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.”

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.

Astonish Me!

This 7 minute video was created to celebrate WWF’s 50th anniversary.  It follows a young boy who gets the last ticket to an exhibit of new species, ending with a reminder of how important it is to also protect species we already know. Very English in tone, but the child’s hesitation in the face of the unknown and his wonder at what he’s shown is universal. A welcome shift away from making endangered species the explicit message even though it hovers as a powerful subtext. Multiple levels of meaning to tease out here. The last 90 seconds are subtitles—perhaps just the time to start a  class discussion!

The science behind the film