Archive for January, 2020

Google Sites: a reporting system for inquiry-based learning

Thursday, January 23rd, 2020

“Mind mapping is not the center of the universe as some would have us believe… The center of the universe is ‘data’ which becomes ‘information’ which then can become knowledge.”

John England (MindSystems)

1 Bodies of knowledge

Fig 1 The inquiry (enquiry) learning cycle

Stephen Rowland ran a classroom inquiry course for school teachers in the University of Sheffield  during the Spring Term 1986. The aim was to develop skills of observation and interpretation of children’s learning by integrating the roles of teacher and researcher. The course was one of six optional courses which, together with a dissertation, made up the requirement for an M.Ed at Sheffield University. Being part time, the course sessions at the University were held after school, for about two hours, on ten occasions during the term. There were eight course members excluding Stephen Rowland, the course tutor. They were in their first or second year of the three year part time M.Ed and taught in a very wide range of institutions from a primary special school to a College of Higher Education. 

Reflecting on his tutoring Rowland highlighted the following comment made by  Margaret, one of the course participants.

 ‘I learnt my body of knowledge, not someone else’s’. 

He said Margaret’s comment “raised so many questions about the work we had been doing”. Such as: 

“How does the ‘my body of knowledge’ relate to the knowledge of others? Wasn’t the ‘course’ supposed to be about sharing in the knowledge of other participants as well?  How does this relate to the external knowledge as represented in research literature? How can such learning effect change in the classroom if we never get outside our own body of knowledge and view things from a different perspective”. 

“ls this learning of one’s own body of knowledge part of a continuing process, or is it a result of a brief period of reflection and introspection, a kind of therapeutic interlude?

In reflecting upon the course he said “ I shall consider these four themes because I think their exploration is important if we are to empower teachers to make their own enquiries into the learning which they facilitate”.  In fact Margaret had entered a personal learning cycle to build her own body of knowledge (Fig 1) in which asking questions was central to understanding her environment.  It reminds us that the learning cycle is entered at any age through seeing and wondering. Each question leads to another and the outcome is action for change in the enquirer’s  relationship to their environment.

A body of knowledge comprises the complete set of concepts, terms and activities that make up a mental domain, as defined by a  learned society, a professional association, a group or an individual. Rowland’s students were actually creating their individual and group bodies of knowledge in a pre-IT, paper world.  Now the medium of choice for assembling data and information, and presenting the knowledge would be a wiki.  

 A wiki is a server programme that allows users to collaborate in forming the content (body of knowledge) of a Web site. Wikis are websites where communities of users can collaborate online to build content and discuss progress. Google Sites is a structured wiki/integral Web page-creation tool offered free by Google. The declared goal of Google Sites is for anyone to be able to create simple web sites that support collaboration between different editors.

A wiki provides a simplified IT interface with a body of knowledge.  At any time, contributors can review the history of the page they are working on or preview the Web page before publishing it. A wiki website operates on a principle of collaborative trust. The simplest wiki programs allow users to create and edit content. More advanced wikis have a management component that allow a designated person to accept or reject changes. The best known example of a wikiweb site is Wikipedia.  Google Sites is missing two key features for an effective collaborative knowledge sharing platform (aka a wiki). First, users cannot subscribe to page changes. This means that if the content of the wiki that the user is interested in is updated, the user will not know unless they visit the site to check. Second, and a much bigger issue, is that Google Sites has no revision history. If someone edits or deletes a page, the previous state is unrecoverable. Many would say the ability to see the history of a page, and recover from deletions is central to the functioning of a wiki.  Nevertheless, regarding its simple structure and ease of creation a Google wiki is ideal for facilitating archiving a small group inquiry online.

2 Comparisons

Traditional education generally relies on a teacher presenting data, information and his or her knowledge about the subject. All learners receive the same data, information and pre-formed knowledge. Students are also required to memorize information from instructional materials.  In contrast, inquiry-based learning is assisted by a facilitator rather than a teacher or lecturer. Stephen Rowland was facilitating a non traditional, inquiry-based learning classroom. A facilitator is someone who engages in any activity that makes a social process easy or easier. Also, a facilitator helps a group of people or an individual to understand their common objectives and assists them to plan how to achieve these objectives; in doing so, the facilitator remains “neutral”, meaning he/she does not take a particular position in the discussion.

Each student-inquirer, helped by a facilitator, will identify, and research, issues of particular interest to them and pose questions to develop knowledge or solutions. inquiry-based learning includes problem-based learning.  This is a student-centered pedagogy in which students learn about a subject through the experience of solving an open-ended problem found in trigger material and is generally used in small scale investigations and projects, as well as research.  It is principally very closely related to the development and practice of thinking and problem solving skills.  In particular, the ability to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information or new understandings indicates a high level of thinking.  Facilitators should be encouraging divergent thinking and allowing students the freedom to ask their own questions and to learn the effective strategies for discovering the answers. The higher order thinking skills that students have the opportunity to develop during inquiry activities will assist in the critical thinking skills that they will be able to transfer to other subjects.

inquiry based learning is an individual or small group process by which ‘data’ becomes ‘information’ which then can become a body of knowledge meaningful to the group or to an individual.  In this sense it can be said that the outcome is knowledge owned by a group or an individual.

3 Inquiry based learning

Inquiry based learning has been used as a teaching and learning tool for thousands of years, however, the use of inquiry within public education has a much shorter history.   Ancient Greek and Roman educational philosophies focused much more on the art of agricultural and domestic skills for the middle class and oratory for the wealthy upper class. It was not until the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, during the late 17th and 18th century that the subject of science was considered worthy of academic study.  Until the 1900s the study of science within education had a primary focus on memorizing and organizing facts. inquiry-based learning is primarily a pedagogical method developed within the learning-by-discovery movement of the 1960s.

While some see inquiry-based teaching as increasingly mainstream, it can be perceived as in conflict with standardized testing common in standards-based assessment systems, which emphasise the measurement of student knowledge and meeting of pre-defined criteria.

4 Methods

There is a spectrum of inquiry-based teaching methods available.  Specific learning processes that people engage in during inquiry-learning include, 

  •  creating questions of their own;
  • obtaining supporting evidence to answer the questions;
  • explaining the evidence collected,
  • connecting the explanation to the knowledge obtained from the investigative process;
  • creating an argument and justification for the explanation.

inquiry learning involves developing questions, making observations, doing research to find out what information is already recorded, developing methods for experiments, developing instruments for data collection, collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data, outlining possible explanations and creating predictions for future study.

There are many different explanations for inquiry teaching and learning and the various levels of inquiry that can exist within those contexts. 

Level 1: Confirmation inquiry

The teacher has taught a particular science theme or topic. The teacher then develops questions and a procedure that guides students through an activity where the results are already known. This method reinforces concepts taught and shows students how to follow procedures, collect and record data correctly and to confirm and deepen understandings.

Level 2: Structured inquiry

The teacher provides the initial question and an outline of the procedure. Students are to formulate explanations of their findings through evaluating and analyzing the data that they collect.

Level 3: Guided inquiry

The teacher provides only the research question for the students. The students are responsible for designing and following their own procedures to test that question and then communicate their results and findings.

Level 4: Open/True inquiry

Students formulate their own research question(s), design and follow through with a developed procedure, and communicate their findings and results. This type of inquiry is often seen in science fair contexts where students drive their own investigative questions.

Teachers should begin their inquiry instruction at the lower levels and work their way to open inquiry in order to effectively develop students’ inquiry skills. Open inquiry activities are only successful if students are motivated by intrinsic interests and if they are equipped with the skills to conduct their own research study.

An important aspect of inquiry-based learning is the use of open learning, because evidence suggests that utilizing lower level inquiry is not enough to develop critical and scientific thinking to the full potential.  Open learning has no prescribed target or result that people have to achieve. There is an emphasis on the individual manipulating information and creating meaning from a set of given materials or circumstances. In many conventional and structured learning environments, people are told what the outcome is expected to be, and then they are simply expected to ‘confirm’ or show evidence that this is the case.

Open learning has many benefits.  It means students do not simply perform investigations in a routine like fashion, but actually think about the results they collect and what they mean. With traditional non-open lessons there is a tendency for students to say that the experiment ‘went wrong’ when they collect results contrary to what they are told to expect. In open learning there are no wrong results, and students have to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the results they collect themselves and decide their value.

Open learning has been developed by a number of science educators including the American John Dewey and the German Martin Wagenschein.   Wagenschein emphasized that students should not be taught bald facts, but should understand and explain what they are learning. His most famous example of this was when he asked physics students to tell him what the speed of a falling object was. Nearly all students would produce an equation, but no students could explain what this equation meant.  Wagenschein used this example to show the importance of understanding over knowledge.  

Phillip Brown defined inquisitive learning as learning that is intrinsically motivated (e.g. by curiosity and interest in knowledge for its own sake), as opposed to acquisitive learning that is extrinsically motivated (e.g. by acquiring high scores on examinations to earn credentials). However,  occasionally the term inquisitive learning is simply used as a synonym for inquiry-based learning.

5 A way of thinking

Dewey’s experiential learning pedagogy is a form of inquiry based learning known as learning through experiences.  It comprises the learner actively participating in personal or authentic experiences to make meaning from it, which include engaging with the content/material in questioning, as well as investigating and collaborating to make meaning. The meaning constructed from an experience can be concluded as an individual or within a group.  In particular, Dewey proposed that science should be taught as a process and way of thinking and not as a subject with facts to be memorized. While Dewey was the first to draw attention to this issue, much of the reform within science education followed the lifelong work and efforts of Joseph Schwab. Schwab was an educator who proposed that science did not need to be a process for identifying stable truths about the world that we live in, but rather science could be a flexible and multi-directional inquiry driven process of thinking and learning. He believed that science in the classroom should more closely reflect the work of practicing scientists. Schwab developed three levels of open inquiry that align with the breakdown of inquiry processes that we see today.

  1. Students are provided with questions, methods and materials and are challenged to discover relationships between variables
  2. Students are provided with a question, however, the method for research is up to the students to develop
  3. Phenomena are proposed but students must develop their own questions and method for research to discover relationships among variables

Today, we know that students at all levels of education can successfully experience and develop deeper level thinking skills through scientific inquiry.   The graduated levels of scientific inquiry outlined by Schwab demonstrate that students need to develop thinking skills and strategies prior to being exposed to higher levels of inquiry.  Effectively, these skills need to be scaffolded by a facilitator until inquierers are able to develop questions, methods, and conclusions on their own. America’s National Science Education Standards (1996) outlines six important aspects pivotal to inquiry learning in science education.

  1. Students should be able to recognize that science is more than memorizing and knowing facts.
  2. Students should have the opportunity to develop new knowledge that builds on their prior knowledge and scientific ideas.
  3. Students will develop new knowledge by restructuring their previous understandings of scientific concepts and adding new information learned.
  4. Learning is influenced by students’ social environment whereby they have an opportunity to learn from each other.
  5. Students will take control of their learning.
  6. The extent to which students are able to learn with deep understanding will influence how transferable their new knowledge is to real life contexts.

Social studies education focuses on the practice of inquiry, emphasizing “the disciplinary concepts and practices that support students as they develop the capacity to know, analyze, explain, and argue about interdisciplinary challenges in our social world.   The C3 Framework recommends an “inquiry Arc” incorporating four dimensions: 

1. developing questions and planning inquiries; 

2. applying disciplinary concepts and tools; 

3. evaluating primary sources and using evidence; 

and 4. communicating conclusions and taking informed action. 

 For example, a theme for this approach could be an exploration of etiquette today and in the past. Students might formulate their own questions or begin with an essential question such as “Why are men and women expected to follow different codes of etiquette?” Students explore change and continuity of manners over time and the perspectives of different cultures and groups of people. They analyze primary source documents such as books of etiquette from different time periods and form conclusions that answer the inquiry questions. Students finally communicate their conclusions in formal essays or creative projects. They may also take action by recommending solutions for improving the school’s social climate.  Through the application of inquiry mode education each student develops their ability to confront complex problems and to create solutions to those problems. These are the two most important outcomes to turn student enquirers into leaders.

6 Misconceptions about ‘inquiry’.

There are several common misconceptions regarding inquiry-based learning, the first being that inquiry science is simply instruction that teaches students to follow the scientific method. Many teachers had the opportunity to work within the constraints of the scientific method as students themselves and figure inquiry learning must be the same. inquiry science is not just about solving problems in six simple steps but much more broadly focused on the intellectual problem-solving skills developed throughout a scientific process.  Additionally, not every hands-on lesson can be considered inquiry.

Some educators believe that there is only one true method of inquiry, which would be described as the level four: Open inquiry.  While open inquiry may be the most authentic form of inquiry, there are many skills and a level of conceptual understanding that students must have developed before they can be successful at this high level of inquiry. While inquiry-based science is considered to be a teaching strategy that fosters higher order thinking in students, it should be one of several methods used. A multifaceted approach to science keeps students engaged and learning.

Not every student is going to learn the same amount from an inquiry lesson; students must be invested in the topic of study to authentically reach the set learning goals. Teachers must be prepared to ask students questions to probe their thinking processes in order to assess accurately. inquiry-science requires a lot of time, effort, and expertise, however, the benefits outweigh the cost when true authentic learning can take place.

Inquiry-based learning is fundamental for the development of higher order thinking skills. It  can be done in multiple formats, including:

  • field-work;
  • case studies;
  • investigations;
  • individual and group projects;
  • research projects.

7 Authentic inquiry

Authentic inquiry is the ultimate expression of inquiry-based learning.   It is an approach to learning which begins with the learner’s interest and experience, rooted in concrete place object or artefact  and moves from there through a process of facilitated knowledge construction, to a particular negotiated outcome which meets publicly agreed assessment criteria.  It’s bottom up, rather than top down. It’s authentic because it is ‘authored’ by the learner and because it is ‘real and genuine’ in their life story. A special issue of the Curriculum Journal was dedicated to this approach in 2009.

Authentic inquiry offers a way of framing an inquiry – whether formal, informal or problem solving in the workplace. It can be led by an individual or participated in by a team. The purpose of the inquiry provides the energy for the journey.  Learning power is how that energy is regulated over time and how the learner approaches the identification, collection, curation, mapping, re-structuring and presenting the data and information needed to achieve a purpose. Authentic inquiry is a procedure with nine iterative processes.

First, the student is encouraged to choose an object or place that fascinates her. Careful, ‘hands-off’ prompting and guidance may be needed from the teacher, to ensure that personal interest is strong and authentic. The rest of the process will be highly influenced by the integrity of this choosing process. Sometimes the ‘object’ turns out to be a person, or event; it is its susceptibility to observation and the strength of the student’s interest and engagement that are important.

Second, she observes and analyses the chosen object/place, both as a separate, objective entity and in relation to her own interest and reasons for choosing it. In this, she is developing her sense of personal responsibility. This initiates the cycles of a personal development process which is recorded in a workbook and in which the student, tutor and later others participate. It requires the student to develop the critical curiosity and strategic awareness necessary for independent learning, in the context of effective learning relationships. She is also developing a sense of herself as a learner who can change and grow over time.

Third, she starts asking questions: obvious, but open ones, such as: How did it get there? What was there before? Why is it how it is? Who uses it? How and why did they get involved? She is initiating and conducting a process of inquiry and investigation, driven by personal interest and shaped in turn by the answers to her own questions. She is exercising and developing critical curiosity. All the time, the student is encouraged to reflect on her motivation, reasoning and identity as a motivator of her own learning.

Fourth, the questioning leads to a sense of narrative, both around the chosen object and in the unfolding of new learning. Historical and present realities lead to a sense of ‘what might be’ both for the object/place and for the learner and her learning. She is becoming the author of her own ‘learning story’ or journey.

Fifth, the learner begins to discern that this ‘ad-hoc’, subjective narrative leads in turn to new, objective facts and knowledge. Subjective learning starts to be related to a wider, objective awareness. The learning becomes a ‘knowledge map’ which can be used to make sense of the journey and of new learning as it comes into view. She is ‘making meaning’ by connecting new learning to the ‘story so far’.

Sixth, with informed guidance and support from the teacher, the student’s widening ‘map’ of knowledge can be related to existing maps or models of the world: scientific, historical, social, psychological, theological, philosophical… This is where awareness of the diversity of possible ‘avenues of learning’ becomes useful. It requires the teacher to act as supporter, encourager and ‘tour guide’ in the student’s encounter with established and specialist sources and forms of knowledge

Seventh, the student arrives at the interface between her personal inquiry and the specialist requirements of curriculum, course, examination or accreditation.   Her development as learner enables her to encounter specialist knowledge and make sense of it, in relation to what she already knows and in the way she already learns, interrogating it and interacting with it, instead of simply ‘receiving’ it, using the model of learning :and ‘knowledge mapping’ skills she has developed through the inquiry. This is where the resilience will be tested, that will have started to grow through the responsibility and challenge of a self-motivated inquiry.

Eighth, the student can forge links between what she now knows and institutional and social structures receptive to it: qualifications, job opportunities, learning opportunities, needs, initiatives, outlets, relationships, accreditation, publication… Initially, this takes the form of a portfolio or presentation, based on the workbook, making explicit both process and outcomes of the inquiry. Her learning has met its communicative purpose. She has created a pathway from subjective response and observation towards the interface with established knowledge.

Ninth In doing so, she has also achieved life-enhancing personal development by asking and answering such questions as: Who am I? What is my pathway? How did I get there? Where does it lead me? What were the alternatives? Who helped me and how? The outcome of this learning facilitates a sense of vocational identity – how I can make a difference in the world.

This highlights authentic inquiry as a process, summarized in a sequence as: pose real questions, find resources; interpret information; report findings as new knowledge (Fig 2).

Fig 2 Organising the inquiry process 

Authentic inquiry is planned, constructed and enacted in accordance with the following design principles:

It is reflexive.

It is rigorous in integrating and assessing outcomes.

It is in community.

It is collaborative and conversational.

It is Integrative.

It is person-centred/personal.

7  Learning for effective leadership

The art of inquiry is at the heart of effective leadership as it enables leaders to remain curious and unlock the ideas, perspectives and strengths of those they are seeking to inspire and influence. Without engaging people in genuine two-way conversation, leaders run the risk of paying attention only to their own thoughts and perspectives. They also stop growing as they incorrectly assume they are ‘experts’ who haven’t got anything more to learn. This is likely to limit their effectiveness as co-workers and other stakeholders will start seeing them as forceful, arrogant and autocratic, behaviours that will ultimately derail their career if left unchecked

Leading management author and business psychologist, Edgar Schein, who wrote a book entitled “Humble Inquiry”, defined inquiry as “the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.” . This underscores the importance of drawing out others’ ideas and perspectives and asking open-ended questions to help tackle organisational challenges and create a learning, growth mindset where making ethical changes by making ethical choices are features of effective  leadership, which are also central to building a personal body of knowledge by applying the outcomes of inquiry based learning.  

Marilee Adams, president and founder of The Inquiry Institute states that, “Inquiring leaders operate inside a self-learner mindset.” which serves as a guide for all leaders in the inquiry process.  In addition, she has identified the following as characteristics of Inquiring leaders who:

  1. understand that the quantity, quality, and intention of people’s questions largely determines their ability to learn, think critically and strategically, build and maintain relationships, gather information, make decisions, solve problems, manage conflict, and drive positive change and effective results.
  2.  recognize that “great results begin with great questions” and that “every question missed is a potential crisis waiting to happen.”
  3. ask questions of themselves and others in ways that are constructive rather than critical, that seek to uncover and challenge assumptions, and that promote new thinking and possibility as well as responsibility and accountability.
  4. listen carefully and respectfully (especially when not agreeing with what they hear). This listening is focused by solution-seeking questions such as,” What can I learn?” “What’s useful about this?” and “What are our goals?” They do not listen with problem-oriented, blaming questions such as, “Whose fault is it?”
  5. solicit honest feedback, comprehensive facts, and multiple perspectives.
  6. create an inquiring culture in their organizations and on their teams by encouraging people to ask questions of them, each other, customers, and stakeholders.
  7. are comfortable with “not knowing” and “not being right;” they have humility.
  8. have high emotional, social, and moral intelligence, are proactive and responsive rather than reactive, and are skillful with self-management.
  9. see the “big picture’ and think short-term, long-term, and systemically.

Accordingly, inquiring leaders: are self-reflective, self-correcting, and committed to learning from mistakes and failures. They value change, continuous learning, growth, and development for themselves and others.  (Fig 3).

Fig 3 Creativity and the inquiry mind set.

These features of leadership are going to be of great importance in education for life in a zero carbon economy particularly in promoting the liberal arts. A liberal education is not about developing professional or entrepreneurial skills, although it may well promote them. Nor is it for everyone; we need pilots, farmers, and hairdressers as well as managers, artists, doctors, and engineers. But we all need to be well-informed, critical citizens adapting to new ways of measuring prosperity.  Liberal arts in an inquiry based pedagogy prepare students for citizenship in all three senses—civic, economic, and cultural.

8 Internet references

Critical thinking and the liberal arts

Inquiry Institute

Choice Map

The inquiry process diagram

Inquiry as a process

Authentic  inquiry


Appendix 1

The following list is an archive of Google Sites each of which presents a body of knowledge developing an aspect of the cross curricular concept of cultural ecology.  They are the outcomes of an authentic inquiry pedagogy produced by facilitators and student enquirers in Welsh schools participating in a research programme coordinated by International Classrooms On Line. 

Classic Format

New Format

Ecopoetics in Conservation

Sunday, January 12th, 2020

Education for conservation targets people’s attitudes, emotions, knowledge and behaviours about wildlife and wild places.  The aim is to apply new skills and patterns of behavior of individuals, groups, and society to protect and improve biodiversity.  Fundamentally, education for conservation is about making plans for environmental protection within a conservation management system (CMS). The planning logic is the same whether one is planting a tree in the garden or controlling biodiversity in a national nature reserve.

1 The Big Picture

There are between 30 and 50 trillion stars spread between 80 and 140 billion galaxies, but Earth is the only place we call home. It’s all we have for life to survive and thrive and we need to understand that we are all part of one natural world.  Without fresh air, water, seas, fertile soils, forests, animals and plants, we humans couldn’t survive. Everything, even the smallest has a role to play, and. You are part of your local environment. Everything is connected – from the deepest ocean to outer space – and what we do as individuals, does make a difference.

The Big Picture values are exemplified by the environmental values of indigenous peoples as universal human values, and so are beliefs that guide a community’s understanding of how the natural world should be viewed and treated by humans.  For example the following Māori perspective of the natural world can be adopted as a starting point to explore anyone’s values about the natural world.

  • Aroha means ‘love’ but it actually refers to a lot more than that. It is about compassion for the environment and understanding the environment. We are all connected to the natural world.
  • Manaaki means ‘to look after and to care for’. It is our responsibility to be good kaitiaki/guardians for the natural world. If we don’t look after and care for the resources, then we will not have them in the future. It is part of our responsibility to manaaki everything within the natural world.
  • Wairua means ‘spirit’. Everything within the Māori world has a spirit. Wairua is mainly associated with living things, with people, and humans. Wairua is about feeling and hearing the essence that is around us in the natural world.
  • Tapu means sacred. Every part of the natural world, including ourselves has tapu. Some places have a tapu placed on them if they are sacred or for spiritual reasons.
  • Mauri means the life force or life essence. All things are united through mauri. People are part of the natural world and connected through mauri. The mauri of the natural world has been weakened by pests and habitat destruction, but we can restore mauri by looking after our environment.
  • Mana means respect, power, authority, and relates to dignity. From the Māori world view, everything has mana within the natural world.

2 The Big Picture ideas

For a Maori-

i Everything is connected (Ko au ko te taiao, ko te taiao ko au)

I am the environment, the environment is me

  • The planet is made up of many interconnected systems.
  • Everything in an ecosystem has a role to play.
  • Changing anything in an ecosystem impacts on everything else. It is often difficult to predict what the consequences of any change might be.

ii The planet’s diversity is critical to our survival (Toitū te marae a Tāne, Toitū te marae a

Tangaroa, Toitū te Tangata)

If we care for the resources of the land and the sea, we, the people, will survive.  

  • The health, well-being, and survival of humans depends on the health, well-being and survival of our planet’s ecosystems.

iii People are part of the natural world (He nohonga ngātahitanga ahau me te taiāo)

We live as one with our natural world

  • People’s actions can impact both negatively and positively on the environment.
  • Individuals, especially young people, can make a positive difference to ecosystems.

The poet Muriel Rukeyser writes, ‘The universe is made of stories, not atoms.’ There is more to the world than what happens; there are the ways we make sense of it by telling its story. The vocabulary we use is not handed to us from outside; it’s ultimately a matter of our choice.”

3 Ecopoetics

There are many poets today doing vital work to actively confront unsettling questions about our impact on other species and on the climate.  Ecopoetics is about shifting modes of thinking around our place in evolution. For some, ecopoetics is the making and study of pastoral poetry, or poetry of wilderness and deep ecology, or poetry that explores the human capacity for becoming animal, as well as humanity’s ethically challenged relation to other animals. For others, ecopoetics is poetry that confronts disasters and environmental injustices, including the difficulties and opportunities of living in urban environments. For yet others, ecopoetics is not a matter of theme, but of how certain poetic methods model ecological processes like complexity, non-linearity, feedback loops, and recycling, or how “slow poetry” can join in the same kind of push for a sustainable, regional economy that “eating locally” does.

Ecopoetics may be defined in many ways.  It can be the poetry of wilderness and deep ecology or poetry that explores the human capacity for becoming animal, as well as humanity’s ethically challenged relation to other animals and what it means to be human..  Humanism is a belief system that focuses on human agency, self-actualization, rational thinking, and attention to human life. This is to be understood as a shift in focus from religion to individuality, or from institutional agency to human agency, carried by what Anne Cluysenaar calls the subject matter of natural languages bridging art and science.  Humanists can and do weave lives that are rich tapestries of morality, purpose, awe and wonder. From this point of view, poetics in conservation expresses emotions about being an element of evolution in a sensitive or moving way. These emotions arise from our concerns as individuals about our impact on the natural world. Poets today are serving as witnesses to climate change while bringing attention to important environmental issues and advocating for preservation of biodiversity. 

Ecopoetics in conservation is the practical expression of evolutionary humanism, a division of environmental humanities.  It is an outcome of the motivation to manage biodiversity with the objective of protecting nature, as it is thought to be, or as it ought to be.  We protect species, their habitats, and ecosystems from erosion and extinction because we are a part of evolution in everything we do. We are as one with nature,  Biodiversity in this sense generates a poetical input to human non-monetary prosperity and its loss affects human wellbeing and individuals in many ways, regarding zero growth economics, food security, nutrition and  health. It is linked to social issues such as equity and rights to resources, which demands good governance and well functioning institutions. Thus, conservation management plans can be viewed as the humanistic interface between poetry and science, which can share the values of a common natural language.  There is a heart felt role for each and every one of us as managers of evolution, The linguist and poet Anne Cluysenaar challenged poets to engage strongly with science so as to stimulate their imaginations by freeing them from inadequate interpretations of the world. Her poetry exemplifies how, through serious study and interaction with scientists, a poet can appropriate science with intensity and discernment such that it becomes an integral part of our awareness of the world. 

“The world of science is colourless, soundless, tasteless, and if it even makes sense to say so, emotionless . . . this nature leaves something important unaccounted for . . . only natural language can deal with this central area . . . the sciences cannot . . . yet if the wisdom we derive from science is to be of any value, it must be of value to us, and our values and perceptions form the privileged subject matter of natural languages”.   

Anne Cluysenaar  

In an effort to establish a practical interdisciplinary baseline, Susanna Lidström and Greg Garrard develop an understanding of the relationship between poetry, ecology and environment.  In particular they trace the development of the idea of ‘ecopoetry’ from the Romantic and deep ecological traditions in the 1980s to the complex environmental concerns in the 2010s. They distinguish between poems that heighten readers’ awareness of their ecological surroundings on the one hand, and those that engage with difficult and complex environmental questions involving scale, justice, and politics on the other. They suggest that recognising this difference could improve cross-disciplinary discussions between ecocritical studies of poetry specifically, and environmental humanities more broadly. 

Their analysis is centred on differences between the work of Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes that illustrate the two poles of their argument. What they define as an eco-phenomenological poem starts from the experience of the individual (Hughes), while what we call environmental poems tend to start from the points of view of societies and their environments (Heaney)   

Hughes’s ecological view connects us to nature, rather than sets us apart from other species.  It is illustrated in the poem. “Brambles” which describes a flock of jackdaws, comparing them first to a set of bramblecbriars, then to the poet himself. The poem begins by describing the jackdaws’ complex social behaviour.

The whole air, the whole day

Swirls with the calls of jackdaws. The baby jackdaw

Generation is being initiated

Into jackdawdom – that complicated

Court-world of etiquette

And precedence, jingoism and law.

The speaker then shifts his attention to a set of bramble briars, wondering if they too have their own agency: “So craftsmanlike, / Their reachings so deliberate, are they awake?” Next, however, the question is turned around and instead of affirming the briars’ agency, the speaker wonders about his own agency:

Surely they [the briars] aren’t just numb,

A blind groping. Yet why not?

Aren’t my blood-cells the same?

What do even brain-cells fear or feel

Of the scalpel, or the accident?

They too crown a plant

Of peculiar numbness.

Heaney’s view of the environment is focused on the poem “Canopy,”54 from his last collection, Human Chain. “Canopy” describes how the trees in a yard at Harvard through which the speaker is walking resonate with voices from ‘everywhere.’ This is not a metaphorical description, but actually the result of amplifiers hidden in the trees:

It was the month of May,

Trees in Harvard Yard

Were turning a young green.

There was whispering everywhere.

David Ward had installed

Voice-boxes in the branches,

Speakers wrapped in sacking

Looking like old wasps’ nests

Hush and backwash and echo.

It was like a recording

Of antiphonal responses

In the congregation of leaves.

 4 Poetical Puffins

The following two paragraphs open  the open Roseanne Alexander’s ecopoetical story of the life of a Puffin on Skomer National Nature Reserve, just one outcome of a decade of her day-to-day life on a small seabird island off the South West coast of Wales.  It follows the science precisely.

“It was an exceptional day, hovering uncertainly between spring and summer.  For the first time in over a week the heavy mist that clung to the island had melted away.  The sun burnt down with a harshness that was disguised by the cool clarity of the air. It glared against the sea which reflected its light as smoothly as rippled silk.  On the cliff top above a puffin stared out into the stillness, to where the sea met the sky. There was an intensity in her stare, a longing perhaps, but she did not respond to the lure of that endless freedom.  She was tied to the island by a bond that even she did not fully understand. 

The damp air had held back the drying effects of the sun, and now the cliffs of North Haven where the puffin stood were vibrant with colour.  The turf, close-cropped by rabbits, was strewn with the shimmering pink and white of thrift and sea campion. It was afternoon and the bay was peaceful, awaiting the evening in-rush of birds.  The puffin unfolded her short wings and beat against the invisible resistance of the air, but she did not rise away from the unyielding cliff. She simply folded her wings across her back and shuddered her feathers into place.  Once or twice she flicked her head nervously from side to side as though wary of some unseen predator. Then, crouching low, she scuttled the few feet to her burrow entrance and ducked below ground”

Life itself could never have been sustainable without seabirds and they provide many poetic metaphors bearing on human survival.  As Adam Nicolson writes: “They are bringers of fertility, the deliverers of life from ocean to land.” But a global tragedy is unfolding.  Even as we are coming to understand them, the number of seabirds on our planet is in freefall, dropping by nearly 70% in the last sixty years, a billion fewer now than there were in 1950. Extinction stalks the ocean and there is a danger that the grand cry of the seabird colony, rolling around the bays and headlands of the high latitude Atlantic, will this century become little but a memory.  

Seabirds have always entranced the human imagination and Adam Nicolson has been in love with them all his life: for their mastery of wind and ocean, their aerial beauty and the unmatched wildness of the coasts and islands where every summer they return to breed. His book, The Seabird’s Cry, comes from an elemental layer in the story of evolution and we revel in the way the avian lifeforms  “float like beings from the otherworld” 

Over the last couple of decades, modern science has begun to understand their epic voyages, their astonishing abilities to navigate for tens of thousands of miles on featureless seas, their ability to smell their way towards fish and home. Only the poets in the past would have thought of seabirds as creatures riding the ripples and currents of the entire planet, but that is what the scientists are writing their stories today.  As their cries die om the waves so our lives become more precarious.

5 Hot spots of poetic naturalism 

Sean Carroll espouses a philosophy he calls “poetic naturalism.” Here is how he explains this concept:

“By that I mean to emphasize that, while there is only one world, there are many ways of talking about the world. ‘Ways of talking’ shouldn’t be underestimated; they can otherwise be labeled ‘theories’ or ‘models’ or ‘vocabularies’ or ‘stories,’ and if a particular way of talking turns out to be sufficiently accurate and useful, the elements in its corresponding vocabulary deserve to be called real.  “Naturalism,” says there is nothing above and beyond nature. In particular, there are no supernatural forces to transcend or interfere with natural laws. “Poetic,” says, “there is more than one way of talking about the world.” 

Naturalism is a literary genre that started as a movement in late nineteenth century literature, film, theater, and art. It is a type of extreme reality. This movement stressed the roles of family, social conditions, and environment in shaping human character. Thus, naturalistic writers produce stories based on the idea that environment determines and governs human character.  We also see use of some of the scientific principles in naturalistic works, and humans struggling for survival in hostile and alien society. In fact, naturalism took its cue from Darwin’s theory of evolution, which holds that life is like a struggle and only the fittest survive.

Naturalism has had a big impact on literary writers, leading to the growth of the modern movement of ecopoetics. Generally, naturalistic works expose dark sides of life such as prejudice, racism, poverty, prostitution, pollution and disease. Since these works are often pessimistic and blunt, they receive heavy criticism. Despite this, naturalism is generally concerned with improving the global human condition. It is in this context of promoting conservation of biodiversity and international integration of conservation management that Fredrick Monant Nyambane investigated indigenous Kenyan oral poetry.  The intent is to explore the possibility of indigenous poetry that could aid the already existing efforts of biodiversity conservation and how this might lead to the fostering of social and national integration/unity. His research supports the view that …..”human conflicts are offshoots of multiple interests such as sectarian jingoism, xenophobic sentiments, ethnic bigotry and other reasons”. However, the belief is that these are secondary causes. The deeper cause is the scramble for biodiversity-related resources and has further resulted in the “sordid banditry of fauna and flora,” which has displaced and dispossessed populations around the globe.  This gives rise to the idea of hotspots of poetic naturalism, which are special places on Earth where one can meditate on nature, its conservation management and the cultivating naturalist intelligence, a recognized learning style that relates to observing patterns in the natural world and expressing empathy for all other lifeforms. 

An example of a hotspot of poetic naturalism, with layers of meaning awaiting discovery, is the Sourdough Mountain Lookout. The lookout is part of the conservation management plan for tackling lightning-sparked wildfires at the heart of the US  North Cascades National Park. The lookout is situated a mile above the Skagit River canyon at the intersection of six major watersheds. In this respect, it commands one of the most spectacular views in the range. The naturalist and poet Tim McNulty spent the summer of 2003 in the lookout as the firewatcher and here is his gift of a poem when he connected briefly with the life of a migratory Townsend’s Warbler.  This bird is a colourful, distinctive wood-warbler that breeds among the treetops of mature fir forests in the Pacific Northwest, Townsend’s Warbler also nests in montane spruce-fir forests in Idaho, Montana, and northwest Wyoming, and in boreal forests in Alaska and the Yukon Territory. In September, it begins its southward migration to California and the highlands of Mexico and Central America. Although Townsend’s Warbler populations remain stable, this species is predicted to lose large parts of its breeding range due to climate change. Like so many bird species, it’s also at risk from habitat loss.

Tropical Sunlight

Smoke from wildfires fills the valleys,

and a high veil of cirrus

dampens the morning sun.

Then a gift from Costa Rican forests —

Townsend’s warbler drops by.

Sunlit yellow face and breast,

dark Zorro-like mask,

quickly, neatly, shakes down

a subalpine fir crown

for bugs,

cleans his beak madly on a limb,

and takes leave south

across the Skagit,

heading back.

6 Internet references

Conservation education

Darwin timeline

Wallace timeline

Evolution library

Conservation poetry

Indigenous environmental values

Environmental humanities


Kenya state of environment

Conservation poetry

A poetic look at wildlife conservation


Decline of the Hull fishing industry

Fishing and poetry

Sourdough Mountain