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France - A nature "hormone" of imagination in an environment class

1996, by Dominique COTTEREAU

Over the years we have seen a first "snow class" (1953), a first "sea class" (1964), a "transplanted class" (1973), a "nature class" (1977), a "discovery class" (1982); today, in 1994, we have an "environment class" (1994). This evolution of the vocabulary reveals more than just a simple change of names: it also shows a sensible orientation of the educational intentions of our society and recognition of the possibilities of these special classes. To go somewhere with a class for two or three weeks is certainly an adventure and a project, the purpose of which is to "educate on the environment".
However, it is not enough to "discover" a new milieu; we must develop in children a sense of responsibility for the future of our planet. This is why the pedagogy of milieu studies, acting in a classical sense, has the tendency to become increasingly complex adopting the concept of "system", namely to attempt to understand the whole as a vast area of reciprocal influences, of ongoing interactions, where every element participates in global life.

It seems to me that, in trying to exercise this type of pedagogic intervention, we are found wanting. The local environment (in my case, the seashore where the children where received) remains a big bio-physico-chimic agglomeration, a sort of book which facilitates schoolwork but with the exclusion of emotions, of affective investments, of children’s games. And yet, how can we expect the emergence of an ecological concern if we overlook sentiments ? How can we account for the equilibrium of nature if we can’t rediscover a full consciousness of our biologic and symbolic belonging to it ?
As an hypothesis and following some studying, I proposed the following educational problem : in order to develop an ecological concern, we must understand the scarcity of natural resources and also rediscover a full consciousness of our dependence on the biosphere. Thus, we should have as an objective an understanding of the local ecosystem and a positive emotional connection with it; we should use as tools, as many as possible of the school disciplines transposed to the local environment and let the imagination utilize the memories, symbols and desires of every child; finally, we need to develop an active pedagogy for the exploration of an ecosystem and for the structuring of environmental knowledge, based on allowing children complete freedom of action in a specific place (Ecoformation) and on pedagogic sequences favorable to the activation of imagination.

To verify these assumptions, I established two types of pedagogic interventions. With one class of children aged from 10 to 11 (CM1), for eighteen days, I maintained a rational pedagogy of environmental studies : observations of terrain, reflection, search for information, investigation, search for documents, analysis and synthetic work. With an other class of the same age, during twenty-one days, I continued to apply the previous method. However, I inserted sequences in which the only brief of the adult was to establish a physical situation in an given space, as a form of "recreation" in different places and at different moments (beaches, cliffs, marshlands, etc., morning or afternoon, in sunshine or fog). Also, these moments where sometimes enriched by the utilization of expressive mediums, such as painting, poetry, sand sculpture, etc.
In order to compare the relationships that were formed between the children and the maritime element, I asked them to compose a written text about "the sea", one on the day of their arrival and another prior to their departure. Naturally I behaved in the same way in the two classes and none of the children was informed of the object of my research.

The first set of texts of the two classes described the sea as an object of geography ("... large surface of water ...") or of biology ("... inhabited by creatures like ..."), and something very useful for humanity as a reservoir of alimentation or a place of various leisure activities. A cold description of an element of our environment !
The texts given by the first class at the end of this project were surprisingly similar, always conformed to the observed reality. Children’s representations seemed not to have been modified despite the activities of discovery realized. Thus, we were told that "The sea is an vast surface of water. The sea covers more of the world than the continents. In the sea there are a lot of live beings, good ones and bad ones, big and small. The sea has a low tide and a high tide. ..."

By contrast, the children of the second class (75% of them) went beyond purely physical description in order to express emotions, images and feelings. The sea had become a phenomena of contemplation, a milieu experienced by a being which perceives, which reacts. The symbols were fertile, witnesses of meeting rich in imagination. The photographic way of writing had given way to poetry. It seemed the fantasy had a right to appear, taking the children away from the schoolbook into a live setting to be re-experienced. Such thoughts as these were forthcoming: "It is evening. The sea is quiet and sweet. It shines before me. How great is my desire to be also that beautiful ! It is even more beautiful than the stars ! Suddenly a fresh light wind arrives, becomes stronger. I am still here, sitting by the sea, our precious, beautiful sea ...".
These second texts do not prove a lack of information. The results of the project attest the same quantity of knowledge acquired by the pupils of the two classes. It is because the emotional experience did not take place at the expense of the usual "school learning" but acted as a complement. Quite simply, here sentiment comes before information.

COMMENTS: With my proposals I don’t intend to condemn rational pedagogy, but rather the fact that it excludes any other approaches. To suppress imaginative activity in our educational methods blocks the development, not only of a part of the personality of a child but also its relation to the world. I propose full rapport, and inclusive pedagogy for a full ecological belonging to the world.

SOURCE: Text compiled on the occasion of the congress Journées Environnement of the French National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS), Montpellier, France, March 1994
KEY WORDS : Active pedagogy; Environmental Education; School; Imaginary.
AUTHOR: Dominique Cottereau, 3 rue Jean Savidan, 22300 Lannion, France
FILE DATE : 1994