With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:
Fikile Nxumalo is an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education. Her research focuses on “environmental humanities,” and she’s interested in what possibilities emerge for social and environmental justice when early childhood education engages with the messy imperfect worlds that children encounter and co-inhabit with more-than-human others (animals, trees, etc.).
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Edu: Can you tell me a bit about your recent research?
Fikile Nxumalo: My current research is centered around finding the possibilities for rethinking environmental education with young children so that it’s really firmly situated within the current ecological issues that young children are inheriting. For instance, thinking about the interrelated impact of species vulnerability, waste accumulation, and climate change.
Trib+Edu: What has been your most interesting finding recently?
Nxumalo: My most recent project that I did with young children dealt with waste. We were engaged in everyday encounters with the frog pond at a wetland, that had also turned into a waste dump, and really thinking with young children about how to respond to the waste that had accumulated in that area.
I think in environmental education, children are typically thought of as not being able to respond to environmental issues, but in this particular project we were able to really think seriously with children about how we were going to respond to this issue of waste in the frog pond that they were encountering.
I found that the children were thinking together on the impact of the waste, what was happening to the frogs because of the waste and then what they could do about it. One of the things they decided to do was to come together to write something to the people that were dumping construction waste in that area and to ask them to remove the waste that was accumulating there. In the end, we helped the children write something to the people and some of the waste was removed.
Trib+Edu: What are “environmental humanities” and what are the possibilities for improved childhood education when it engages with non-human others (animals, trees, etc.)
Nxumalo: Environmental humanities challenge us to think about environmental issues from more than one perspective. It brings an interdisciplinary approach to helping us understand and respond to environmental challenges. It thinks about how we can look at insights from science and bring them into conversation with important questions about values, ethics, justice and equity.
I find environmental humanities productive when thinking about education because it also brings together the idea that humans are not separate from the non-human world. So nature is not some romantic thing that’s out there that we need to return children to, but challenges us to think about the ways in which we’re already kind of entangled with the more-than-human world.
Trib+Edu: What is the role of the state in implementing a curriculum that includes “environmental humanities”?
Nxumalo: I think that there needs to be way for these young schoolchildren to be thinking about the environmental issues that they’re inheriting. It’s also important to not think that children will be the ones to find a solution to the environmental issues we have today or that there is one universal solution, but to understand that young children are really capable of thinking about and responding to issues in the environment.
My work so far has been in Canada, but I think it’s important to be thinking about the extent to which environmental education is a part of early childhood education. From what I know, I don’t think it really is an intrinsic part.
Typically, environmental education is premised around children being exposed to a very romanticized view of nature, but I want to know how environmental education can be specifically situated to address the specific challenges that are facing young children in Austin or in other parts of Texas.
I currently have a research proposal in mind that extends the idea of what I did with young children and waste that I’d like to do in Austin. My premise is that waste is one of several interconnected challenges that’s been attributed to human causes, and so my interest is in conducting ethnographic research into children’s waste relations.
I want to look at how waste is understood, how it’s articulated and what kind of pedagogical approaches are already in place in relation to children and waste. Then my idea for future work is to think of a more participatory approach with educators to think about what kinds of new waste pedagogies are needed for sustainable early childhood education.
First, I want to look at how waste is being encountered and thought of pedagogically and then I want to look at different possibilities for thinking. For example, that question of how might the scientific knowledge about waste and what happens with waste be brought into conversations with questions like how it’s engaging with children in British Columbia around issues of its effect on more-than-human others.