The many faces of ecological literacy: Quest Alternative’s EcoQuest Fair

Blank pages, on paper or on the screen, can be intimidating. I find this is especially true as I try to describe a high point in applied ecological literacy at the TDSB. That’s why it is only now, two weeks since my visit to Quest Alternative’s bi-annual EcoQuest Fair, that I am able to write anything about it. And even now I cannot begin to capture its essence. I cannot do it justice.

EcoQuest (“3 weeks devoted entirely to ecology”) was once again an exhilarating and almost overwhelming experience for me. The entire gym was packed with 68 smartly designed displays, each hosted by its creator. These grade 7 and 8 students prepared artfully designed display boards and engaging short talks, found ingenious ways to make their topics interactive, designed handsome brochures to be taken away, and often made direct suggestions for action when the topic called for it. And they gave their visitors information about where to go for further exploration.

This is a subject way too big and wonderfully complex for a single blog entry. I have twice sat down with these glorious pamphlets strewn around—really, taken together they make up a year-long course on ways to think, teach, learn, and act with the environment in mind.

EcoQuest’s enormous educational and social benefits

Impossible to absorb it all in a single visit. Impossible, really, to convey all that it represents about the power of inquiry-based, student-driven learning—being fully engaged, practicing taking a balanced view, deepening their knowledge, developing their communication and presentation skills, learning to interact with the public with confidence, grace, and panache, questing for solutions. All because they are in charge of and responsible for their own learning about something they have come to care about. And of course also because their teachers and parents have been preparing the soil for this growth. Yes, it is what the books and articles tell us will happen. Wonderful to see it in action!

I am not giving you the rich and long history of EcoQuest, or any details about the way the students, in 16 different committees, take charge of it all. I can only guess at the very long hours put in by the students, their supportive families, and their teachers. To judge by the quality of the work and the polish of the oral presentations, I imagine and hope it will be long-remembered by each student as a very worthwhile and irreplaceable part of their education.

How transferrable is EcoQuest to other schools? What topics are covered?

I wonder what other schools (who may not be able to suspend all other activity for 3 full weeks) interested in this model can take away? For starters, I have composed a list of the projects I heard or read about as they fell into informal categories in my own mind. Of course many topics fit in more than one place and address many attributes of learning that are assessed, reflecting the way a rich classroom lesson or unit fulfills expectation across many subject areas.

Cradle to grave, we have an impact! Exploration of how baby care can harm the environment to how people continue to harm the environment after death

The way we live now isn’t good enough. Disruptive human impact on the environment received a lot of attention—from global issues such as tar sands, ocean trawling, trashing our ocean, rising sea levels, smog, open pit mining, urban sprawl, the environment and mental health, access to clean water in the developing world, food transportation, space junk and desertification, to more focused topics like airport pollution, disappearance of honey bees, animal testing, frankenfoods, the environmental impact of golf courses, bottled water, the effects of plastic on animals.

Our rate and scale of consumption is a big problem. From wasting water, e-waste disposal, vampire power, and “affluenza” to over-packaging, disposal and re-use of tires, batteries, assessing the eco-footprint of the family (“an average home in the 1950s was the size of today’s 2 and 3 car garages”)

Understand the environmental science behind the issues. Desertification, wetlands, polar ice cap melting, acid rain, ozone layer, old growth forests, challenges of the great barrier reef, forest fires: the climate connection

Learn to make truly informed choices. Green washing, books or ebooks?, eco-friendly clothing

What is harmful to people is also harmful to the environment. Household cleaners, cosmetics, smoking

Human waste can also create new habitat! Toronto’s Leslie Street spit: a true accidental treasure

Nature’s interconnections with human life are amazing and indispensable. Ecosystem services: what we take for granted, bio-indicator animals, wetlands

Solutions The vast majority of topics with a focus on the problem also include possible solutions, usually involving personal actions. However, some students made solutions the centre of their inquiry: corporate responsibility, designing the ecologically perfect city, learning from Canada’s indigenous people, organic farming, hybrid cars, geothermal energy, energy efficient homes, fuel cells, social media, hemp (“If someone were to try using hemp as a drug they would have to smoke a hemp joint the size of a telephone pole.”)

I didn’t get to every display, so this list is incomplete. My apologies to those EcoQuesters whose displays have been inadvertently left out!

The brochures travel with me in case I have a free moment to look at them again. Out of the many messages I’d like to include here, I’ll content myself with just one.

So what?
That’s the question that concludes Parker Melnick’s brochure on “Social media: the answer to environmental reform?”

“We know we need to make a change in our environment, but knowing isn’t enough any more. We are at the point of if we want to progress further and stop this crisis, we need to stop saying, “I know,” and start saying “here’s what I am going to do about it.” And social media can be the catalyst, but it’s up to us to choose to use it in a positive or negative way.” 
Congratulations to everyone in the Quest Alternative community for a truly amazing flowering of applied ecological literacy. Thank you for one of the educational highlights of my year. I am already looking forward to the next one in the spring of 2014!

Eleanor Dudar
TDSB EcoSchools Specialist

P.S. It was hard to leave
The students had given morning and afternoon presentations to 900 students and to another gym full of people at night. Tired, perhaps, but many were still brimming with enthusiasm for their subject matter. The evening show was to end at 8:30. But even the announcement saying “time to go” didn’t budge some of us, so enthralled were we by the student presenters. At 8:45 two other adults and I tore ourselves away from a wonderfully clear demonstration of how a hydrogen fuel cell works, urged by the presenter, Matthew Frame, to give him just a day to upload all his material before visiting his website! The teaching and learning never stops…

Shifting worldviews: Why ecological literacy?

Ecological vs. environmental
Why not “environmental” literacy? we are sometimes asked. The short way to describe our choice is to say that “environmental” is drawn from the language of the mechanistic or ‘mechanical’ worldview. “Environment” is a word that describes what is all around us. It isn’t us. “Ecological” says everything is connected, sooner or later. We are not apart from, but a part of, Nature. (How that statement is interpreted varies. That’s a topic for another time.)

Worldviews: powerful, invisible, all around us
We all have one. No two are exactly alike, but in general they share a lot of the same qualities. In a way, the word itself describes the meaning: it is a view of the world, the overall perspective from which you see and interpret it. My colleague Pam, always good at making things clear, says simply, “it’s a filter.” Ken Funk, in a short, heady article “What is A Worldview?” gives this formal definition:  

A worldview is the set of beliefs about fundamental aspects of Reality that ground and influence all one’s perceiving, thinking, knowing, and doing.

He goes on. “In fact few people take the time to thoroughly think out, much less articulate, their worldview; nevertheless your worldview is implicit in and can be at least partially inferred from your behavior. Second, the elements of your worldview are highly interrelated; it is almost impossible to speak of one element independently of the others.”

The dominant worldview
The dominant worldview that has prevailed since the beginning of modern science is described as mechanistic or deterministic, with the machine as the primary metaphor. Newton made big breakthroughs in shifting thinking about the way the world works. Descartes, famous for saying “I think, therefore I am,” gave expression to the belief that mind is separate from body. By extension, humans are separate from Nature. Set aside deep connectedness and Nature becomes an object that we have no intrinsic relationship to. It becomes just ‘the environment’ that surrounds us. This dominant worldview, deeply embedded in our culture and economics, influences our own individual worldviews.

The brilliance of that way of thinking has led to incredible advances on many fronts—human health and the technology to manipulate Nature leap to mind at once. This reductionist way of thinking has also brought us to a dangerous place in our history, where humans are now disrupting major earth processes. What we do as a technological superstar species affects everything. The change in climate is the most dramatic example. So thinking like Newton has been a mixed blessing.

 The emergence of the ecological worldview
Steven Sterling in “Ecological Intelligence” (1) talks about how the meaning of the word “ecological” gradually became used in more and more disciplines. While it always meant “to do with the science of ecology” (in part the simple tool “How Nature Works” can help you to embed this perspective), it also became used increasingly to describe seeing the world interconnectedly. It is a worldview that aspires to see things whole.  (In this worldview, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.) It had always been around.

In The Web of Life, Fritjof Capra sums up the difference between the two worldviews this way:

The basic tension is one between the parts and the whole. The emphasis on the parts is called mechanistic, reductionist, or atomistic; the emphasis on the whole [is called] holistic, organistic or ecological.

Some people have always had an ecological worldview. Any time we find ourselves engaged in thinking connectedly in a sustained way, we have dropped into that worldview. And it goes by many names. Teachers may speak of it as “thinking holistically” – which also describes seeing things whole.  The shift from teaching phonics to whole language teaching is another example of the shift to seeing more connectedly.

Our language is often stuck in the mechanistic. It is an efficient way to think. Descriptions can be short. Each part is seen on its own. (The whole is equal to the sum of the parts.) The messy webbing of parts takes too long to describe, is too multi-faceted, even sometimes still unknowable.

What’s the benefit of the ecological worldview for teaching and learning?
What does it add up to? No easy-to-define boundaries when you think ecologically. And less well-known terrain. Not easily wrapped up in brilliant short slogans like “Coke is it.”

Can the ecological worldview’s relative unfamiliarity perhaps make ecological thinking newly engaging for teachers and students?  It’s a hunt, an endless search for connections. It’s what teachers are doing when they integrate different subject areas into their lesson planning. Just add nature as the source of all life when the lesson calls for it, and you are developing the ecological literacy of your students. (See the questions for Role in GRASP: a tool for developing ecological literacy through rich performance tasks, page 20. Entire resource downloadable at Print copies available from

It’s a more complete way to understand the world and our place in it. Nature becomes a teacher. The people working in biomimicry studies find incredible models of sustainability there. More and more people would say thinking ecologically is essential to asking the right questions in the search for a less disruptive way to live on the planet.

Solar biomimicry

Do we have to choose one worldview?
No. We need both ways of thinking. And most of us move in and out of both ways of thinking. The problem is that the mechanistic worldview still dominates. Thinking ecologically is still an underdeveloped habit of mind. Thinking connectedly gives us a truer picture of how all that brilliant reductionist thinking influences what we do to Nature. Thinking ecologically can feel like swimming upstream. It’s not the default position; it takes effort.

Looking to make a breakthrough!
Over the years our guides and the EcoSchools Certification Toolkit have supplied definitions of ecological literacy, each one (we hoped) clearer than the last. But definitions aren’t enough.

We tried fattening the questions about ecological literacy in the EcoSchools Section 4 Ecoreview with examples, thinking that would help teachers connect the concept to classroom learning tasks. We discuss how to communicate about it better in our Professional Learning Community (PLC) meetings. We will keep trying new tactics.

You can help. I am seeking TDSB classrooms where I can observe different practices of integrating subject matter and see what making connections looks like in your teaching and learning. I am also very interested in just talking about what you do, if that’s simpler. So many variations out there. All of them of value. We want to learn from you!

Invite me to visit. Or let me know when we can talk. I promise I won’t even mention worldviews!

Eleanor Dudar
EcoSchools Specialist

(1) The Handbook of Ecological Literacy, ed. Arran Stibbe, Green Books:U.K., 2009, pp. 77-83.

Ecological literacy and biophilia: loving the world

This blog is exploring perspectives on ecological literacy. I purposely have not focussed on a definition, though that may be useful at another time. And the blog has not yet offered many applications of ecoliteracy in action, except for the Tanka poetry lesson.  I have been drawn instead to thinking about how to make the pursuit of this new way of thinking more appealing. The term ecological literacy makes the whole enterprise sound like hard work. We all have enough of that. 

I’ve recently been suggesting that perhaps stirring our feelings about the wonders and mysteries of life is a promising starting point for developing people’s ecological thinking ‘muscle.’ Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson hypothesizes that what is needed in the environmental movement is a re-awakening of our slumbering biophilia—“love of life or living systems.”

Humans and nature: deep connection, re-connection

Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis says that our evolution as humans is enmeshed with the intricacies of other living organisms. “They are the matrix in which the human mind originated and is permanently rooted….  To the extent that each person can feel like a naturalist, the old excitement of the untrammeled world will be regained…mysterious and little known organisms live within walking distance of where you sit.  Splendor awaits in minute proportions.” (Biophilia, 1984, page 139). WWF’s 60 second video “The world is where we live ” almost feels like evidence for Wilson’s case!

Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder  (2008) describes humans’ connection to nature in different but related terms, doesn’t he? Instead of seeing the connection as the deeply rooted origins of our evolutionary past, he makes the simpler, more verifiable case that childrem must be re-connected to nature for healthy human development. His focus is more on play and the deep sensory experience of being immersed in the natural world.

The dilemma of urban schools connecting to ‘nature’
These are big demands for schools and schooling. A prescription such as “To the extent that each person can feel like a naturalist” may seem like a very big precondition for experiencing nature and developing ecological literacy in our urban setting. This is something we may try to achieve when we create a school garden, make school grounds part of our teaching and learning in other ways, or visit an outdoor education centre. The problem is, for many raised in the city (and rarely away from it) this may not provide  a steady enough diet of ‘nature.’ Opportunities for contact with nature on school grounds are necessarily contained, and trips to an outdoor education centre very limited. (Even a trip to the Evergreen Brick Works would be a rare and special event.)

Can videos such as Dayna Baumeister’s “Life’s Operating Manual” (or the large body of work by David Suzuki and Richard Attenborough) act as a supplement to help awaken our biophilia? Richard Louv would seem to say no—that what is needed is the direct experience of nature and the stimulation of all the senses that being “in it” can provide. The “dual sensory nature” of TV, videos, and the Internet (and all it has brought us) is, he would say, too limited.

But is this all-or-nothing proposition sensible? Might some students and teachers have their slumbering affection for the natural world (if Wilson’s hypothesis has merit) aroused in part through videos of dramatic nature discoveries? (Or conversely, dramatic discoveries of human impact such as the work of Edward Burtynsky?) Perhaps we can make better use of such visual tools to coax us into “ecological thinking”—to begin to glimpse through the sprouting bean plant the connections to nature’s “big picture”? 

Do any of you regularly rely on videos as a way to stimulate students’ feeling of connection to the environment or to an environmental cause? Not only in science and geography, but in media literacy, reading, speaking, and writing, and the arts? Would you be willing to share successes (challenges too!)? Or simply send an email ( and say, “I’m too busy to write, but I’ll talk on the phone and you can write!”

The Ontario curriculum: loving the world

Almost all teachers love learning. Most love teaching as well, even though (and maybe also because!) it is one of the hardest and most important jobs in our society. Where in the curriculum is that love of learning sparked for each one of us?  Wilson would say the life sciences. But learning about the world through physics, chemistry, and geography can also provide moments of wonder at nature’s and humans’ ingenuity amid all the sheer hard work of remembering facts and connecting the pieces. Mathematics, language, and the arts each give us tools to interpret and communicate our appreciation, our concern, and our critical thinking about the world around us.

The EcoSchools PLC: loving our work

Our department’s professional learning community (PLC) meeting yesterday was probing where the entry points were in the curriculum for building ecological literacy skills. The discussion reached a peak with Erin’s “a-ha” moment as she suddenly threw up her arms and said, “you can start anywhere…everything can eventually touch the environment!”

That may be true—and easier to grasp and to make real for some than for others. After all, we live mostly enmeshed, not in nature, but in a highly technologized world where we think largely in fragments. So no wonder thinking ecologically or relationally does not “come naturally.”

One goal of our PLC is to uncover learning connections that cross grades and subject areas to help us interpret and respond to the world more holistically. At different levels. In different ways. Does that mean an environmental connection needs to be uncovered every time? No. Each of us will make different connections. But as the ecological thinking muscle develops, we will make those connections, and help our students make those connections, with greater ease—or, dare I say, more “naturally.” And love doing it!

Stay tuned.

                                                                           Eleanor Dudar
                                                                           TDSB EcoSchools Specialist

P.S.  For a sampling of these eloquent and charming educators and writers, see below:

E. O. Wilson’s TED talk, “Help Build the Encyclopedia of Life”  [25 minutes] Wilson makes a plea for “his constituents” (insects and other small life forms), numbering 10 to the 18th power!!

Richard Louv: Lecture at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, “The Abundant Childhood: Nature, Creativity and Health” [I hour 12 minutes]  (running script below the video allows you to click to where your interest lies)

And if you’re pressed for time: a 2 minute summation of Richard Louv’s new book, The Nature Principle

Ecological literacy, ecology, and the mysteries of life

The science of ecology is at the heart of ecological literacy as a new way of thinking about life. The study of life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries focussed on the substance of Nature’s parts: what is matter made of? What are its parts and how can we classify them to understand their characteristics? Ecology began to emerge as a new branch of science in the 1920s when scientists began studying the feeding relations among the parts—seeing them first as food chains, then food webs, then food cycles. It was here, Fritjof Capra reminds us in his seminal essay “Ecology and Community,” that biologists began to uncover the networks that these relationships consist of. This marked a shift in some quarters of scientific thinking: the focus turns to the form and pattern of life, where the subject of study becomes the dynamic network of interactions in an ecosystem. 

Capra’s essay is central to our pursuit of a deeper understanding of ecological literacy and why it matters. He reminds his readers that one of the reasons we study ecosystems is to learn how to build sustainable human communities. In nature there is no waste. “Nature is our teacher” is the first principle of schooling for sustainability, the subject of Smart by Nature (2009), case studies from the Center for Ecological Literacy compiled by Michael K. Stone.

Looking for ecological literacy connections in the curriculum
How does this work help busy classroom teachers wanting to interpret curriculum expectations through an ecological lens? Where do we ground this lovely theory in our day-to-day work? Some teachers see through this lens more readily than others. Words from ecosystem science that appear in curriculum expectations—words like relationships, interdependence, chains, webs, cycles, patterns, webs, networks –invite us to design a lesson thinking interconnectedly, thinking ecologically. Most of these words occur in many subject areas, not just science and geography. But that is something to pursue another day. Does anyone reading this have time to weigh in with your thoughts, great lesson ideas?

Teaching and learning about the mysteries of life
When I started this meditation, I was thinking about how and where our schools introduce students to the mysteries of life. The life sciences, of which ecology is an offshoot, are a source of endless mystery and wonder (recall Dayna Baumeister’s video “Life’s Operating Manual” where we wonder at nature’s innovations and adaptations). Places through the grades where the curriculum talks about soil, water, air, or food may allow a sideways mention of nature’s ecosystem pattern of networks. (Yes, these are “parts” also to be seen embedded in the large ecosystem whole. As my colleague Pam Miller puts it, “don’t just study one thing; tug on its connections to make it real!”)

Our February e-newsletter has become the school food garden issue partly because we’ve all been so seduced by our (til now) abnormally mild winter. I happened upon the curriculum resource Patterns through the Seasons: A Year of School Food Garden Activities while browsing the overwhelmingly rich Evergreen website and was instantly smitten by the sheer commonsensical links the writers make between an ecological way of thinking (one clue is in the title itself, isn’t it?) and what the curriculum asks us to teach. I stole a glance at “Planning the Garden” (Winter, Unit 2, page 47), and then leapt forward to “Mysteries of Life” (Spring, Unit 3, page 61). That lesson describes a beautifully simple activity (K-3 but easy to adapt) involving three opaque containers with lids, soil, and water. Perhaps many of you already use it. I will share it with my sister who is a kindergarten teacher; she’ll love it for its hands-on nature, its fragment of story that ends with a question, and the charming chant that will embed her students’ new knowledge about what plants need to grow. I was utterly charmed; I may even try it with my colleagues (not the chant part though)!

So growing things allows students to see nature at work in a very vivid way. Any curriculum that asks us to look at life itself—plants, animals, ecosystems, human body systems—seems to inspire some of the best curriculum writing I’ve seen. It is powered by the sense of wonder and the deep-down knowledge that life—what it is, and how it is organized—is something very important to teach and to learn about.

Nature’s design provides lessons for human communities who are learning how to live sustainably. That’s the pragmatic reason for nurturing ecological literacy. The other is the sheer joy of marvelling at the mysteries of the planet that we need to learn to live on more lightly. If it can enage us, won’t it engage our students?

                                                                                     – Eleanor Dudar
                                                                                     TDSB EcoSchools Specialist

Ecological Literacy and A Sense of Wonder

“It’s a Wonderful World”

Two versions of Louis Armstrong’s famous song “It’s a Wonderful World” have been set to pictures in these very short videos. One soundtrack is Armstrong singing, the other the voice of Sir Richard Attenborough speaking the song’s words. Take 7 minutes and view them both. How could they be a useful starting point for having students inquire about what they want to learn ? Which of the two do you think they would choose, and why? Both are stunning; one’s choice may simply reflect one learning style preference over another. But there may be more to it than that!

Making comparisons helps to sharpen thinking. These might even be used as bookends at the beginning and end of a unit. What additional meaning might these images and words have after the study is complete?

As we build a foundation for ecological literacy, we need ways to cultivate a sense of wonder to go alongside the systems thinking, critical thinking, inquiry and problem-solving skills that help our students become thoughtful, capable citizens. 

Rachel Carson of Silent Spring fame said that “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.”  Are videos like these one small piece of keeping that inborn sense alive? Try them out! Post a comment and tell us what you’ve learned.

- E.D.