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Blog post Part of special issue: Education for our planet and our future

‘Dear Oak’: Becoming more place-responsive in the climate and ecological crisis

Jack Reed, PhD Student at University of Edinburgh Catherine Dunn, PhD Student at University of Edinburgh

Catherine: It’s winter. I’m in the heart of the Cairngorms on a field course for my outdoor education MSc at Edinburgh University. I’ve woken to a dusting of snow on my tent and the crunch of frostbitten grass beneath my feet.

Jack: I’m walking through a forest of Scots pine with my peers, the trees at ease with the briskness of this Highland morning. Suddenly, I rest eyes on The Oak.

Catherine: Dear Oak, how are you? I’m glad you’re still here.

Jack: I think you’re quite a special tree. How many people have you seen?

Catherine: Did you have a big family? How have you survived all this time?

Jack: I admire you. What are you pointing at?

Catherine: How do you wish this forest looked?

Jack: I’m sorry.

Catherine: Silence. The gentle creak of pines fills the air as I stare into the heart of The Oak. I feel it’s presence.

Jack: I rest my hands on The Oak, its stories wrapped in the rough bark that brushes my fingertips. I’m no longer cold. The tree shares its warmth like embracing an old friend.

Catherine: I feel connected, I am connected. My life suddenly appears in front of me as part of something so much bigger. I am humbled, I am small, but I am a big part of this planet.

Jack: We walk away, a cloud of dissonance above me. What did I feel? What does it mean? This changes everything.

What just happened?

The gravity of this experience cannot be fully expressed through words alone. Yet, to an onlooker, we were a group of people talking with an oak tree. What this experience demonstrates is the power of bringing together people, place and intentionally positioned activities, which Mannion, Fenwick and Lynch (2013) call place-responsive pedagogy.

Importantly, through meaningful conversation with nature we were able to engage in epistemological diversity, or multiple ways of knowing. Nicol (2003), who facilitated The Oak activity, argues that adopting a diverse epistemological approach equips students with the emotional and intellectual values required to instil an environmental consciousness; in essence, a desire to protect the planet which has nurtured us.

Returning to our experience of the oak tree, Nicol’s (2003) four ways of knowing can be observed at the heart of the activity. Through experiential knowing we were encouraged to actively engage with nature and shift the centre of our experience away from our individual consciousness. Presentational and propositional knowing then allowed us to reflect on and articulate our experience. However, the activity itself did not address practical knowing, or the practical expression of values attained from experiential, presentational and propositional knowing.

So what?

Six months later and we were studying our last field course on the Isle of Rum. Rum shared its educational enchantment with us for five days when an intergovernmental climate report was released detailing the imminent risk of extinction to one million species. We sat in our bunkhouse, a silence washed over us. We reflected, our hearts beating with more discontent than ever; we had to act, we had to act now.

Now what?

On Rum, we experienced the culmination of experiential, presentational and propositional knowing. We left the island expressing practical knowing through climate activism and on returning to Edinburgh organised a student climate rally, calling on our university to declare a climate emergency. Four months later and having worked extensively with the university, calling for bolder climate action, the university declared a climate emergency and is taking steps to mitigate its climate impact.

Returning to the notion of a place-responsive pedagogy, it seems pertinent to address the question posed by Mannion et al. (2013, p. 805) about whether ‘pupils taught by more place responsive teachers also learn to be more place responsive in their own lives?’ We are living proof that the answer is yes. The environmental consciousness that flickered and sparked at The Oak was truly ignited on Rum and continues to drive our action to this day.

Reflective questions

  • To what extent does curriculum learning promote experiences such as that of the Oak?
  • How can students be better supported in expressing their practical knowing?


Mannion, G., Fenwick, A., & Lynch, J. (2013). Place-responsive pedagogy: Learning from teachers’ experiences of excursions in nature. Environmental Education Research, 19(6), 792–809.

Nicol, R. (2003). Outdoor education: Research topic or universal value? Part three. Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning, 3(1), 11–27.