning on a wider scale? Since the inception of the Maple Ridge Environmental School, Drs. Blenkinsop and Fettes have been in communication with people around the world interested to collaborate and to venture into place-based learning.   However, the uniqueness of place-based learning  is that it focuses on engaging with local culture, place and people, and therefore, such projects in other parts of the world will not be exactly the same as the Maple Ridge project, simply because each place and its people have their exclusive relationship that guides place-based learning. Developing schools with place-based orientation is a multi-faceted concept and it is difficult to predict the scalability of such schools; however, their endeavour has started a dialogue, which according to Dr. Blenkinsop is the crucial step. He thinks the way educators and philosophers envision the world to be, can only be materialized through an educational project. If one wants to bring changes in the current educational system, the philosophical dialogues need to be put into practice. “It is a challenging process because we need to translate the philosophical thoughts into practice and recognize the challenges that come up during practice to critique the philosophical thoughts”, says Dr. Blenkinsop. Thus, establishing and fostering a new philosophy driven learning is a time consuming and often multi-generational venture.

Opportunities and Challenges of Working with Three Schools

Given the nature of constant collaboration with schools, educators, students and communities, the researchers have had to deal with many challenges to their time, energy, and abilities. Working with three different schools presents them with opportunities to practice their philosophy in different contexts. However, it also requires understanding of and aligning with the schools’ ideologies and visions, which can be challenging sometimes. They say, it is difficult to convey the concept of nature or land as “co-teacher,” or to develop a decolonized perspective on occupied Indigenous land. Also, the different locations of the schools demand extra work.  Still, these current projects will continue and so will collaboration with graduate students and faculty members from different universities around the world to carry on the conversation on our relationship with nature and our ways of learning that Dr. Blenkinsop and Dr. Fettes have started.

The Next Steps:  SSHRC Insight and Knowledge Synthesis Grants

Committed to their philosophy, the researchers have recently received a SSHRC Insight Grant for their Developing Place and Nature-based Experiential Education Practices in Public Schools and Teacher Education to continue with their project. Advocating for  reconceptualization of education for sustainable living, Drs. Blenkinsop and Fettes, along with colleagues Drs. Piersol, Hill, and Rosehart, have developed graduate teacher education programs in Place and Nature-based Experiential Education (PNBEE) at SFU to recognize and develop the kind of education needed for social and cultural changes. Though these programs have been ongoing for the last five years in BC, little research is available on their efficacy. To bridge this gap, the researchers propose to study the PNBEE teachers, students and their classroom practices to understand the effectiveness of these programs. The findings of the study will help form a more evidence-based understanding to develop meaningful practices for the PNBEE programs. It will help to assess and develop the school curriculum, policies and teacher education programs to understand and meet the goals of cohesive living.

In their continuous endeavours, Drs. Blenkinsop and Fettes have taken their research to the next level to develop an inter-disciplinary framework for ecological, social and cultural change. They have also been awarded with a SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis grant for their  Living Within Earth’s Carrying Capacity: Towards an Education for Eco-Social Cultural Change project. As the alarming reality of Earth’s decreasing capacity to sustain the current civilization has started to become too clear to ignore, the researchers believe it is high time to start thinking about a more socially and ecologically just way of living. However, just as any philosophy is best realized when put into practice, only theorizing about sustainable living will not bear any fruit. Therefore, the researchers seek ways to reconceptualize the current scholarship, policies, practices, and structures of education to reorient toward discourses and practices that are not damaging, exhausting, and draining the capacity of our planet. Through this project, the researchers hope to develop a coherent framework and philosophy of education that can be applied in different contexts. They believe this project will shed light on the present educational system for social and ecological change, identify the missing parts and provide guidance for what needs to be done to live life more equitably and within the Earth’s capacity. 


Blenkinsop, S. & Beeman, C. (2010). The world as co-teacher: Learning to work with a peerless colleague. Trumpeter, 26(3), 26–39.

Jickling, B., Blenkinsop, S., Timmerman, N., De Danann Sitka-Sage, M. (Eds.). (2018). Wild Pedagogies: Touchstones for Re-Negotiating Education and the Environment in the Anthropocene. London: Palgrave Macmillan.