A new way of learning through The Harmony Project

Richard Dunne is Headteacher of Ashley C of E Primary School, located just outside London in the UK, and a contributor to The Harmony Project.

The Harmony Project promotes an understanding of how principles that maintain the dynamic balance and health of the natural world can help us live and work in harmony with Nature and with one another. It seeks to show how all life is connected and to support the adoption of an approach to learning that has principles of Harmony at its core, across diverse educational contexts. 

Ashley C of E Primary School is an award-winning Ofsted-graded Outstanding School and has developed a curriculum of learning built around Nature’s principles of Harmony. By combining core skills to purposeful enquiries of learning, the children start to develop their own vision of how they want to see their world and just as importantly what they can do to make it happen.

Here, Richard talks about his work at the school and his role in promoting this new way of learning through The Harmony Project. 

1. How can we help nurture in our young people a ‘duty of care’ for the Earth and for each other?

I think the starting point in encouraging young people to care for our world has to be the values culture within which they learn and grow. When children know that they are valued and that what they say matters, they are more likely to grow into caring young people who treat others and the wider world with respect. 

Alongside this values culture, we need our young people to learn how to collaborate, how to listen to each other, and how to appreciate one another’s contributions. This is not easy when the education system in the UK – and elsewhere in the world – is so focused on the individual and individual attainment. Many of the most important skills in life are relational. Whilst it is important to monitor individual progress, we also need to find ways to recognise the more collaborative aspects of a young person’s development. 

The third element to nurturing ‘a duty of care’ for the natural world is to get young people out into Nature. This will, of course, provide lots of learning opportunities to address curriculum requirements. More than that, though, getting young people out into Nature will help them to appreciate its beauty, to understand its cycles, to marvel at its patterns, shapes and colours, to value its worth, and to find ways to enhance it, rather than destroy it. The more we can provide opportunities for young people to learn in and from Nature, not just in their early years, but throughout their learning, the better.

2. Your school is developing a curriculum built around principles of Harmony which sustain the health and balance of the natural world. How can this help students understand the connectedness of all life?

We live in a world that has never been more connected. With the arrival of the internet and the development of screen culture, we have increasingly become more and more connected and distracted by our mobile phones, our iPads, and all manner of other gadgets we have to hand. There are, of course, many benefits to this access to information and the ease with which we can communicate with one another.

But for all that we are connected, many of us are very disconnected when it comes to our understanding of the natural world and our understanding of the impact we are having on it. We even refer to Nature as something ‘out there’ – something from which we are somehow removed – when, in fact, we are part of Nature, too. This lack of understanding is having major consequences on the natural world and the prognosis for the future is deeply concerning on many fronts. Probably the greatest challenge we now face is to work out how we can sustain all life and improve the quality of life for those who need it most. 

In reading HRH The Prince of Wales’s book ‘Harmony, a new way of looking at our world’, I realised that if we are to live sustainably and well, we have to do so in harmony with the natural world, creating systems and practices that ensure its well-being as much as ours. This is how Nature works. Natural systems are sustainable systems. But for the most part, we have not learnt to work with Nature. The systems and practices that have brought us to this point have been extremely damaging to the natural world and to human health, too. We can go to a supermarket and buy just about any type of fruit or veg we want whenever we want it, but this convenient, cheap food has a cost – an environmental cost. This is just one example of the way we are damaging our natural resources. We are only now starting to become more aware of the impact of the choices we make and of the way we choose to live. But we need to do much more. 

The curriculum we have developed around principles of Harmony provides students with opportunities to understand that the natural world is systemic and sustainable. Everything works together. As one child put it, ‘Everything is as it should be.’ 

If we want to develop similarly sustainable practices, then the best way to do so is to learn from Nature’s principles of Harmony. For example, natural systems are cyclical. As one child simply stated, ‘This means they are never-ending’. If we want to replicate a sustainable model that never ends, then looking at the way Nature works in cycles is a good starting point. We see no waste in the natural world. When we compare this with our wasteful ways and the significant impact this is having on the health of the planet, we understand how much Nature’s principles of Harmony can teach us. Children get this. They see that everything is connected and that the choices we all make every day, be it saying something unkind, leaving a light on or driving to school in a car rather than walking or cycling, has an impact or a cost.

I asked someone recently who works as part of the International Sustainability Unit what needed to happen in education to enable a sustainable future and he said: ‘Young people need to understand a ‘systems view’ of the world’. This is what I believe Nature’s principles of Harmony can teach us.

3. Why do you think it is important that young people develop an understanding of this connectedness – or experience it first-hand?

Every day, we make choices about what we eat, what we buy, what we throw away. Often, we have very little idea about where these items have come from or where they go. If young people understand where their food comes from because they grow it, if they see that saving energy in school reduces CO2 emissions, saves money and provides more funds for school resources, if they are responsible for recycling their food and other waste every day, this is likely to have an impact on the way they choose to live as they grow up. This is important. The more we can weave issues of sustainability into their daily lives and give them a voice in articulating what they think about these issues and how they can change and improve them, the more likely it is that they will grow up with the right attitudes and behaviours to live in ways that ensure a sustainable future.

4. What do you see as the most important factor in the education of our children that will empower them to become leaders of transformation? Do you see enough of this in education today?

The key word here is agency. If young people see themselves as agents of change because their learning experiences have given them opportunities to lead initiatives and take responsibility for particular projects that address issues of sustainability, they will start to believe that they can create the changes they want to see happen.

The culture in which children learn is critical to this. It needs to be a culture that encourages them to value their voice and speak their mind, to experiment and take risks, to be creative and imaginative in their thinking, to see purpose in what they do. 

I think in education, the greatest challenge we still face is the narrowness of learning that permeates a system predicated on data and progress scores. We all want our children to achieve well in their core learning, but if that becomes the only thing that is important, then the focus for the learning narrows very quickly and teachers’ levels of enthusiasm are likely to fade, too. We have to find other ways to measure education that are equally valued and then educators will start shifting their practices to something much more meaningful. My sense is that current education practices in England and indeed in many parts of the world lack any real purpose beyond acquiring skills and knowledge. This can make learning very boring, even pointless.

I do believe that it is possible to achieve high levels of progress and attainment in the core subjects, but also make the learning purposeful. The starting point for this approach, however, is the project of learning itself, and not subject-specific skills and knowledge. When we get the project or enquiry right, then we can apply the subject-specific learning through it. This means planning learning back to front and making the project the driver for what is taught, rather than referencing subject skills and knowledge at the start and building a very disjointed and piecemeal curriculum with little or no cohesion. 

When we observe the natural world, everything works together in a state of wholeness. There is no separation or division between one element and another, and this is what enables it to work so well. If we take the same approach to the way our children learn, it will surely make more sense to them. This joined-up approach is how education could be and I believe it is essential we learn in this way if we are to create a sustainable future. Because I believe this so much, I have made it a high priority in what happens in my school and this approach has never wavered. It is about having the courage of your convictions and my hope is that more and more teachers and educators have the confidence to do just that.

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