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Moral Development through Nature Connection Practices and Indigenous Learning.

What motivates our actions? Whose voice do we listen to? Are we defined by our individual experiences or by our relationships with one another? From the perspective of an outdoor educator focused on deepening nature connection practices, the inclusion of the indigenous perspective is integral. Shaping the learning framework to include First Nations understanding of learning is not only key to reconciliation but also for place-based learning incorporation. The First Peoples Principles of Learning states that “[l]earning ultimately supports the well-being of the self, the family, the community, the land, the spirits, and the ancestors.” (FNESC, 2015) This principle recognizes that we live in relationship with one another and that we are not individuals acting in isolation (Kakkori & Huttunen, 2016). Moral decision making is based on understanding how our actions affect one another, including all living beings and the earth. In 2019, the Comox Valley School district published a strategic plan prioritizing both environmental stewardship development and Indigenous ways and knowing integration. The task though paramount, comes with significant systemic and cultural hurdles and will prove challenging to execute.

Carol Gilligan’s ethic of care paradigm believes that moral life and community are grounded in virtues, practices, and knowledges associated with appropriate caring and caretaking of self and others (Whyte & Cuomo, 2017). In the video, Carol Gilligan on Women and Moral Development (Big Think, 2012), Gilligan states that she not only seeks to incorporate the feminine voice into her moral development theory, but alternative voices too. These voices exist amongst us all regardless of gender or ethnicity. That said, the individual voice is shaped by cultural context. Traditionally, local indigenous peoples were deeply connected to the land and waters. They depended on it for survival and therefore their bond was intimate, spiritual, and reverent. To act without respect for the natural world was to be the author of one’s own demise. Despite colonization and its subsequent trauma, this connection to the land remains and, is central to their (re)connection process. It is integral to their traditional identity.

The structure of the traditional western school system does not include land-based knowledge and learning as a core principal or value. If it is the intention to integrate both environmental stewardship and indigenous ways of knowing and learning into the educational fabric, there are significant systemic battles to overcome. For example, the physical structures of our schools, classroom composition, and schedules are problematic. Most school buildings are outdated, institutional, and set up for factory-model classrooms. Inspired by Prussia’s approach to schooling, Horace Mann created the free school movement which “stemmed less from a belief in the […]moral imperative of education for all children and more from a desire to simply create a tolerant, civilized society” (Rose, 2012). He believed that amalgamating large groups of students of approximately the same age would “blur the divisions among religious groups and establish a more unified and egalitarian society” (Rose, 2012). According to Horace, his factory line model was the most efficient way to maximize learning and create social, political, and cultural homogeneity. It is this model that we continue to use today. If we seek to reform learning to incorporate current values that celebrate diversity in its many forms and complexities, Horace’s model is outdated and needs to be restructured to meet the current needs of all students.

The school district’s vision for environmental sustainability requires a commitment to nature connection practices. The process of relationship building with the natural environment is imperative in developing the ethic of care. “Environmental ethics nearly always stress the need for increased or improved caring in the form of moral regard for nonhuman others and ecological systems, and the lack of such regard is commonly cited as a fundamental cause of environmental damage and destruction” (Whyte & Cuomo, 2017, p.3). To reiterate Gilligan’s position on moral development, the context in which we are raised (and taught) plays a significant role on how we embrace diversity, foster relationships, and empower learners. If it is the goal to make a positive impact on the world, one needs to begin from the ground up.

The indigenous way of learning does not incorporate rigid bell schedules, credit requirements, and age-based grade levels. Connecting with the natural environment to encourage stewardship does not happen in a building. To meet these moral development objectives authentically requires fundamentally changing school structure and teaching practices. “There is agreement that teaching practices should be responsive to the cultural identities of their students, but less clarity regarding both the specifics of culturally responsive pedagogies and effective strategies for implementing them in classrooms across the curriculum” (Savage et al., 2011). A shift needs to occur at a foundational level to influence moral development meaningfully. It is essential to remove oneself from the system in which public education is entrenched and find creative means to step outside of the proverbial box.


Big Think. (2009). Carol Gilligan on Women and Moral Development | Big Think [Video]. Big Think.

Comox Valley Schools. (2019). Board of education: Strategic plan.

Kakkori, L., & Huttunen, R. (2016). Gilligan-Kohlberg Controversy and Preliminary Conclusion. Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory, 1-8.

Rose, J. (2012, May 9). How to break free of our 19th-Century factory-model education system. The Atlantic.

Savage, C., Hindle, R., Meyer, L., Hynds, A., Penetito, W., & Sleeter, C. (2011, July 25). Culturally responsive pedagogies in the classroom: indigenous student experiences across the curriculum. Taylor & Francis Online.

Torres, V., & Garcia, Y. (2019). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women's development by Carol Gilligan. Journal of College Student Development, 60(3), 372-375.

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