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Connecting to Culture

Steve Meredith
Adelaide Botanic Garden, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Plants, Culture and Environment

These words are the subtext for our new Botanic Gardens of Adelaide logo. It’s great that we now publicly proclaim what we have privately known for years: that botanic gardens are more than just green refuges or works of high art horticulture. They are also about the communities that create them, reflecting local history, endeavors and aspirations. Botanic gardens can also take on a more global perspective because their plants often come from all over the world. Interpreted appropriately, this perspective can contribute to our communal sense of multiculturalism and to an understanding of how others live and view the world. With the right educational approach it can also help gardens provide a viewpoint into the lives and cultures of others, one that values similarities and differences.

Over the millennia, plants and people have been inextricably linked to each other. We have harnessed and selected plants to meet our daily needs. This has led to an extraordinary number of different uses, ranging from converting plant poisons to medicines through to plants as symbols for national pride. This makes a rich reservoir of stories that provide insights into the way that peoples’ beliefs, values, customs, material possessions and behaviour have developed over time. In recent times modern urban people have lost a great deal of individual plant knowledge; however many traditional cultures have maintained their knowledge as something still woven through the fabric of their daily lives. This knowledge is still essential today for their physical health and cultural survival. It can also be a base for gardens to teach about and celebrate the diversity of others.

How then do we convert this wealth of knowledge into practical learning experiences for school students? It is easy to fall prey to the repetitive interpretive mantra of ‘now this was used for…’. It is not always easy to move beyond this approach. This was highlighted recently when I was involved in a small group workshop to develop activities for students using the Pacific Cultures gallery in the South Australian Museum. The gallery has thousands of objects and artefacts relating to the traditional lives of Pacific Islanders. Exhibits include objects like decorated canoes, weapons, religious masks, penis gourds and historical photos. This rich visual texture made it relatively easy for our team to develop themes and strategies for activities to help students interpret and use the display. We then moved to the Botanic Garden and suddenly the flow of ideas dried up.

The exercise became far more difficult for the untrained eye with just trees and landscapes to look at. Teaching about culture in botanic gardens – compared with the richness of objects, artefacts and paintings found in more mainstream museums and art galleries – is far more challenging. The key to unlocking the cultural dimension of plant collections is in the stories plants tell of their relationships to people. Just as important is the way that we design the learning process beyond the provision of information. Learning activities should encourage interaction between people and plants by using sensory invitations, guided discovery, ‘real life learning’ and cognitive challenges. In teaching about culture in gardens the challenge is to convert the pedagogy into practical activities that provide insights, but at the same time are engaging, activity-based and have relevance to the learner’s experiences and links to their prior knowledge.

Our Garden has used a number of approaches to achieve this including:

  • Performances and celebrations
  • displays and exhibitions
  • garden-based print resources
  • information technology.

Performance and special exhibitions are often entertaining and enlightening. But they are not always sustainable over the longer term. There is no doubt that performances which are done well capture the emotions and imagination very quickly. However, if used in isolation and without relevant follow up, the learning momentum can be quickly dissipated. Two approaches that gardens might more readily sustain over the longer term are interpretive garden trails and interactive virtual visits delivered via information technology. If well designed, both approaches can motivate and maintain the learning continuum beyond the garden.

The Adelaide Botanic Garden took up the challenge of using the Garden to connect to culture by developing three innovative resources, each with a different approach to learning. We chose Asia as our focus because it is Australia’s nearest neighbour and the Garden had appropriate Asian collections. There are also increasing educational, economic and trading links, as well as increased immigration, from Asian countries to Australia. From an educational perspective, this focus on Asia is also reflected in the nationally developed programmes of Asian studies for schools.

Three resources for linking the garden displays to Asia were:

  • Kehidupan sehari – hari
    A walk through a south east Asian rainforest that provides a cultural context for learning and practising Bahasa Indonesia.
  • Plants and People of Asia
    An across-the-curriculum approach using analogies drawn from Asian plant stories in order to encourage students to question and compare their own views and values with those of Asian people.
  • Virtual Visit CDROM

A virtual garden tour on CDROM which integrates traditional Indonesian uses of plants with self-correcting Bahasa Indonesia activities and cultural understanding.

The development of these resources has in all cases been a collaborative one. Drawing on the expertise of practising students, classroom teachers, plant and language experts, native speakers, advisors in cultural education and staff from Indonesian botanic gardens.

Kehidupan Sehari-Hari

In Indonesia Kehidupan sehari-hari means ‘daily life’ and embraces the idea of living in harmony with others and nature. This concept forms the basis of an Indonesian language and cultural trail through the tropical rainforest in our Bicentennial Conservatory. Through practical language-based tasks and an emphasis on the cultural uses of plants, students are able to glimpse traditional Indonesian village life.

The dense foliage and winding paths of the Conservatory provide the atmosphere and realism of steamy tropical forest. As students walk into the forest they are encouraged to believe that they have arrived in Indonesian rainforest. Their mission is to use navigation directions in Indonesian to locate ten plants in the rainforest that are also represented on a drawing of a typical Indonesian village. Once a plant is found, students identify it on their drawing of the village scene and add its Indonesian name to the drawing. Once all ten plants have been found, students re-visit them to learn about their traditional cultural uses by reading and responding to questions, mostly in Indonesian.

Students enjoy applying their Indonesian language skills in a realistic way to accomplish the task of finding the plants in the forest. Kehidupan sehari - hari is designed to encourage collaborative teamwork accompanied by much discussion. It also gets students looking at and thinking about plant characteristics more closely from an ethnobotanical, rather than biological, point of view. Indonesian teachers appreciate having a practical activity outside of school and having an opportunity for language acquisition within a cultural context. The success of this programme has encouraged Garden education staff to look at broadening cultural studies in the Garden into other areas of the curriculum.

Plants and People of Asia

For many years our Garden has run popular and successful programmes based on traditional Aboriginal peoples’ use of plants and the environment. Aboriginal cultural instructors deliver these programmes wherever possible. While on one level they provide straightforward information, on another level they are designed to deliver much deeper insights into Aboriginal technology, spirituality, customs, cultural beliefs and sustainable use of the land.

We expanded our cultural studies programme into Asia using this more holistic approach.
The Plants and People of Asia programme was developed for nine- to fifteen-year-olds, as a comprehensive booklet combining a visit to the Garden with numerous follow-up activities for back at school. The integration of school based activities was done to overcome the often one-off, isolated experience of a garden visit and to make it a more seamless part of the students learning continuum.

The learning activities are based around a garden walk that visits eleven significant Asian plants. Cultural stories about the use of plants across Asia are provided in short punchy bursts. They are designed both to maintain the readers’ attention and to highlight how plants permeate most aspects of traditional Asian life. Examples of themes included: plants as symbols of status, traditional poetry, celebrations, dance, art, colonisation, religious symbols and environmental restoration.

The accompanying student activities are designed to actively encourage students to engage with the plant displays rather than just passively listen to or read information. The activities are broken up into six areas or strands for each plant station. These cover broad curriculum areas, abilities and are inclusive of cultural and gender difference:

Use Your Senses - Encourages students to use sensory observations to look more closely at the natural environment in the Garden.

Traditional Plant Use - Broadens student understanding of Asian culture through stories of traditional plant use.

Environment - Emphasises the biology and ecology of plants, while encouraging scientific thinking on issues relating to the environment.

You & Me - Discussion starters on personal and social development issues that parallel Asian plant stories. Discussion can be followed up back at school using Asian and Australian contexts.

Place in Space - Activities to help students familiarise themselves with the geographic location of different Asian countries.

Challenge - A collation of diverse ‘challenges’ for students to engage with back at school. They are best done after a visit to the Garden, but can also be done as stand-alone activities. Emphasis on research and reporting back on findings in different formats. Articles and activities are included in the booklet.

Wherever possible the six areas integrate relevant Australian perspectives in order to deliberately blur the boundaries between Asia and Australia. This encourages students to question their own views and values within a combined Asian and Australian context and hopefully leads to greater cultural understanding.

By consistently packaging the learning into the six different curriculum areas, teachers have been able to ‘mix and match’ activities to suit different learning endpoints. This flexibility helps to ensure greater links with their pre-existing school programmes. The approach also encourages collaborative small-group work, with different groups taking on different strands and reporting back their findings to others.

The booklet has a simple clean layout that uses subtle graphics to create an understated Asian aesthetic that is both eye-catching and educationally functional. Comprehensive contextual teacher support encourages teachers to use the material with confidence.

This resource has provided many sought-after practical learning opportunities for schools looking to develop Asian cultural studies programmes outside the traditional classroom. It also has been successful in providing a way of integrating an environmental perspective across the Asian studies curriculum.

Virtual Visit

For garden educators, ‘getting the message across’ should be more important than a visit to our Gardens. As powerful and uplifting as our Gardens may be for learning, not all students are able to visit. Information technology provides a way of reaching a much wider audience far beyond the garden wall.

With this in mind we developed a CDROM based on our Indonesian cultural and language trail Kehidupan Sehari-hari. The CDROM was partly funded through the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools (NALSAS) Strategy and developed in partnership with the Open Access College, a leading deliverer of distance education and technology-based education resources. Many students, teachers, native Indonesian speakers and staff from the botanic garden in Bali supported the development of material and were involved in testing the final product.

The CDROM takes the form of a virtual visit to the Adelaide Botanic Garden. Students navigate the Garden paths using directional arrows. As they move around they explore the landscapes with a ‘parrot’ cursor. When the wings flap there is an Indonesian plant to explore in detail. One click on the plant brings up a screen with information and images relating to the different uses of Indonesian plants. Further screens provide more specific information in the areas of Environment, Food and Drink, Medicine, Daily Living and Culture. Students use the information and images to tackle a series of interactive language exercises. These exercises are self-correcting and feature a talking Indonesian parrot to help with word pronunciation.

Once the language activities for a particular plant have been successfully completed, students are rewarded with an animated Indonesian plant or animal. The CDROM is completed successfully once all the twenty animations have been collected to create a stylised Indonesian rainforest scene. Other features of the CDROM include 3D maps of the Garden to enable students to follow their progress, 360-degree views at particular stops, a self-correcting quiz on the technology behind our rainforest conservatory and snippets of pop-up information about key buildings in the Garden. Progress around the Garden is colour-coded and students can save their current progress to allow them to complete their tour over several sessions.

The CDROM has been well received by schools and is used in many different ways by students ranging in age from eight- to fifteen-years old. Teachers have combined it with a visit to the Garden, using it either as a pre visit warm-up or as a post visit follow-up. Some teachers use it purely for the cultural aspects of the information provided, while others use it as introductory exposure to the Indonesian language. There are suggested activities for using the CDROM in the classroom.

Value of Resources

Feedback from schools indicates that the resources are a valuable addition to cultural education programmes. Indicators of their value include:

  • significantly increasing numbers of students now visiting and using the Garden for Asia language and cultural study programmes
  • well attended Studies of Asia professional development workshops for teachers, which help to ensure that the materials is used well to its full potential
  • the development of an Asian Studies support network for the Garden education service which acts as a springboard for planning the development of further culture-based programmes.

Most importantly, the resources are contributing to a wider understanding amongst the education community that the Botanic Gardens is a place for learning about people, plants and culture.