Tag Archives: learning

Ecology, technology and learning: education for sustainability

This blog has always felt like a strange tangled mess. I’m only starting to value how important it is to me to have all of this cringe-worthy writing collected in one place. I started writing here because I was on a precipice — an unknown learning experience.

Here I am again, 19 years later.

I’m finally about to pursue a longing that has haunted me for at least 16 years. It’s something I have said many times in writing that I wouldn’t pursue. However, it kept pursuing me. The idea of it.

I start my PhD (Society and Culture) in 2024.

My plan is to use this space to reflect on my research over the forthcoming years. At the broadest level of explanation, my research spans three great curiosities of mine, particularly in those magical spaces when they converge: ecology, technology and learning.

All I know is that everything is interconnected. I know that somehow, there are strands related to the gentle way of learning design that has been mulling; the unobservable universe of learning; and even, way back, there is quiet design. There are also connections to where I have left big gaps of silence in between posts here, where there are no words to hyperlink to.

More to come as I start this new adventure in 2024…

Mindstorm on a hillside: learning to stay in play

I have just finished reading Coding as a Playground: Programming and Computational Thinking in the Early Childhood Classroom by Marina Umaschi Bers, which has led me into re-reading Mindstorms by Seymour Papert.

You can read the full text of Papert’s Mindstorms here on MIT’s website. I have been a little surprised by not hearing much about Papert and constructionism in the thirteen years I’ve worked in higher education. For some ideas about how Papert came to be a bit under-the-radar in higher education,  see this paper about Seymour Papert’s Legacy.

To those I’ve asked recently, Mindstorms is perceived as being primarly about  technology and early education. It’s not a text to go to naturally for insight into learning in higher education, unless perhaps, you are in ed-tech. It has such an ageless relevance about how we learn.

I first read Mindstorms about ten years ago. I also must confess to being a child of the LOGO language. I have vivid memories of the first time I sat in front of computer in primary school and used LOGO. When I read Mindstorms it was all about computers. I now find myself reading Mindstroms very differently.  This is the first jolt:

“Thus this book is really about how a culture, a way of thinking, an idea comes to inhabit a young mind…My interest is in universal issues of how people think and how they learn to think.” (Papert, p10)

Playing ‘on’ playgrounds

I find myself thinking about a playground on a mountainside in Switzerland where I had an extraordinary learning experience, given to me by a passer-by. I think about this often and have wanted to write about this playground since we were there in 2015. Now feels like the right time.

It was a playground like no other. An adventure by cable car to get there. Equipment surprisingly plonked perfectly on the hillside. Epic views of snow-capped Alps in summer. A path out of it which led into a beautiful hillside wildflower walk.


Sssh. At home, I know of a rare park with extra swings high enough for adults to have a swing. If the park is quiet and we have it to ourselves, I’ll gleefully hop onto a swing and swing into the blue sky. If another grown up turns up, I’ll self-consciously slow so down so that I’m sort of really just sitting on the swing. I feel, somehow, embarrassed to be seen….playing.

At this epic playground of playgrounds in Switzerland, I of course I got on the swings alongside our children.  My husband did too. Swinging through the warm summer air in the snow-capped mountains, this was truly the stuff of my imagination. The park of my childhood consisted of some swings in a shade-less hot prickly-weed paddock behind suburban houses. If you swung high enough and jumped off,  you could catch a glimpse of  foot-hills in the distance.  Something about the glimpse of those childhood hills made me feel like there was the potential of adventure to distant lands in the future. Here in this impossible land of hot sun and snow,  was my imagined landscape.


Suddenly, a woman, dressed in bright colours,  appeared from the wildflower path.  She just seemed to emerge from the hills as if she was a flower that had grown from them. I was merrily swinging, and characteristically slowed down self-consciously to a stop. She walked over to me and said “Hello, hello, keep swinging, keep playing, it is beautiful to see this!“. She then told me that she missed seeing adults play and being able to play herself. She explained that where she grew up (somewhere in Germany) it was acceptable for adults to play on playgrounds, but where she lived now (somewhere in France) it was not acceptable, and she had often been laughed at and mocked. She said it was beautiful to see adults playing. She then waved, said goodbye and continued on her walk, disappearing along the path down the mountain.

I think so often of this message from a stranger.  Three years on, I now see the very beginnings of my 10 year old standing aside a little,   as her younger brother plays if there are others present. At home, just the two of them, they are different.  The self-consciousness about being seen to play is creeping in.

Questions I can’t answer

Why, at some point, do we feel embarrassed to be seen to play?

Is this a global phenomena? Are some cultures really more playful than others in adulthood?

As you are reading this, in your country, what would it feel like if you were seen on a swing?

And then, I think about play-based approaches to learning that I am seeing more of through working with younger learners. When I look side-by-side at learning in primary years education and the differences between how we support children into learning, and our approach to adult education, I feel a sense of forgetfulness in higher education. Like something is lost, a pastel-wash of colours where the colours should be bright.

Must we grow out of play?

Why do we so easily give up play in formal education? Is this inevitable, or are we teaching this? Is this cultural or academic?

 Why is it acceptable that final years of high school, and higher education is acceptable as a grown-up “stressful” experience?

Why is exam and assessment pressure so normalised? Why do students who don’t have exams in their course become apologetic, and express that they  “feel guilty?” amongst their peers for not having a stressful assessment period?

What contribution does our quest for seriousness and rigor in higher education have on the brain chemistry of our teenage and adult students?

Why have we made the absence of play for adults, an acceptable culture and one that we, perhaps without realising, perpetuate?

The players in higher education

Some grown-ups are still playing.

Cambridge University is playing: Meet the world’s first professor of play.

JISC too: Learning to play, playing to learn: the rise of playful learning in higher education

Here’s some tips from The Creativity Post: Play Matters: Six Play-Full Practices For Higher Education

I’m excited to see Makerspaces in academic libraries, like at Curtin University Library Maker Space. (lucky things!)

How to play: now you try!


The challenge of play in higher education, seems to be that to have a place to play, we first feel we need to rebuild the playgrounds. Once we have the playgrounds, will our educational culture allow us to play?

If you are an educator, my challenge for you is simple. Next time you see a swing in a playground, test your boundaries of seriousness.

Get on a swing. Swing on it. How does it feel? Is it complicated to express?

Are there people observing? What element does that add to your experience?

It’s just a hunch, but I think the complex swirling galaxies of mixed reaction that at you feel in these moments, is how learning should probably feel.

My hope is that we can make a culture of play in higher education.

“What we bloodlessy call ‘place’ is to young children a wild compound of dream, spell and substance: place is somewhere they are always ‘in’, never ‘on’.”

Robert MacFarlane – Landmarks



Learning: the unobservable universe

The concept of the observable universe is a concept in astrophysics encircling all of the matter that we can “see” in space from Earth. It’s not all there is to see, but it’s what has travelled to us in the time we’ve been looking and measuring. It’s bigger than the visible universe, because it includes being able to measure the very footprints and traces left by whatever the big bang was. It’s full of trillions of galaxies.

The observable universe is a visualisation of the limitations of our own technology. We learn a lot from those limitations. The observable universe is vast and fascinating and as rich as our own data can afford us.

However, there’s something that for me is even more fascinating to think about.

Beyond the cosmic horizon, the vast unknowable – the unobservable universe. There is information that will just never reach us.

The more I delve into astrophysics, the more I realise that so many of the concepts relate to learning.

The way our earth-bound thinking and theories tries so desperately to capture, evaluate and measure learning. To bind it to the measurable.

Learning, when thought about as an unobservable universe, has no lens from which to gaze through. It is only recognising that our view is bounded, and by attempting to ensure that from time to time we call our limitations into our actions and think and play unbounded.

How do we unlearn?

“…our understanding of the actual universe is bounded by the edge of the observable universe. We cannot know for sure what lies beyond the enclave our instruments can detect.”

Paul Halpern  The Nature of Reality


Why failing to grow is a yield too

Back in Autumn 2015, I tried growing burgundy Okra from seed and a late winter planting. Fail. Not just me either, I shared some seedlings and no one had any luck. 

I tried again in Spring, again sharing the few that had germinated through the local community produce share. I’m hopeful of finding out whether others had luck, because… one of mine made it!!!

As long as I can keep the chickens out of this bed, I think this little okra will be ok.

Growing is about failing, and failing is learning, because failing puts the details in your face, and asks you scrutinise the situation right there in front of you.  ‘Why didn’t this work?’ 

Moving on from failure, also requires you to stand back and look at the bigger picture, looking for a pattern, a clue to the myriad of complex interactions that take place just to make one tiny thing happen. ‘What am I missing?’

You learn something about the universe in these observations, something a bit hard to explain, but this recent article about The physics of life in Nature magazine by Gabriel Popkin stirs up what I feel.

So get out there, get your hands dirty and fail, because when one seed grows you will treasure and value it more than anything you own. 

An unlearning activity Part 1

(This is an assignment experiment for a Digital Pedagogy Lab course I’m participating in. I would love you to give it a try)

“The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”

― Carl Sagan

The night sky – we all know or can perhaps imagine what it looks like.  Representing the sun, moon and stars begins very in childhood with drawing, and can be a very symbolic and exciting presence in our lives when we are young. As we grow up, intellectualise and learn all that we know about the universe, and theorise about the bits that we don’t, we develop understanding, belief, questions, conundrums. We quest to understand and create our own sense of our world. In short, when we look up, we find ourselves facing big questions.

Title: Atlas Coelestis. Harmonia Macrocosmica seu Atlas Universalis et novus, totius universi creati Cosmographiam generalem, et novam exhibens Studio et labore Andreae Cellarii,
Title: Atlas Coelestis., Andreae Cellarii, Public domain British Library Flickr collection.

This led me to wondering – is the night sky one of our most complex and sophisticated thinking tools? It’s often visible with the naked eye, and, is free – but sometimes, strangely, overlooked?

So, this is an experiment to see if we can learn something about learning, using the whole cosmos.

A bit ambitious…but an adventure.

What do you know and feel?

The historical relationship that humans have had with the night sky, from navigational aid to storytelling by the stars, means that most of us are at least familiar with some of these:

Your assignment task – What do you see?

Add a comment to this this image of the night sky (on Marqueed) describing what you see in the picture.

(Having problems with the image displaying in Marqueed? – use this Night Sky google doc).

Part 2 of this challenge will be posted once there are a few comments on the image, as what you respond may change the shape of this activity….

Part 2 – it’s always where the adventure really begins…

Quiet design. Twelve simple design principles.

Reposted November 2017, orginally published on my other blog

In my purse, stashed in behind two photos of my children, is a scrap of paper with the only design principles that have ever made sense to me. Twelve simple principles as an antithesis, to a sea of educational and instructional design frameworks, some of which need maddening interrogation to explain or understand. Twelve simple principles that seem to work, whatever I throw at them.

They are understandable, no matter what your experience in life.

You can use them to approach anything. You can navigate them as a simple list, or delve deep into thick well-thumbed books and frequently cited journal articles.  There is probably even a waiting  list in your local public library for copies of these books.

They are design principles that you can intellectualise or philosophise as you please.

They can be the cleverest thinking tool and yet can also spawn you a robust do list.

You can skim the surface of them, and build immediately. Or, you can approach them as theory and dwell on them.

Flexible. Holistic. Adaptable. Sustainable. Usable. Accessible.

They have become my personal and professional principles – they seem to fit life and learning. Not perfectly, no, nothing is ever a perfect fit. But enough.

As thought principles, they were co-conceived, by two very different minds, with two vastly different personalities, who were not the wizened sages we sometimes expect such thinking to emerge from. They were relatively young, in their early 20s, in a young country, which is generally not seen as one of the historic intellectual powerhouses of the world.

Shared slowly and informally through community, these principles are still shared primarily on the energy of individual enthusiasm,  now right across the world.  They also can be navigated more formally in books, textbooks, and formal courses, as theory and practice, and alone or guided by various leaders bringing their own personalities into our explorations of the principles.  This continual cycle shares the fundamental ideas based on that thinking of those original co-creators. Sometimes these approaches are at odds with each other, but this is part of adaptability, growing almost in the underground – surviving and thriving in constant change and chaos, for new and perhaps, unexpected audiences.

So, ahem, yes, ok….it’s permaculture.

Emerging from the 1970s, and Australia, these principles are still sometimes viewed as a bit of a sub-culture, mostly for those seeking an alternative to modern life, but if you never look further because this doesn’t appeal to you, I think you are missing an opportunity to be surprised.  Despite the fact that permaculture “emerged from within academia  and suffers only from a perception of lack of intellectual rigour, and the populist image..”. (*), these principles are still mostly pigeon-holed as ecology or organic gardening.

If you have only seen the popular visible face of permaculture, and you think that digging soil and planting veggies is not your thing, please,  just urge and nudge that thread of thinking aside, the bit that says…outside of my sphere…not in my domain…not my scene… because that is just one side, the practical side of permaculture.

Have you delved much into its rich and fertile theory?

There is SO much beneath the surface, so very rhizomatic. These are not merely principles for growing vegetables.

Unfurl your mind, to the very frontiers of your thinking:

As a holographic thinker – being open to the idea that anything one observes anywhere is likely to have parallel expressions everywhere – I am led to go beyond the usual boundaries that are put around permaculture….I encourage you to similarly try applying these Permaculture Principles to any area that might benefit from such holistic design theory and practice. Areas that immediately come to mind include human settlements and business enterprises, political and economic systems, and the health field, child rearing and learning environments.

Professor Stuart B. Hill, Foundation Chair of Social Ecology, University of Western Sydney, NSW Australia in Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability

The 12 design principles

Try using the 12 design principles of permaculture. Don’t worry about reading the “official” definitions, yet., or dwelling on each individually. Shape them to your needs.

Just try them as a thinking tool, when you are thinking about something that ignites your mind and soul.  Did they work for you?

Permaculture Design Principles

  1. Observe and interact.

  2. Catch and store energy.

  3. Obtain a yield

  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback.

  5. Use and value renewable resources

  6. Produce no waste

  7. Design from patterns to detail.

  8. Integrate rather than segregate

  9. Use small and slow solutions.

  10. Use and value diversity.

  11. Use edges and value the marginals.

  12. Creatively use and respond to change.


(*) Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability by David Holmgren.

Co-founders of Permaculture: