March 19th, 2012

For the Child and the World – a language of connection in education for sustainability. Fertile minds seeking dirt.

By Linda Zibell


In this report from “down under,” Linda Zibell recounts the triumph of eco-centric language over a techno-centric approach to bringing sustainability into the Australian school curriculum.  She brings deep insight into deconstructing the power of word choice and language patterns with real examples of how school-age kids might perceive and understand the words we use.

Sustainability education is currently in the process of being embedded as a cross-curricula priority in the Australian curriculum. During recent national consultations with the educational community, tensions emerged over the kind of language which was most likely to serve children’s wellbeing and bring a better world. In this paper I explore these tensions and put forward social, environmental and broader educational reasons why eco-centric language is preferable to techno-centric language as sustainability is integrated into the broader curriculum.


As her teacher encourages her to step onto warm brown earth, little Ruby’s bare toes are firmly clenched. “No”, she says, “I don’t want to touch it.” The teacher has already removed her own shoes, “See Ruby, my toes are happy feeling the dirt. They want to dance.” The teacher does a little jig, and then sits beside Ruby on the step, spreading her toes wide.  She says, “My toes feel the sunshine and they smile.” She takes a felt pen and draws tiny smiling faces on her toenails. Ruby is interested. “Can you do that for me?”

The language that teachers use today will assist students, (or not), to find meaning and belonging in their wider world, steering the shape of our shared future. Ultimately sustainability educators are social educators. Sustainability deeply involves human societies in local dwelling places. It also deeply involves the wild habitat and wildlife of the world that shares the land with those human societies, in an evolutionary history that runs to millennia. Sustainable change, for the health of Earth’s water, soils, air and the entire living matrix on which we depend and with which we interact, simultaneously involves our human aesthetic, physical, cultural, social, psychological, spiritual and scientific belonging. As educators we must reflect upon, remain aware of, and take time to carefully choose our language so that understandings are wisely conveyed, engagement is maintained, values are clarified, and students are assisted to find a sense of belonging within the natural world which is their wider human home. This responsibility is strengthened for curriculum writers because their language will guide so many teachers’ understandings and seed the words they use with their students.

Organising ideas for sustainability in national curriculum

The Australian Curriculum and Assessment Reporting Authority [ACARA] provided ‘organising ideas’ to teachers during Australian curriculum consultations late in 2011. These ideas were to…“reflect [sustainability’s] essential knowledge, understandings and skills,” (ACARA, n.d.a.) in preparation for it to be embedded across the curriculum’s content descriptions and elaborations as a ‘cross-curriculum priority’.

In preparing my submission I was reading through the consultation document when I came upon a section entitled “Futures”. My aversion was instant.

Sustainability action is designed to intervene in ecological, social and economic systems in order to develop more sustainable patterns of living.
Sustainable futures are shaped by our behaviours and by the products, systems and environments we design today.
Products and built systems and environments can be designed and/or managed to improve both people’s wellbeing and environmental sustainability.
Social and economic systems can be designed, managed and/or used to improve both people’s wellbeing and environmental sustainability.

Here was a language of control: the future world organised by these words was set to be dependent on human behaviour, intervention, manipulation and product creation. It was not one I wanted.

Soon the deadline for comment would arrive. I immediately wrote a long email to teacher networks, calling for help. This language would not promote democratic values in the Australian curriculum. Students would not learn to be proactive, or critically aware about their world with an approach like this. Where was the ability to problem-solve? How would students be able to clarify their values to bring about shared care for the environment? How were autonomy and shared decision making, both intrinsic to active environmental citizenship, to be made possible with this language? More than likely, as I saw it, these organising ideas would disengage students from the world. The educational goals set out for the Australian curriculum, as expressed in the Melbourne Declaration would not be served by this language…

“all young Australians [will] become…active and informed citizens…with a sense of optimism about their lives and the future…who work for the common good, in particular sustaining and improving natural and social environments, while being responsible global and local citizens…” (The Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs [MCEETYA], 2008, p.7)


Different world views

Further reading led me to understand that this language demonstrated a ‘technocentric’ (techno/tekhne/skills) approach to education for sustainability, which…‘maintains the view that advances in technology and market forces will resolve ecological and social crises,’ in contrast to an ‘ecocentric’ (eco/oikos/home) approach that…‘values the environment for its own sake’. These, I was told, were ‘locked in struggle for supremacy’ in education for sustainability, (Cutter-Mackenzie, 2011, p.351).

Why not a technocentric approach?

I singled out the words I disliked in this ‘Futures’ table: they were systems, behaviour, intervention, design, product, management; then I set about examining what was wrong with them. Just why was I so sure that this technocentric language was inappropriate for broader curriculum?

I began with the word systems. Both ecocentric and technocentric approaches were compatible with systems thinking, however the consequences of sustainability being solely about ‘systems’ could de-vitalise students’ lively connection and emotional engagement with the world. ACARA’s (n.d.) draft Science curriculum for students in years 7 to 10 provided an example…

“The idea of sustainability is central to the nature of dynamic systems. A system has inputs, outputs and a variety of internal functions. The interaction of these inputs, functions and outputs determines the degree to which any system can sustain itself.

The inputs include resources that may be renewable or non-renewable.” (p.5)

This conception of sustainability did not presuppose or require connection to any actual environment: no contact was needed between the student and the real world of their biosphere. Somehow students would have to make the leap from ‘life as systems’ to the lively natural world they moved within. Such a leap might be self-evident to a scientist, but as a social educator I questioned how students, often literal thinkers, might struggle to comprehend these complex, abstract ideas.

I once met an teenager who, as is typical in secondary school, learnt about the world as ‘atoms’. As an adult experiencing nervous exhaustion, when he used words like ‘going to pieces’, ‘falling apart’, ‘breaking down’ – language commonly used in our society – I asked why he believed this to be possible. He said it was logical: ultimately he was made of atoms, little bits stuck together. Could the metaphorical idea of ‘systems’ similarly guide students to imagine life and the world deterministically? What future might this lead us to? In a book that mapped the mind, I found the statement…“Future generations will take for granted that we are programmable machines, just as we take for granted the fact that the earth is round,” (Carter, 1998, p. 207). Language stimulates imagining and has power to influence personal understandings of our connection to the natural world.

Teachers need to be aware that the language they use may become literalized within their students’ minds. In the case of ‘systems’ it may lead to mechanistic thinking that separates children from nature. While systems thinking assists us to conceptualise the way we perceive the world as operating, fundamentally it is a human metaphor for the way the world works: we overlay the world with this interpretation. I suggest it is hubris to assume that this is literally ‘The Reality/The Truth’, and that this is where the story ends. Scientific understandings of our physical world are constantly changing: they bring new knowledge daily. Millions of species yet to be discovered (if we allow them to survive into the long term), offer future potential. I suggest that to limit the world to a mechanistic ‘systems’ model could be counter-productive, and a similar argument applies to conceptualising the human brain as a computer.

Next to be considered was the word behaviour. How different the effect of this word was to its alternative – action. The latter spoke of personal decision-making for change as distinct from following ‘behavioural change regimes’ set out by experts who “know best” when it comes to sustainability. ‘Behaviour’ is assumed to be potentially steered by others, whereas the word ‘action’ presupposes intention: a mind is acknowledged behind what is carried out. Action has agency, it implies connection to something, whereas ‘behaviour’ is passive, more correct. I saw how this word might also become counterproductive for sustainability. Active citizens, proud of their ability to resist manipulation, might resent the pressure to ‘behave’, even if in a good cause.

The word intervention followed: it evoked a “leave-it-to-the-expert” attitude, one that assumed we humans actually know enough to manage the environment as a complex whole. Sadly not true! The more I thought of our damaging historical record of human environmental neglect, error, and deliberate destruction, such as the daily escape of ‘controlled’ burns; of our excessive and increasing fossil fuel energy generation resulting in exorbitant pollution and land displacement; of oil spills from trading vessels, the pollutions of war; of burgeoning waste disposal problems such as the ‘islands’ of chemicals and plastic in our oceans, the more I felt there was danger in placing trust in human “intervention”. I thought of our global over-use of natural resources and of environmental disasters that occurred regularly in the everyday world of manufacturing activity to support our lifestyles. For students this word “intervention” might end up inflating powers of human control and inspire false hope that human ingenuity was set to save our planetary woes.

Newman (2008) in his advice to Australian curriculum writers indicated that a …“significant characteristic of sustainability is that it encourages and enables values-based discussion on future issues rather than just expert opinion,” (p. 13). He indicated that the language of sustainability education should facilitate student voice and active citizenship, so that wherever humans live they learn to actively respond to and consider environmental care over ‘intervention.’ To provide an alternative example, ecocentric language is more likely to emphasise the peoples’ common right to conserve, propagate and proactively share seed, which respects citizenship, conservation, biodiversity, common ground, and building a sense of ‘economy’ (in its true sense of ‘thrift’); whereas the technocentric approach, by emphasising ‘intervention’ leads more towards genetic modification and seed patenting (which represent ‘expert’ commercial appropriation and economic advancement). This word “intervention” could also fail to educate the citizens of tomorrow to argue for or defend a shared common right to public land, clean water, biological diversity, genetic variability or unpolluted air. But how much harder is it to replace or restore them, once lost? Lindenmayer (2007) says that human intervention in the natural world should be minimised: instead, pollution and ecological damage (environmental costs) should be factored into production…“eco-system services are in fact almost priceless… nature itself can deliver them far more cheaply,” (p. 113).

Next I examined ‘product’ and ‘design’: words that incline our thinking towards commercial solutions. What future might they lead us towards? I thought of policy decisions made by governments. Words such as these could lead politicians to spend millions to try to store carbon dioxide underground in preference to encouraging Australia’s citizens and industry to embrace emissions reduction. At times in our future it might be important to resist the idea that another ‘product’ would bring answers. Graeme Pearman (2009), former Australian government climate advisor has said that ‘being economical’ in relation to CO2 emissions could bring about drastic reductions – up to 60% – but this is only likely to occur with an underpinning of active citizenship.

Australians during recent droughts showed their willingness to demonstrate such citizenship in relation to water, so why not carbon dioxide? And isn’t this preferable to a techno-centric solution like cloud-seeding with silver iodide: a product that also pollutes the land? Scientists are discovering that products like DDT, used forty years ago in Australian agriculture, are now turning up on pristine New Zealand glaciers, blown as dust across the Tasman Sea.

The final word was ‘management’. How do we manage the world we live in? I wondered whether a better question could be: Is the world really there for us to manage, and should we be encouraging values such as these in our school students? Thoreau’s words rang in my ears: …“the pine is no more lumber than man is, and to be made into boards and houses is no more its true and highest use than the truest use of a man is to be cut down and made into manure,” (1902).

The importance of a language of connection for children

Louv rang social warning bells: in 2005 he created a new term for an increasing failure of connection in children of our times, naming it “Nature Deficit Disorder”.

“Our society is teaching young people to avoid direct experiences in nature. That lesson is delivered in schools [and] families…/Yet, at the very moment that the bond is breaking between the young and the natural world, a growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature – in positive ways.  (p. 2/3)

Louv drew attention to a lonely sadness that comes upon people disconnected from nature, of their loss of a sense of belonging, saying that, deprived of the companionship of nature we lose a sense of vivacity and optimism. Quoting Townsend, Louv reminds us that “we gain life by looking at life,” (p. xii). He drew the conclusion that …“the human child in nature may well be the most important indicator species of future sustainability,” (p. 351).

The Australian Psychological Society (Burke, 2008) also voiced concern.

More children live in urbanized environments now than ever before. Children risk

growing up disconnected from the natural world, with implications for their future relationships with the environment. Active care for the environment in adulthood is associated with positive experiences of nature in childhood or adolescence, along

with childhood role models who attended to and appreciated the natural world.

The importance of a language of connection for the world

Ecocentric language is not just warranted for children it is what the land needs too. Last year’s independent national audit, Australia, State of the Environment [SOE] Report 2011, (Australian Government), called upon Australians to cease seeing themselves as separate to our natural world. We were warned that though many examples of good practice exist, on the whole our record of care for our country continues to worsen. As an educator reading the report I felt the power behind choices offered by its authors: would I allow environmental damage to continue relentlessly? Or would I teach children to conserve and restore our country? Australia’s dubious distinctions include…“one of the world’s largest ecological footprints per capita, requiring 6.6 global hectares per person…[with] over 50%…due to greenhouse gas emissions,” (World Wildlife Federation, no date), and being the country with, “the worst species extinction record in the world”, (Gray, 2012, p. 5).

That warrant extends out into the world. On reading the United Nations’ Millennium Eco-system Report (2005) – the most comprehensive audit ever conducted of Earth’s natural capital – it is clear humans are increasingly ‘fouling our own nest’.

…“human actions are putting such strain on the environment that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations is in doubt… [but]…it is possible to reverse the degradation of many ecosystem services over the next 50 years, if we take the appropriate steps.”

Environmental restoration should clearly be our priority both nationally and internationally.  Ecocentric language which serves to connect students to the world can underpin the motivation to actually do that restoration and my contention is that it should be prioritised in curriculum for sustainability education.


The ecocentric approach to curriculum

After gathering these arguments I was convinced that ecocentric language was the right choice for educational curricula at this moment in time in Australia. But how to define it and express it in curriculum? It was all very well to talk about the language that didn’t work, but harder to come up with the language that could replace it. How could these ‘organising ideas’ be better expressed? What cogent language could support a future in the best interests of children and the world?

The spark of anger I had acted upon during the curriculum consultation period that had led me to dash off an email to teacher association networks; the reading I had delved into to learn more about eco and techno-centric language, and the writing of this paper had finally brought me full circle when, a month or so later, an interesting email arrived: “Have you visited the ACARA website and seen the updated Sustainability ‘Futures’ section, now that consultation is complete? It is so much better.” I eagerly clicked on the link, wanting to compare the revised language with the original. Here is what I found: (ACARA, n.d.b.)



The sustainability of ecological, social and economic systems is achieved through informed individual and community action that values local and global equity and fairness across generations into the future.
Actions for a more sustainable future reflect values of care, respect and responsibility, and require us to explore and understand environments.
Designing action for sustainability requires an evaluation of past practices, the assessment of scientific and technological developments, and balanced judgments based on projected future economic, social and environmental impacts.
Sustainable futures result from actions designed to preserve and/or restore the quality and uniqueness of environments.

Conversations of Australian educators via national consultation had resulted in positive changes to the language used to organise sustainability across our curriculum. These changes represent individual decisions made by educators around Australia who acted from a sense of educational citizenship. Together a language of connection to serve the child and the world was constructed.



The words sustainability educators choose can invite children’s connection to the world. Having experienced this process I begin to understand what Newman may have meant when he spoke these words…

Sustainability challenges technological modernism to be more nurturing of the environment and of community…[but]…will more than likely be subsumed into another set of techniques and processes that are built into manuals and curricula and standards. It will be worthwhile but the chances of truly changing our world to achieve the visions of environmental and sustainability professionals are more than likely doomed to failure.

Then again there could be some magic…

(Newman, 2006, p. 15)

Let me give you a closing story. As two children stood near the fence in a nearby suburban Childcare Centre they called out, “Treasure! We’ve found treasure!” Their friends all flocked to see. Triumphantly the two showed a place where they had dug right through the green plastic grass to the earth below. “Look!” they said as they pointed downwards with pride, “Dirt!” The charm of this event is that it occurred in spite of, rather than as a consequence of pedagogy. Perhaps our next task here in Australia is to identify the preferred pedagogies for sustainability education across the curriculum – underpinned by ecocentric language – so that our young citizens of tomorrow find their home always and ever in the natural world.


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Comments (1)

  1. Linda Zibell Linda Zibell says:

    Hi Sherri,
    That’s great, please do use the ideas, you’re most welcome.
    All the best