Reflections on action: towards a clear framework for education practice in botanic gardens

Ally Ashwell

National Botanical Institute, Claremont, South Africa


In pulling together the strands of the Congress, I would like to reflect on some of the ideas and methods shared and issues that have emerged through the course of the week. The sessions I have been fortunate enough to attend have been both inspiring and challenging, and have enriched my vision of possibilities for botanic gardens education. Despite the title of this paper, I do not believe it is possible to create a single guiding framework for education practice in botanic gardens. The uniqueness of each of our situations, coupled with our own particular experiences, personalities and perspectives, means that each of us will return home with a different story to tell of this gathering.

I therefore share with you the themes, ideas and issues that stood out for me during the Congress, and how I have tried to make sense of the richness and variety of experiences. My insights are very much a reflection of living and working in South Africa in transition, and our sensitivity to authoritarian decision-making. So what I have to say should be interpreted in this light.

I hope that my reflections will encourage you to return in your minds to your experiences of the week, and build these into a framework that will continue to challenge and inspire you as you return to your own places of work.

I start by reflecting on the main and subsidiary themes of the Congress, and in each case draw out examples of good practice and issues to be considered.

Overview of Congress themes

Teaching for the twenty-first century: perhaps nothing characterises the last decade of the twentieth century (and by extrapolation the twenty-first) more than the rate and extent of change which affects every aspect of our lives. At this Congress alone we have discussed the changes affecting our ecological environment, and how we should be educating for sustainability. We have heard of rapid changes in publishing technology: from print to DTP to the Worldwide Web. Much has been said about multicultural approaches, and yet cultures and traditions that once seemed stable are also fluid and changing as we all become citizens of the global village.

As environmental educators we are in the business of dealing with and responding to change. We are galvanised into action to resist rapid and destructive environmental change, and in our enthusiasm to arrest this destruction, we often consider it our duty to change the attitudes and actions of others.

The first caution I would like to raise is how we approach this issue of attitude and behavioural change, as this says much about how we view our roles as educators, and the process of education in a changing society.

As teachers we are used to being the purveyors of knowledge. As environmentalists we are accustomed to inhabiting the moral high ground. Therefore on two accounts we must beware of the tendency to view ourselves as 'good', the public as somehow 'bad' or 'ignorant' and our role as changing their attitudes and behavioural so that 'they' can become more like 'us'. This approach may appear particularly rational—however, it is also presumptious and inappropriate if the sustainable world we envisage is to be peopled by active, critical-thinking citizens participating in a just society.

I would like to illustrate by example two alternative approaches to dealing with change. In one case, the locus or site of the change is outside of me: I am the one who knows and understands, and who has a blueprint for the planet and society. My job is to change the behaviour of others. In the other column, I see myself as part of a society which is learning to make sense of rapid social and ecological change. I accept the need to change myself as, in collaboration with others, I learn more appropriate ways of operating.

  • Message transfer
    My agenda for your action
  • Rational interventions (strategies) - social engineering
  • Knowledge as absolute
  • You need to change to be more like me: informed, empowered, responsible
  • Models and recipes - can be generalised
  • Linear, rational process with a predetermined end
  • Dualistic thinking: what shall we (the experts) do about them (the earth and society)?
  • We need to bring about (direct) change
  • Shared meaning-making
    Shared agenda for action
  • Reflective social processes
  • Knowledge as socially constructed and contextual - botanic gardens as cultural institutions
  • We need to learn together to do things better - I too have much to learn
  • Emergent, particularistic solutions: contextual
  • Open-ended, cyclical process (e.g. action research)
  • Integrated thinking: how shall we, in partnership, live better with one another in the world?
  • Let us engage with and learn from change
Table 1 A comparison of deterministic and participatory approaches to change.

A point to make here is that one should not assume that one of these extremes is 'right' and the other 'wrong'. However, by simplifying and juxtaposing extremes, we may become more critically aware of the choices available to us, and become more able to make informed decisions as to approaches that would be most appropriate for the context in which we live and work.

Times of rapid social change are characterised by much uncertainty. The conventions which once applied cannot be trusted, and the answers we once depended on seem simplistic and inadequate. This is both threatening and exciting for educators who can embrace approaches to education which engage with the challenges of change. I shall now endeavour to draw out some examples of good practice by focusing on the Congress subsidiary themes.

The Global Village

This Congress has been an opportunity for botanic gardens educators from all over the world to gather and learn from one another. The richness of this gathering has been in the sharing of perspectives and experiences influenced by our different histories and present social, political, ecological and philosophical environments.

As human settlements expand into every habitable part of the earth, so the boundaries between people and cultures become blurred. As we become more mobile, as global communication becomes faster and information more accessible, so we truly become global villagers.

It is interesting to reflect on the origins of botanic gardens and remember that many have their roots in imperialism and colonialism. This is reflected, for example, in the two dominant languages at this Congress, viz: English and Spanish. How are we responding to this historical legacy in the present? It appears that there are two very different approaches.

On the one hand, many gardens, particularly those in developed countries with collections of plants from many parts of the world, are being used to celebrate multiculturalism and deal with issues of globalisation. An increasing sensitivity to and respect for the cultures and countries represented by the plants in collections is evident in some of the programmes shared. e.g. storytelling, tree dressing, healing plants and the global greenhouse. Awareness of global issues, for example North-South relationships, are also being addressed through activities such as the Whole World Cake.

However, many of the developing countries which still have significant but threatened native floras, are developing programmes with a more nationalistic or regional flavour by celebrating indigenous plants and local cultures, in particular the plant-related knowledge of indigenous peoples.

Both these perspectives emphasise people-plant links, seeing plants in their social contexts. As someone representing an institute which has as its mission the promotion of the native flora of southern Africa, I have been challenged by the more multicultural programmes listed above which provide an understanding of cultures and which promote understanding and respect.

BGCI as a network, and this Congress as a meeting-place, provide an excellent forum for global communication to explore some of the apparent differences in our approaches, and to have our assumptions challenged by the practices of others.

Botanical Knowledge

A popular sociological perspective discussed earlier holds that knowledge is not absolute but is socially constructed. Indeed, as educators our choice of what constitutes useful knowledge is strongly influenced by local political and cultural imperatives. Furthermore, how we deal in knowledge says much about how we view both relationships between teachers and learners, and issues of power as related to knowledge transactions.

There has been very little evidence of the 'jug and mug' approach to education at this Congress. We have moved on from the days when all-knowing, all-powerful teachers dispensed digestible parcels of knowledge (which they considered essential) to passive, empty-headed learners.

From my own experience in South Africa, however, this transition has not been made by the majority of classroom teachers. Perhaps many of the educators represented here were lured away from formal education by the creative opportunities provided within botanic gardens to develop responsive curricula. Reflective practitioners such as these are characterised by an openness to learning from experience within a flexible teaching environment.

Movements such as child-centred education, environmental education and enquiry learning have helped us to revise many of the old teacher-centred approaches which we ourselves experienced as young learners. Informed by these movements, botanical knowledge—far from being dead, dull and smelling of mothballs—is very much alive.

There is much evidence of active, hands-on learning situations where learners are encouraged to clarify concepts, formulate and challenge values, develop practical and cognitive skills, participate in enquiry-based programmes—and generally have enormous fun in the process of learning.

There is also much evidence of an integrated approach to botanical education, whether this means that botanic gardens are offering cross-curricular programmes, or encouraging an understanding of plants in their ecological or cultural contexts.

So integrated, learner-centred approaches characterise much of what is happening in botanic gardens education. And in addition, many gardens are responding to more recent challenges to go beyond the development of the individual's cognitive, creative and critical faculties, in order to address learning as a social process of meaning-making. Here again there is exciting evidence of innovative programmes. The Smith College Summer Science Program for Girls deals proactively with a social issue (that of the underrepresentation of women in science). Furthermore, some school greening programmes, such as that of the University of Wisconsin Madison Arboretum's Earth Partnership Program, acknowledge the sustained nature of learning in a social context by enlisting the support of the family as well as that of the teachers.

Learning as an ongoing social process has also been addressed by the New York Botanic Garden's Teacher Enhancement Program, in which small groups of teachers are involved in an ongoing professional development programme. These programmes challenge those of us whose main activities involve one-off visits to botanic gardens with little follow-up or few opportunities for critical reflection with a group of colleagues in education.

Urban Horticulture

Among the most inspirational sessions I attended at this Congress were those that dealt with the very practical pursuit of horticulture. How educational it can be to get good earth under one's finger nails! Perhaps one of the reasons why urban horticulture programmes are so educational is because, in general, they represent sustained action in a social context. Here one has the opportunity to learn useful skills and develop communities of action. Working together is a sure way to develop and practice essential life-skills of communication, problem-solving, negotiation and patience and to learn these from the surest of teachers: experience. Urban horticulture involves practical action to improve one's living environment, making it more beautiful, healthy and productive. In so doing it addresses the negative social forces of degradation and despair.

Here we must pay tribute to our hosts, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, who pioneered the children's garden concept so many decades ago, and whose vision has inspired similar movements all over the world, and certainly those of us who have been fortunate enough to attend this Congress

Education for Sustainability

Perhaps the most useful overarching theme for education in botanic gardens is the one I have chosen to end with: Education for Sustainability. Educators involved in the BGCI network, I would presume, share a common concern for the survival and continued health of life on Earth. As our understanding of living systems has developed, so our earlier responses to challenges such as the environmental crisis have sometimes appeared to be inadequate, and we have had to revise our responses and indeed our vocabularies.

Thus, to my mind what characterises 'good' education for sustainability is not simply conservation education, but, as John Fien reminded us (Fien 1998), education that responds in an integrated manner to ecological and social issues. I would contend that, while many of us are passionate about the subject we teach and about conservation as an issue, as educators our first commitment is to the people with whom we work—and to their (and our) aspirations and growth in competence, confidence and vision.

While a sense of the interrelatedness of all things is essential for an understanding of sustainability, I would suggest that it is necessary to go beyond simply an awareness-raising stage or developing an understanding of ecological concepts in our programmes. The simple but useful model of environmental education as being education in, about and for the environment, reminds us that action is essential to meaningful education. And perhaps instead of seeing education as leading to action, we should rather look for inspiration to the many examples of education through action that we have been privileged to hear about at this Congress.

Indeed community action programmes for environmental restoration provide fertile opportunities for learning together to care for the earth, while at the same time learning how to live and work together effectively as active, participating citizens. When these programmes involve school-going youth and when learning is linked to the curriculum, formidable opportunities for environmental education are created.

Conclusions: a framework for education in botanic gardens:

So, in summary, what has stood out for me as evidence of good practice in botanic gardens education?

Firstly, our programmes need to be sensitive to context. They may be inspired by ideas from afar, but they need to acknowledge local political, social and economic imperatives, and the ecological environments in which they are located.

Secondly, good education is characterised by integration—of areas of learning, of sociocultural and ecological systems and issues, of theory and practice, and of institutions of learning and real life situations.

Because it takes place within a changing environment, good education is dynamic. It requires participants to engage in ongoing evaluation, both individually and together, so that themes, methods and approaches remain socially relevant.

Good education acknowledges the apparent contradictions and conflicting schools of thought which arise in different contexts, understanding that it is these tensions which maintain the dynamic and responsive nature of teaching and learning.

Finally, what has stood out for me at this Congress is that good education starts with rather than results in action to address issues of common concern. Through such action, learning is automatically contextualised, useful and collaborative. It requires the clarification of ideas, values and understanding—and generates ever-changing social situations in which we learn by experience to engage in the processes of participatory democracy.

I hope that, through sharing something of what this gathering has meant to me, you will be encouraged to return to your abstracts, notes and memories, and develop a set of principles which have meaning for you in your situation.


Fien, J. (1998). Stand up, stand up and be counted: education for sustainability and the journey of getting from here to there. In: Third International congress on education in botanic gardens. BGCI, Kew, UK.

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