Ecosystems and Narrative Pedagogy
Dr Cecilia Medupin is a Senior Lecturer at the Earth and Environmental Sciences (School of Natural Sciences). In this interview, Cecilia discusses her approach to incorporating storytelling techniques into her teaching, as a way to build narratives that encourage deeper reflection from her students, and in so doing, to increase the depth of their engagement with her courses.
Ecology as a personal narrative
Both the subject of my programme and my personal focus within Ecology is looking at the interactions between physical, chemical and biological variables, especially in freshwater river systems. While teaching students about these ecological systems is important in itself, I have found that it is also important to consider how you do so. Not only do you want to instil in the students a knowledge of the science, but also to give them a lasting motivation and desire to study further. When it comes to freshwater ecology, there are unique opportunities to add a personal narrative to my teaching, though I would argue that the concept is applicable in any circumstance. When we are at the beginning of the teaching process, we are trying to win our students’ trust, and hopefully to make certain they understand that what they are learning is as important as I’m telling them it is!
Helping students to find their own ‘niche’
The way I approach this is to talk about, for example, something called ‘ecological niches’. Niches are developed when microorganisms are able to settle into a particular place and role within an ecosystem due to factors ranging from their origin, environmental condition and resources, and the context of their local area. There is a fundamental niche, which is broadly available to all organisms to survive and to reproduce itself. In addition, there is a realised niche where an organism, over time or through ecological interactions e.g. predation, competition with other organisms will find their spaces of comfort and development.
In many ways, this analogy is similar to our new undergraduate/postgraduate students coming from abroad or other parts of the UK for the first time to the University. While they are likely to receive the basic, fundamental induction given to all new students, over time, they would need to find their “niches” in the university, and in their own lives. There are expectations to foster a realised niche.
If new students are made aware of this analogy, then that knowledge and understanding can help them to demonstrate and encourage certain attitudes. For e.g. the narrative could promote a renewed awareness to study more effectively, engage their university community more by connecting with other people- students, staff by attending lectures, tutorial sessions, seminars or places within and outside of the institution.
In this way, I teach my students about the ecological system, but also to provide information, which could be relevant to their own needs, i.e. help to understand the needs to find their own niches, their own community and pursue their pathway to their future careers as appropriate. This dynamic form of narrative works well as a meta-reference, providing an example of ecological interaction through a student’s own awareness of their personal environment as a whole.
Inbuilt social awareness through teaching
I like to use a personal example that illustrate this “niche” concept to students: Coming from Nigeria, I have had my own barriers to cross. Nigeria is very diverse ethnically, with a plethora of languages, religions and geographies. I then have other unique interactions as a black woman who have lived, worked, and studied in both Nigeria and the UK.
Through the diverse interaction, study and of work at different organisations and, now in academia, I try to demonstrate to students how they can learn to understand the ‘niches’ that exist within the context of their own studies, lives and environment. These connections and evidence can help my students to create their own narratives – they become aware, understand the importance of exploring effective interactions in the wider ecological system in order to protect our Earth’s environment, biological resources and people; and strive to prevent any circumstance that would damage the realisation of the “ecological niche”. This knowledge is also important as students from diverse backgrounds can identify the gaps in their learning at a personal or group level, connect their own lived experiences and, to provide more spaces for them to write or tell their own narratives.
Whether at an organismal or at community level, effective interaction between organisms is vital in the fulfilment of their unique purpose and a sustainable Earth’s ecosystem.
Adding Value to the Narrative (Cognitive vs Affective Learning)
By relating the course content to their own personal motivations and behaviours, and educating students with an understanding of such narratives, we can create added value. Not only does this method of storytelling allow for personal engagement with the academic topic, but it can also encourage students to take them from their current state to a more empathic place. It is important for me to be able to teach students how to and why to protect rivers and the environment, not just that they ‘should’ do it. They need to have that emotional connection, that understanding of the value of what they are learning is just as important. Creating a sense of awe or curiosity in many ways, as to how each organism is vital, no matter how small, is another form of teaching students to observe and appreciate biodiversity and its uniqueness. All organisms have a function within the Earth’s ecosystem – thus, by creating a sense of place and location, effective teaching through storytelling can build context. When you begin teaching by telling a story, using an example, you ensure the context is maintained when it comes to the academic elements of the lesson.
Once you start adding contents in the ecological studies, the story continues to improve; you have created an active interest in learning. There will be one or two things that will trigger the way the students think, or make them consider alternative ways of viewing themselves and their learning. While you may be teaching science or mathematics, creating a narrative or a story it can prompt new ways of thinking, and help students to learn new methods of thought. In this way, not only do I teach them academic practice or ecological principles, but also I hopefully, help to improve their cognitive skills to understand the need for environmental protection, social responsibility and a dire need to preserve and our Earth’s environment irrespective of wherever they might have come from.
Taking the story forward
Once you lay the foundation, you will have the students’ buy-in through a keenness to know more, and by providing direct experience,- you have already won their interest; a sense of genuine excitement to learning ensues. When it comes to building on the stories through other teaching activities such as laboratory session e.g. sorting and identifying river organisms, or field sampling and analysis, the bulk of the work will be easier. It is in these phases that students can talk more to each other.
In essence, taking it forwards is a process – beginning with constructing a narrative, followed by the bulk of learning, then finally integrating the learning and the context into a take home message.
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