Ecocentric pedagogies and green scholarships: Towards green academia

by Sayan Dey

In 2006, the Ministry of Education in Bhutan launched what is officially known as the Green School System. One of the many purposes of introducing this green education system was to counter the mainstream modern/colonial knowledge systems that are anti-ecological, self-profiting and capitalistic in nature, and to build knowledge systems that are centered on the existential and functional values of the natural environment.

Within the Green School System, the curriculums and pedagogies in the schools and higher education institutions have been designed in such a way that the knowledges from the various written texts can be applied in various practical contexts. For instance, on the one side, the school students in Bhutan learn from their textbooks about how to develop the fertility of the soil and grow crops in an organic manner without using chemical fertilizers. On the other side, they practically apply this knowledge by preparing the soil and growing fruits and vegetables in their respective school campuses. Apart from building vegetable gardens and fruit orchards, the students also learn about dairy farming; the existential patterns of the various living beings in the natural environment; the methods of preparing organic fertilizers; and the relevance of indigenous eco-centric knowledges to address and interpret contemporary academic and research disciplines. The courses in the schools are not only delivered by the degree-qualified teachers, but also by various community elders who are invited by the school authorities to interact with teachers and students.

Learning with the wider community

Other examples for ecocentric educational practices are prevalent in New Zealand, Kenya and India. In India the Sarang School in the Attapaddy district of Kerala and the Barefoot College in the Tilonia district of Rajasthan, along with many other alternative educational institutions, have been playing a crucial role in interrogating the capitalistic job-centric education system of India and developing praxis-based ecocentric education systems. In these educational institutions the students are not taught within the four-walled classrooms and are not awarded any specific degrees and certificates. Instead, they are taught within the natural environment and every subject is taught in connection to its the existential and functional patterns. The different aspects of what the students learn are rainwater harvesting, organic farming, making solar panels, creating eco-friendly energy systems, and building agricultural banks for storing harvests. The campuses of these institutions are covered with natural green spaces, and the pedagogical methods are centered on co-teaching and co-learning. This means that the students not only learn for themselves, but also share their knowledges with their respective community members. The purpose of practicing such a pedagogical procedure is to enable individuals to collaboratively and actively contribute towards the structural and infrastructural development of the societies without disrupting the natural environment.

In Kenya, the Green Belt Movement that was initiated by environment activist Wangari Maathai in 1977 has generated a nationwide and continentwide impact against reckless capitalization and industrialization of postcolonial Africa in general and postcolonial Kenya in particular. Today, the impact of the movement is clearly visible across schools in Kenya where the students, apart from learning inside the classrooms and laboratories, grow organic fruit and vegetable gardens inside their respective school campuses. Such a contextual way of learning allows the individuals to understand the importance of the natural environment in daily life.

In New Zealand, the Kaupapa Maori education system has become an integral part of the mainstream educational institutions in order to dismantle the Euro-modeled capitalistic curricular and pedagogical patterns. In many schools and higher educational institutions in New Zealand, the curriculums are redesigned to integrate the indigenous knowledge values of the Maori community through creating educational disciplines like indigenous humanities, indigenous management, indigenous business studies, indigenous technologies and many more. The curriculums are delivered by the teachers, who are specifically trained in Maori ancestral knowledge systems. The training processes are conducted by the Maori community elders.

Reconciling modern technology and indigenous knowledges

In my monograph Green Academia. Towards Eco-Friendly Ecucation Systems, I further discuss the various practical applications of these ecocentric educational systems on the basis of online ethnographies, personal conversations, and research articles. The purpose of discussing these ecocentric education is to understand the necessity of respecting, preserving and learning with the natural environment in the context of Covid-19.  In fact, the idea for this project came up during the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, when the teaching and learning systems underwent a paradigmatic change due to lockdowns and closure of educational institutions. The outbreak of the pandemic not only unfolded a series of medical and health crises, but also reconfigured the already existing racial, social, cultural, political, economic, ecological and various other forms of crises.

With the closure of educational institutions, the teaching and learning process across the world was shifted online and the accessibility to online teaching and learning was only restricted to the socio-economically privileged communities. However, the situation in Bhutan was quite different. Right from the beginning of the outbreak in 2020, many educational institutions in Bhutan adopted the blended teaching and learning model. For instance, the institution where I worked as a lecturer, co-designed a blended teaching and learning model where the students attended their classes both online and offline without any health and medical challenges. Also, during the first phase of the outbreak when most of the so-called developing countries in the world were struggling to cope with the rise in infections, Bhutan’s health situation was well under control. Also, unlike many countries in the world, the residents of Bhutan did not indulge in hoarding of groceries because a majority of the houses in Bhutan are equipped with lands for agriculture and daily farming. Such an ecocentric self-sustaining existential practice has enabled the residents of Bhutan to cope with the challenges of closed shops, lockdowns, travel restrictions and other issues which is an outcome of the Green School educational practices. Similar socio-cultural practices of ecocentric self-sustenance can be located within various indigenous communities of India, New Zealand and Kenya, and the ways in which these communities have influenced educational institutions (both mainstream and alternative) successfully disintegrated the binaries between modern/Western and indigenous; theory-based and praxis-based, as well as text-based and context-based knowledge systems.

The ecocentric knowledge practices also invite us to think about the necessity of interweaving the technological paradigms of teaching and learning with their indigenous counterparts in a de-hierarchical manner, especially in the context of Covid-19. This is because we are on the one hand aware that the reckless usage of technology has been causing enough environmental damage, and on the other hand that technology is an undeniable part of contemporary human existence.

With respect to the arguments in favour of ecocentric education systems, self-sustaining existential practices during Covid-19 and interweaving indigenous knowledge systems with technological knowledge systems, Green Academia outlines possible pathways to disassemble the human-nature dichotomy and to appreciate interrelatedness of various knowledge apparatuses in non-discriminatory ways.

This post first appeared on the Debating Development Research Blog of the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI). It is republished here with permission, which we gratefully acknowledge.

Sayan Dey grew up in Kolkata, West Bengal and is currently working as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Wits Centre for Diversity Studies, University of Witwatersrand, South Africa. He is also a Faculty Fellow, The Harriet Tubman Institute, York University, Canada. Some of his published books are: History and Myth: Postcolonial Dimensions (Vernon Press, 2020), Myths, Histories and Decolonial Interventions: A Planetary Resistance (Routledge, 2022), and Green Academia: Towards Eco-friendly Education Systems (Routledge, 2022). His areas of research interests are postcolonial studies, decolonial studies, critical race studies, food humanities and critical diversity literacy. He can be reached at: