Academic journal article Australian Journal of Environmental Education

Toward a Pedagogy for Australian Natural History: Learning to Read and Learning Content

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Environmental Education

Toward a Pedagogy for Australian Natural History: Learning to Read and Learning Content

Article excerpt

In the Land of "Scraggy Growths of Prickly Shrubs"

In Australia, the relationships between settler society and the land have long been strained. Historian Paul Carter (1987) has argued that the nature of nature in Australia for early European settlers was confronting and unfamiliar. Trees that shed their bark rather than their leaves and rivers that appeared to flow inland rather than to the sea were at odds with European notions of how nature ought to behave. There are numerous historical accounts depicting early Europeans struggling to develop a conceptual and physical grasp of the land and its inhabitants (see for example Arthur, 2003; Flannery, 1998; Robin, 2007). The children's story Dot and the kangaroo, written in 1899 by Ethel Pedley (1899 [1965], p. 1), provides a window into early Federation representations of the land (1):

   Little Dot had lost her way in the bush. She knew it, and was very
   frightened. She was too frightened in fact to cry, but stood in the
   middle of a little dry, bare space, looking around her at the
   scraggy growths of prickly shrubs that had torn her little dress to
   rags, scratched her bare legs and feet till they bled, and pricked
   her hands and arms as she had pushed madly through the bushes, for
   hours, seeking her home ... The thought of being lost and alone in
   the wild bush at night, took her breath away with fear, and made
   her tired little legs tremble under her. She gave up all hope of
   finding her home, and sat down at the foot of the biggest blackbutt
   tree, with her face buried in her hands and knees, and thought of
   all that had happened, and what might happen yet.

Although many people in Australia have developed an interest in the use of native plants in their gardens, we suspect that many people would still describe native bushland as scraggy, prickly and scratchy (2). The evolution of non-indigenous Australians' understanding of the landscape and its flora and fauna involves a complex mix of cultural history and experiences with the natural world. Environmental historian Libby Robin (2007, p. 6) has commented that "the natural includes both the environmental frameworks of the nation--the plants and animals, the soil and water, the climate and weather--and also the ways of thinking about nature and Australia's place in the world. In a nation built by emigrants from elsewhere, Australia's characteristics rest on comparisons with unlike places". With 98% of Australian citizens having "arrived from elsewhere either in their own lifetime or within the last six or eight generations" (Robin, 2007, p. 1), Australia is in a sense still being settled (3).

Ongoing settlement of Australia presents challenging educational questions for us: how and what do Australians know and learn about the continent's natural history; how might outdoor and environmental education experiences be structured to improve understanding of the diverse ecological and species diverse landscapes of Australia; and, how might such experiences and knowledge assist in developing understandings of relationships with the land and conservation issues? Such questions have received very little attention in the literature of Australian environmental education research. As one of us pointed out in a previous issue of this journal (Stewart, 2006), there has been no discussion in the Australian Journal of Environmental Education over the last ten years addressing a pedagogy that draws on and reflects the natural history of this continent. The idea of ignorance in environmental education research has also been previously discussed in this journal (Gough, 2002). Drawing on Wagner (1993), Gough enunciates how ignorance may be configured as blank spots and blind spots:

   In Wagner's schema, 'materials relevant to questions already posed
   can be seen as filling in blank spots in emerging social theories
   and conceptions of knowledge'; in other words, what we 'know enough
   to question but not answer' are our blank spots. … 
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