30 ONLINE 20 B, Futures thinking and imagination in ESE
MeetingID: 828 1783 2948 Code: WT3eUw
How to address change is one of the central questions in environmental and sustainability education. This question has raised a variety of—often contradicting—answers. In this paper, I engage with this discussion through the concept of literacy. I outline a biosemiotic understanding of literacy as reading, writing, and imagining the world and discuss implications of such an understanding at hand of two textbooks for social studies: the German Textbook Demokratie Heute and the Norwegian textbook Arena.
My interest in the concept of literacy is twofold. First I am looking for approaches that look beyond anthropocentric, language-centered notions of humans, cognition, and learning. Second, I am interested in integrated views of reading, writing, and imagination. Biosemiotics, and the semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce in particular, offer such a view.
Literacy is a well-established concept in education, yet so broad in scope that it is difficult to grasp its meaning (Stables & Bishop, 2001). Most often, literacy is related to reading and writing. As for the field of environmental and sustainability education, environmental literacy and eco-literacy are well-established concepts. Environmental literacy may be understood as “the knowledge and understanding of a wide range of environmental concepts, problems, and issues; a set of cognitive and affective dispositions; a set of cognitive skills and abilities; and the appropriate behavioral strategies to apply such knowledge and understanding in order to make sound and effective decisions in a range of environmental contexts” (NAAEE, 2011, p. 3). In a similar vein, Stables and Bishop (2001) discern weak and strong ideas of environmental literacy. Weak approaches, they argue, frame literacy as reading and writing text, while strong notions understand literacy as semiotic engagement “with the biophysical world”. Eco-literacy, a termed associated with David Orr and Fritjof Capra, coincides in many ways with ideas of environmental literacy, but emphasizes to a greater extent sustainability and “an organic understanding of the world” (McBride et al., 2013, p. 14).
Other literacy-approaches focus more explicitly on the socio-political dimension, such as critical literacy. A central figure here is Paulo Freire who linked reading and writing to the world and saw it as intrinsically related to political education (Freire, 1985; Freire & Macedo, 1987). In fact, Freire argued, reading the world is prior to reading the word (Freire & Macedo, 1987) and implies rewriting it (Freire & Macedo, 1987). Central to Freire`s writings is also the role of imagination. Freire, however, remains firmly bound to an anthropocentric framing of humans and human communities and remains thus problematic seen through the lenses of environmental literacy (see also Bowers, 2005a, 2005b).
The literacy-perspective presented in this paper builds on Stables and Bishop`s (2001) notion of strong literacy and fuses it with ideas of critical literacy. Further, the paper adds to current work in semiotics of education (Campbell, Lacković, et al., 2021). It highlights the pivotal role of imagination and the unity of reading, writing and imagination. I exemplify how such an understanding affects didactics, especially when related to the socio-political realm, and overall approaches in environmental and sustainability education.
This is a theoretical paper supported by empirical examples. The framework for the argument is grounded in biosemiotics, in particular in Jakob von Uexküll`s Umwelt theory and Charles Sanders Peirce`s semiotics. Seen through the lenses of biosemiotics, life is literate. All life identifies specific qualities in the world and acts upon them (von Uexküll, 2010); that is all life reads its environment and rewrites it. What is perceived and acted upon, depends on the sense organs or tools available for an organism (von Uexküll, 2010). These organs as means of grasping one`s reality, are not arbitrary, but co-develop through interaction with an environment, as do the interpretative processes based on perception (von Uexküll, 2010). Reading and writing are hence only possible, because the world is anticipated, e.g. in the form of bodily features. As Wheeler, puts it, life expects the world; life imagines it (Wheeler, 2016). Literacy, in this account, is relational depending on the ability of an organism to anticipate an environment. This is only possible where environments show a degree of regularity (Hoffmeyer, 1996) and where organisms are able to act habitually on one another (Hoffmeyer, 2008a, 2008b) building up and binding into complex systems. Closely related to this idea is Peirce`s term of semiosis, the action of signs. It denotes the world’s continuous imprinting on subjects, the development of ideas, feelings, and actions, and the process of agents being moved and changed alongside their habitual relation to one another (Strand, 2013a, 2013b, 2021). Phenomena in the human community can be understood through the lenses semiosis. Human communities, seen through semiosis, consist of bundles of more or less habituated processes of interpretation that form structures and hence a degree of regularity. They can be read and acted upon. Humans too imagine the world—not only through their bodies, but also through reasoning (Peirce, 1903a, 1903b). Imagination is the realm that allows to build knowledge (Barrena, 2013). It enables humans to anticipate the future, to dream of different lives and different worlds. Imaginations are real and an objective part of the world. Not only do they create expectations, but guide action (Peirce, 1907) and are hence the mediating component between perception and action.
The examples from the two textbooks are not completely developed yet and will be presented at the conference. The books are chosen on the basis of an earlier analysis with a dualist notion of literacy as reading and writing seen through Rancière`s (2007) notion of politics and police. Police denotes the structure of the social, while politics is the political activity of restructuring the social sphere with the goal to increase equality. The German textbook Demokratie Heute focuses primarily on the reading-dimension of literacy—on the analysis of social phenomena, different points of view, and understanding and negotiating these views. The writing dimension is pushed into the background by a top-down thinking where the police—current institutions, laws, and regulations—is only marginally affected by politics and defines much of public and private life. The textbook hence aims at fostering citizens that are able to navigate in society, yet suppresses ideas of political engagement and possibilities of radical change. The Norwegian textbook focuses on the writing-dimension of literacy, on action: social engagement, revolution, and protest. Problematic, however, is the textbook`s strong narrative character presenting Norway as a well-functioning, ideal democracy. This image provides little space for inquisitiveness—reading or analysis. As I will point out in more detail and related to the concept of literacy, both textbooks are problematic not only in terms of democracy education but also in terms of their perspectives on change. The paper will additionally address the role of imagination for radical change.
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