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

Ingredients for ecological literacy: is a “good news diet” of hope and resilience essential?

Writers Paul Hawken and Frances Moore Lappe share a belief in the resilience of the human spirit and the power of human creativity to build a new world. They gather evidence pointing to the changes already underway. These are mostly out of the public eye because they are not hard news—the latest reports of destruction, conflict, machinations in the business and political realms. Hawken and Lappe are saying that if we are to persuade more and more people to see the world in eco-friendly terms, it is a mistake to focus mainly on the damage to people and earth’s systems.  We need a “good news diet” (Lappe) as a supplement to what we see on the TV or read in the paper or on the Internet. And also as a source of motivation.

Where do we find food for that good news diet? Some of the most vivid good news exists in nature itself. Nature’s resilience can sometimes counter the damage being wrought and thus is itself a source of hope. Here’s the best part: schools are uniquely placed to deliver this news on a regular basis! The wonders of nature need to take their rightful place in school curriculum alongside both the wonders of human ingenuity (some of which springs from nature as teacher) and news of the sorry results of human impact on the environment.

Jane Goodall’s web-based high school curriculum Lessons for Hope explores resilience in both humans and nature in Unit 4 of the Student Journal, linking people and the planet and describing her own way of getting through hard times.

We can deepen our ecological literacy by making the most of these learning opportunities. When nature is understood as made up of living systems that we interact with, and sometimes disrupt, it is a monumental story of design in action—and reaction. “How nature works” in our EcoSchools Certification Toolkit distills earth science principles. It’s really the science part of ecological literacy.

It’s a start, but it isn’t enough. What resources would be most helpful for busy teachers fulfilling the demands of a crowded curriculum? Short vignettes that delve into Nature’s big story? Is anyone currently using David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things series with good results? Which segments? What else? Can these resources animate more than science education?  Do visual resources as part of web-based learning have a special role in engaging students in becoming more ecologically literate? Share your thoughts and findings—write to us.                                                                                                 -E.D.

P.S.  David Suzuki and Holy Dressel teamed up a decade ago to write Good News for a Change: Hope for a Troubled World (2002) and a year later More Good News (2003). And these are only two of many such books.

P.P.S. For a heady analysis of resilience as the chief characteristic of sustainability, dip into David Orr’s short essay “Security, Resilience and Community.”