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

“Life’s Operating Manual”: Why does ecological literacy matter? Where do we go to ignite the spark?

Dayna Baumeister is co-founder, with Janine Benyus, of the Biomimicry Institute and Biomimicry 3.8. Her half-hour presentation at the 2011 Bioneers conference, “Life’s Operating Manual,” is spell-binding and one of the most artful presentations I’ve seen in a long time. And very accessible to a wide age-range. She weaves together her 11-year old son’s passion for fantasy fiction (yes, he’s in the audience) with her own quest to understand where solutions lie to our person-planet dilemma. Her narrative takes the viewer on a condensed history of life on Earth; she imagines telescoping it into a single year, marking the major evolutionary breakthroughs as the “year” marches on.

In that imaginary year, which begins January 1st 4.5 billion years ago, life first emerges on February 25th…and human life appears…well, you’ll have to watch the video to find out. Baumeister communicates her fascination with nature’s design and her belief in the human potential to learn from nature so powerfully that it left me in a trance.

The video seems to me a wonderful gift of inspiration for teachers of environmental education—indeed for all teachers. It is about life and hope and curiosity and where we can find solutions to our unsustainable way of living.

Perhaps over the holidays you will find 31 minutes to pause long enough to have a look!

– E.D.

P.S. Do any of you see this video as a teaching tool? What age group could appreciate some or all of what she’s saying? What kind of context would you prepare?  Where might it help you to connect to curriculum as you energize your students’ learning? If you are inspired, please write back!

P.P.S. Danya is introduced by the Executive Director of the Biomimicry Institute. Be sure to get to Danya herself (4:33 minutes into the video) before deciding whether to keep watching.

Additional Resource: Janine Benyus is clearly the source for Baumeister’s inspired work, covering much of the same content that she makes so compelling in the video. The sidebar “food for thought” pieces are absolute gems! Check it out.

Fritjof Capra on “Ecology and Community”

Fritjof Capra is one of my very favourite thinkers on systems thinking and ecological literacy. He works hard to distill big ideas into digestible chunks, and his very way of organizing his thoughts mirrors the interconnected that he sees in all life. I just recently happened upon this essay on “Ecology and Community” and I like it so much that I wanted to have it available on our blog. 

Let’s get practical. How can this vision of ecoliteracy be part of our lessons, our units, our planning with colleagues, the way we organize our schools, and the Board itself?

Send us your thoughts and your connections!    -ED

Improving Student Achievement through Ecological Literacy

It’s the top of the ninth, the bases are loaded, and we’re down to the last out. Ecological literacy has a final pitch. Baseball is often used as a metaphor to express the closing hour—the last chance…and that’s how one might view ecological literacy—our last chance to get it right. Teach the students about our impact on nature, about energy flows and matter cycles, empower them to take action on climate change, and this will reset the thermostat. But the metaphor is flawed. Baseball has winners and losers, and that’s not what ecological literacy is about. It’s about the win-win situation. It’s about living our lives without making nature the loser. If nature loses, we’re in deep trouble, because our coffee and muffins come from nature. We need to redesign baseball to be a cooperative game—or find a better metaphor.

Metaphors are not easy to create. If you’ve studied Classroom Instruction that Works by Marzano, Pickering and Pollock, you’ve learned that metaphors are at the top of the cognitive food chain when it comes to the first of the strategies discussed, “Identifying Similarities and Differences.” Metaphors are powerful constructs that demonstrate deep learning and understanding.

Deep learning and understanding is a shared task, a shared responsibility. And that’s the approach the TDSB EcoSchools department is taking if you read our EcoReview on ecological literacy. It’s all about good teaching. Schools have a big job to do. Doing that job well means working together to improve student achievement. And so we try to plant two trees with one seed….improve students’ learning while deepening their knowledge of nature at the same time.

Ecological literacy, like all literacies, is about making meaning. The challenge of ecological literacy is in the fact that it crosses so many domains—science, technology, geography, history. There are no quick answers to questions such as “What does climate change mean? What does pollinator decline mean?” There are no simple steps to take to act on the knowledge we might gain by becoming ecologically literate.

Some like to equate literacy with thinking. If literacy is thinking, then ecological literacy is ecosystems thinking. What does ecosystems thinking look like? It means understanding how energy, matter, and life are connected. Recently, an ecologist uncovered how phytoplankton in the oceans are connected to the health of forests. Try filling in the blanks—if you succeed, you’re well on your way to understanding the interconnections that exist within ecosystems (or in this case, the interaction of an aquatic ecosystem with a terrestrial ecosystem. Go on…try it).

 You see, you’re hooked. You want to learn more. We can tell, because we can count how many of you will CLICK HERE, though I don’t guarantee that you find the complete answer. Arousing a sense of awe and curiosity about the world isn’t that hard—and this is an example of how plain good teaching with nature as the focus can contribute to improving student achievement.

Now that you’re hungry, let’s practice more! How do you link kangaroos to alfalfa? Now that’s a tough one. They’re both solutions to the issue of methane—a greenhouse gas that has 24 times the warming potential as carbon dioxide. You see, corn-fed cows generate a lot of methane. Kangaroos don’t. So too with alfalfa-fed cows. So let’s eat kangaroos and alfalfa-fed cows to reduce our impact. By now, the vegetarians are livid, because the real solution is in plain view—stop eating meat—and I won’t disagree, though my attention to this solution has waxed and waned over the years.

Climate change is not just an important global issue. It’s a ripe fruit that needs to be harvested for all its learning potential—debate, discussion, dialogue, critical thinking…and that’s another metaphor worth thinking about.

       – Steve Bibla, TDSB Science and Technology Program Coordinator

re-posted from EcoSchools website, 2010

Ecological Literacy: Reason and Passion

Over the years I have read many articles and books that spell out the essential components of ecological literacy. These can guide our thinking. Do we need more than this to change the way we see and implement our curriculum?

Might a thought-through focus on feeling and values give us a more direct entry point for engaging our students? A new book by psychologist Daniel Kahnemen, Thinking Fast and Slow, describes the human mind in terms of two systems. System 1 is our largely intuitive and very rapid mode of taking in and responding to the world; system 2 is our slower rational mind. Forty years of research and experimenting have persuaded Kahneman that system 2, reason at work, is not as powerful a determinant in what we do as we like to believe.

Perhaps a straightforward way to pursue ecological literacy is to ask a big challenging question, one that engages students’ feelings about themselves in relation to the world. I observed one teacher whose question is “What are you going to do this year to change the world?” That question gives teachers and students so much to “unpack.”  But once it is out there, it can become a touchstone that any student or teacher can look to from time to time in placing learning activities in a larger context. Not all the time. That would be deadly. But as a kind of background music of the classroom, it would give learning added purpose.

This approach requires bravery. It puts many of us on uncomfortable terrain. What are its advantages for student engagement and learning? For teacher renewal? What are its pitfalls? What place do pitfalls have in a dynamic learning environment?

Changing the world, one small action at a time, appeals to youthful idealism. Learning how to go about it can implicate many learning expectations, can’t it? Students will learn how important it is to know the subject and how to find out what they don’t know, how to be critical learners who check for facts and biases—understanding different perspectives as they firm up their own view; become skilled at communicating effectively; feel the power of collaborating with others and seeing one another’s’ complementary strengths. They can learn about scope and scale: how much can I accomplish myself and with others at this time in my life? What might today’s decisions lead to in twenty years? What is the power of starting small and doing it well? Is that always the best approach? What are my dreams for a future that I want to help shape? Who has the means to help reach this better future?

Thinking, fast and slow. Then using what we have learned to make the world a better place.

If education is not in part about this, then what is education for?