Real World LearningReal


UnderstandingThe Real World Learning Network has been exploring the teaching of science outside the classroom. One of the key issues we are interested in finding out about is the sort of scientific understanding that we need to help develop thinking and action for sustainability.

We started by exploring what we meant by ‘understanding’, coming quickly to the conclusion that it is not just all about scientific reasoning, the rational aspect of science. Although important, reason needs to sit alongside our emotions, values and humanity; this is where the true understanding emerges.

Through exploring the science that we need to understand in order to support a sustainable planet, we have used existing research on Planetary Boundaries by the Stockholm Environment Institute to frame our work. The Planetary Boundaries show the resilience of nine environmental areas, and measure whether they are currently within the planet’s capacity to sustain them. For example, biodiversity is listed as beyond the safe operating capacity, while global freshwater use remains within the safe operating capacity (see for more).

Planetary Boundaries offer a useful approach to deciding what science needs to be understood to support a sustainable planet. But herein lies the danger of just using a reductionist-based science; we try to understand the details of each boundary rather than the overall patterns and processes which link them together. And we are led down the path of individual scientific solutions to global issues, rather than approaches which address social and economic issues as well as environmental ones.

The Real World Learning Network has done much to explore the teaching of Planetary Boundaries. However, for learning to be effective it must include our emotive responses to the natural world; we need to understand the whole system that is operating, not just each individual piece of the jigsaw.

By going back to nature and closely observing, we see that nature operates through a set of inter-operating principles. Fritjof Capra calls these Living Systems, based on the principles of ecology. The Real World Learning Network has synthesised these principles down to four that can be easily understood and integrated into outdoor science learning.

Cycles: nature operates within cycles, nothing is created nor destroyed. Cycles are processes that can be repeated continuously without degrading the ability of other processes to continue. Diurnal patterns of sunrise and sunset, and seasonal cycles of spring through to winter take place and are celebrated. Nitrogen, phosphate, carbon and oxygen cycle through processes such as transpiration, decomposition, weathering and photosynthesis. Read more.

Change: nothing stays the same, there is constant evolution as biodiversity adapts and variations emerge; energy transfers and changes as it flows from sun to leaf to insect; molecules of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen constantly come together and break apart as they form the structures of all materials. Read more.

Stability: nature is in dynamic balance; ecosystems do not evolve towards monopolies with only a few dominant species. All things are interdependent, based on the causes and conditions which created them. All systems have feedback loops, acting to maintain the system in a relatively stable state. Read more.

Energy flow: energy originating from the sun cascades through systems changing from light to chemical energy via photosynthesis and into mechanical energy through digesting plants to create carbohydrates which power animal life. Read more.

These principles are not just natural principles which are useful as approaches to outdoor learning; they act as metaphors and frames for how we develop our communities and economies. A stable community, for example, is one which responds to feedback, realises its interdependence both internally and with the world around it, and develops its own social assets to be resilient in an ever-changing world. It can be seen that these system principles are derived from nature and can be studied scientifically, but when applied to communities they become powerful metaphors for a creative, positive and sustainable future.

Click here to read more about holistic science and outdoor learning.

How to improve the Holistic Science understanding in your outdoor practice.

Here are a selection of resources to help you.

The diagram below shows the four main resources and the text below will guide you to incorprate more holistic science into your practice.



Here are four starting points, or ways in, to begin to improve the science content within your practice. You could start from: