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

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