The intention and reflection of a passionate pedagogic journey toward Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)

Research stories from around the world

The intention and reflection of a passionate pedagogic journey toward Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)

It is said that a yellow flower only reflects the yellow ray or yellow vibrational component of the sunlight that falls upon it. Even though the yellow flower is exposed to the full spectrum of light and thus all colours, we only see yellow. All other colour rays or light vibrations are absorbed and not reflected. The flower intends to be yellow and that is all. Not that that is not enough, of course it is. We appreciate the beauty of the flower and respect its place in the biodiversity of our world. The author’s professional trajectory is like the flower since as it turns out, there is a conscious intention and reflection to the author’s teaching and learning. This passionate pedagogic journey told below in first person is still evolving. It is presented chronologically in three sections; roots, stems and flowers.

Planet Lily painted by and shown courtesy of the author.


Joseph Campbell is credited with saying “follow your bliss”. I offer a brief story about contrasts in my life that helped me to identify my bliss. You will understand how these contrasts or challenges gave birth to desires that have led my life as a creator, researcher and teacher towards academic leadership and service.

I am an artist inspired by nature. I grew up on dead end dirt road in a poor suburb of an affluent county (shire) on the Jersey Shore. From our little dead-end street, we could see the Manhattan skyline across Raritan Bay. Along with my siblings and friends, we played in the meadow, jumped creeks and caught crabs. Being in this natural environment daily and seeing the New York (NY) skyline off in the distance, symbolised to me boundless future potential. A sense of expansion grew within me along with a knowing that anything is possible. I taught myself to paint perched in my Grandparent’s (their property was connected to ours) weeping willow tree. Growing up was heaven on Earth until the Bayshore Regional Sewer Authority was built at the end of our road and International Flavours and Fragrances was built on the other side of our mile square town. It was just a matter of time before the smokestacks pumped 24/7. Soon, no matter which way the wind blew it stunk. Science says if you can smell it, the molecules are entering the body. Cancer clusters, multitudes of respiratory illness and a position on the United States’ Department of Environmental Protection’s Superfund site (polluted locations that require long-term clean-up of hazardous materials) followed. Squeezed between smokestacks and highways, we choked during the days and, without knowing, slept through the worst of the pollution as the corporate factories spewed out even greater amounts of toxins after midnight—when no-one could see the extent of the toxic plumes. Night venting is still a common practice in many industrial facilities across developing countries. Indeed, the practice of situating heavy industry in low economic neighbourhoods globally continues today. Although we possess technologies and systems to encapsulate airborne particulate, it is not yet mandatory.

Feelings of powerlessness and anger over ‘development’ destroying what was natural and sacred to my childhood heart provided my first sense of being a canary in the coal-mine. My childhood wonder-world was shattered when so-called progress forever changed the natural and wild places that were so important to those of us who lived and worked in 1970’s New Jersey (NJ). Interestingly, today NJ is the most densely populated US state per square mile, with over half of the geographical area paved (Lundy 2011).

Green Woman Tries to Breathe painted by and shown courtesy of the author.

Out of this contrast several desires were launched:

  • I wanted to run away from the pollution as soon as possible. Hence, I became the female cross country and mile champion in my high school and the surrounding Jersey Shore. In my sophomore year, my teammates and I appealed successfully to our High School Board of Education to provide us with our own girls’ teams instead of having to compete on the boys’ teams.
  • I wanted to go to university. Hence, I became the first in my family (a large-Italian-American-hey-have-you-seen-the-Sopranos-family) to attend university. At university I discovered my roommate’s art assessments appealed more to me than my physical education studies. Again, a contrast, and again an opportunity to follow my bliss. I changed my major to visual arts, a career my high school guidance counsellor told me not to follow! I graduated with Cum Laude Honours.


Various Music Industry/Business Commissions painted by and shown courtesy of the author.

I come to academia with a background in visual arts. My career includes art directing and graphic arts management in the NY Metropolitan area. When the daily grind of full-time work got to me, I exercised my individuality and self-empowerment and became a full-time painter, specialising in portraits for the music industry. I opened an art studio and fell in love with teaching art. I facilitated art making workshops and classes that centred on observations and inspiration from the natural world. As well, I became deeply passionate about environmental issues because of the extreme environmental degradation happening around me in NJ. Little did I know that these passions – art, teaching and the environment – would combine to set the pace and direction for my future livelihood.

So, it went, contrasts…leading to desires…fine tuning the road to bliss. Fast forward to year 1999 arrival: Australia’s Sunshine Coast. Oh, sweet arrival: BLISS. Welcome to your life in a cartoon!

Colours so bright without the particulate haze of pollution; oxygen rich, verdant, air, filled with the scent of real flowers not chemicals; surrounded fully by massive, GREEN forms of nature! I was a painter in paradise. This bliss led me to tutoring design at USC and my first Master’s Degree, in Creative Arts (MCA). For two years I toyed with ideas that would deem worthy of the endeavour. During this time, I was practicing my art, winning art competitions, selling through galleries, opening student art shows and sessional teaching the only non-computer-based design course at USC. Unfortunately, I noticed the same thing that destroyed my childhood bliss in NJ occurring on the Sunny Coast, again, in the name of development. I found I could not sit back painting in paradise and watch my bliss fade into the greyed existence of a compromised life due to the so called ‘development’ happening all around me once more. What kind of person does that? Certainly not me. However, no one listened to this-ranting-raving-lunatic-female-artist-from-New-Jersey, so I had to reinvent myself, again.


The Stag of Paradise painted by and shown courtesy of the author.

My MCA titled Green Man Resurrected: An Examination of the Underlying Meanings and Messages of the Re-Emergence of the Ancient Image of the Green Man in Contemporary, Western, Visual Culture, explores the driving force behind the current reappearance of the Green Man image and examines what the figure represents to us in this age of environmental crisis and is one of the most downloaded items in USC’s research repository. As well, the exegesis investigates the influence visual information may have to transform thought and invoke action within societies, specifically involving humanity’s relationship with the natural world. In addition, the study also presents a body of creative work—a series of paintings that have been informed and inspired by the research and subsequent findings.

Royal Man Green Palm painted by and shown courtesy of the author.

Riding on the coat tails of my recently published MCA, I successfully applied for and was granted a Research Fellowship at USC. The research was connected to a newly instated core course in ESD. The fellowship involved teaching in the course and pursuing a related PhD. Hence this research project was born.

Over the next ten years the course morphed, changed and was eventually abandoned altogether and my PhD research confirmation was knocked back twice. However, there were highlights, including:

  • obtaining another Master’s Degree in Education through course work
  • securing an ongoing appointment as Associate Lecturer at USC
  • receiving a USC Advance Teaching Award
  • publishing peer reviewed papers and presenting here and abroad
  • continued success exhibiting and selling my art
  • having the honour of teaching thousands of learners
Mandala Paintings by and shown courtesy of the author.

A discussion of my personal passionate pedagogy would not be complete without the mention of morals and ethics. In art making, the aspect of spirit or connection to the divine is identified as being an essential component of artistic inspiration or creativity. Palmer (2007) stresses three important paths for effective teaching…intellect, emotion and spirit, for what he calls “wholeness” (2007, p. 12). I understand this to mean wholeness of character, or a person with a spiritual dimension governing their actions, a type of karmic understanding, which to me directly relates to a person’s morals and ethics. Learning and teaching that addresses the whole person relates knowledge and understanding to a broader, larger, more all-encompassing perspective, not solely egocentric, or more specifically in this case not just anthropocentric. Achieving this ‘in the room’ involves dialogue, narrative, reflective group work, role playing, sometimes as many different approaches to facilitation as there are members in the group. This is done in a supportive environment that encourages active learning, nurtures uniqueness, is individually empowering, and incorporates teaching strategies that reflect real life with purposefulness. I employ an intentional mix of intuition, inspiration, and emotion resulting in a passionate delivery that has empowering and transformative effects on learners. I know this is true because they tell me.

Further, it is interesting to note that as artists, we instinctively collapse boundaries between self and other to create a reflection of the desired communication in our work. This may help to explain why bearing witness to unsustainable environmental practices can be perceived as physically painful to many artists who are inspired by nature (Araneo, 2007). Consider the following: “Whenever a tree is cut down near where I live I get upset. I have an immediate emotional reaction, bypassing my brain” (Bates, in Araneo, 2007, p. 45). It seems that Bates intuitively understands what ESD is teaching through science – that we and nature are one, and that we cannot exist sustainably without caring for the other.

In conclusion, empowering the individual and identifying individual intention is at the forefront of my personal pedagogy no matter what course I teach. As well as imparting, facilitating, and generating knowledge, I see my role of educator and researcher as enabling and empowering effective citizens. Whether it is science for the citizenry (ESD) or visual literacy (art-making), or basic academic skills, the underlying theme of the learning and teaching has everything to do with identification of self, intentionality, and serving the wider world. Hence, reflecting a desired outcome intentionally, just like the yellow flower.

All the best,

Phyllis Araneo.

Facebook Public Painting Page

Academic Publications



Araneo, P 2007, Green Man Resurrected: An examination of the underlying meanings and messages of the re-emergence of the ancient image of the green man in contemporary, Western, visual culture, Master of Creative Arts Exegesis, University of the Sunshine Coast, QLD, Australia.

Lundy, J 2011, State promotes profits, pollution over health, Two River Times, March 3, Red Bank, NJ.

Palmer, P 2007, The Courage to Teach USA, Jossey-Bass.

2 Responses

  1. Carol Corby says:

    Hi Phyllis. Yes, the story of our childhood, and our little town. Gos has given you a gift, so happy you are using it for good! Thank you for sharing this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *