by deirdre Kelly

photography by Sylvia Kinds

Cristina Delgado Vintimilla is an assistant professor in early childhood education at York University. But you could just as easily call her a teaching radical. As the University’s first pedagogista – an Italian word denoting an educational leader with a pronounced pedagogical vision – Vintimilla dismantles the human-centric approach to education that has served as the golden standard since the 19th century, if not longer. “It’s the kind of neoliberal, hyper-individualized education you might find in an assembly line,” she says in accented English, making piquant her disdain, “taking information in, regurgitating it out. A system designed only to supply the workforce of tomorrow. We need to continue to unsettle this idea.” And Vintimilla is.

Instead of using education as a tool for socialization, she joins forces with other education theorists to advance a pedagogy that promotes a sense of interdependence with “more than human worlds.” The goal is to focus education less on personal achievement and more on developing a greater sense of awareness of the complexity and interconnectedness of humans living on the planet. It’s a pedagogical practice that the Common Worlds Research Collective – an interdisciplinary network of researchers concerned with people’s relations with more-than-human worlds – has evolved as a response to the Anthropocene, the scientific term given to the current geological epoch, in which humanity has irreversibly altered the Earth, along with its related atmospheric, biospheric and geologic systems, more than all natural processes combined. It’s what Vintimilla, who is part of Common Worlds and often contributes knowledge to the collective’s international research projects, calls “an education that tries to respond to the conditions of our times.” It doesn’t perpetuate the traditional nature–culture divide. It rejects that binary altogether.

Drawing parallels with Indigenous knowledge systems developed by tribal societies with a history of sustainable interactions with their natural surroundings, this highly relational view of early childhood education looks to foster meaningful relationships with outdoor environments where the concept of “place” is a site not to be dominated but conversed with as part of an extended dialogue.

There’s the ‘nature is out there for our own benefit’ approach that sees the environment as something to be mastered or even fixed by us, if we perceive something in it is broken

Curricular activities take place both in and outside a classroom to heighten children’s awareness of the entangled world in which they live. But make no mistake. This is not a form of outdoor education where children are sent out into nature to test themselves against the elements on pathways to personal growth. Nothing like it at all. Here, outdoor space is where ideas and new ways of thinking about being in the world can and do flourish. The ultimate goal is to inspire children to pay attention to the interdependencies and shared vulnerabilities between humans and nonhumans – the concept of symbiosis as applied to early childhood education.

“We have multiple ways of relating to a place,” says Vintimilla. “There’s the ‘nature is out there for our own benefit’ approach that sees the environment as something to be mastered or even fixed by us, if we perceive something in it is broken. Or, there’s the idea that we are deeply entangled with others beyond ourselves, others that might not be human – water, trees, animals. The trees are not only there to give us oxygen, as children presently learn in school. They are part of a complex web of relations. And so we need to create a curriculum that challenges the old human-centric way of thinking. The shift is to move away from regarding all earthly relations as based on human supremacy. Within this theoretical framework, children, when they think of trees, now do so in ways that help enable them to see themselves as not the only ones needing attention.”

It forces education to question problematizing modes of existence that have contributed to the damage of the planet

These ideas have currency. In a paper that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization recently commissioned from Common Worlds as part of its Future of Education initiative, the call is for education to be “reimagined and reconfigured around the future survival of the planet.” This requires a complete paradigm shift “away from learning about the world in order to act upon it, to learning to become one with the world around us.” The paper, which UNESCO will publish later in 2021, concludes that “dismantling the Euro-Western human-centric stranglehold on education” will allow for alternative ways of thinking and living with the earth.

“That’s important,” Vintimilla says, “because it forces education to question problematizing modes of existence that have contributed to the damage of the planet. This is not about preserving some kind of innocence, but about confronting what is in fact a world in ruins. We live in an era of the Anthropocene. We need an education that responds to its challenges.”

But as if that weren’t enough already, along comes the coronavirus, throwing everything, including education, for a loop. In the time of coronavirus, many children around the world are forced to stay indoors to pursue their education – if they can – on computer screens. For Vintimilla, it’s a challenging situation, but also a perfect time to put some pedagogical theories to the test. With seed funding from York, she has collaborated with Common Worlds colleague Veronica Pacini-Ketchabaw, a professor of early childhood education at Canada’s Western University, on a pilot project involving children between the ages of three and six and their families in Ecuador.

It’s not business as usual. But it has given us an opportunity to think about education in new ways

“Pedagogies for Viral Times” is an itinerant school that came about after educational institutions in some provinces across Ecuador shut down early in the pandemic. One of those schools – Unidad Educativa Santana, a Common Worlds–, UNESCO- and Cambridge University–affiliated institution – is in the Ecuadorean city of Cuenca. There, members of the community stepped forward to offer up their garden for young children for whom online education is not a viable option. In consultation with Vintimilla and the team from Canada, Santana supported this “host garden” initiative, sending one of its own teachers into the field to engage the children in a unique series of pedagogical activities highlighting the interconnectedness of people, places and things. “The curriculum was responsive and specific to that garden, as well as to the stories of the families who own it and the history of the surrounding neighbourhood,” Vintimilla says. “It was designed to encourage encounters within a place, and to create something new from those experiences.”

A next stage, launched when cases of COVID-19 surged around the hosting families, involved putting some of the discoveries made in the garden – written narratives, family photographs and other objects linked to the garden – in baskets that the pedagogical team then delivered to individual households as a means of evolving the educational experience, even in lockdown. Participants were encouraged to add to the “errant” baskets that were picked up and redistributed to other households to share and discuss at the end of each week. These interfamily conversations formed connections that cultivated a sense of collectivity, regardless of the quarantine.

For Vintimilla, it’s an example of transformative learning through crisis, what education more than ever needs to do right now. “There’s no point in pretending the virus doesn’t exist. It’s not business as usual. But it has given us an opportunity to think about education in new ways,” she says. “Education has an ethical obligation to imagine alternative futures, and that’s what I’m doing in these challenging times. I’m creating pedagogies that speak to our present conditions and remind us of our complicated relations with the world.” ■

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