Paying attention: how important is it for learning? How can education in the environment help?

“Attention is the holy grail…everything that you’re conscious of, everything you let in, everything you remember and you forget, depends on it.” says Professor David Strayer, a psychology prof at the University of Utah.  Strayer took four neuroscientist colleagues on a trip into the wilderness to talk about and feel the differences between the digitally-connected and -disconnected world. A central debate was about the value of uninterrupted time in nature as a way to rest and restore the information-overloaded brain. This debate is not new to environmental educators. Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods  has had a large influence on the movement to reconnect children and nature (like Evergreen in Toronto!). 

What are the elements that make up ecological literacy in the classroom? Through the year I will be on the lookout for answers to this beguiling question. This past week I observed a lesson on writing a Tanka poem.  What is the connection with the neuroscientists debate about nature’s ability to influence our brains?

The grade 6 students in Anne’s class had spent time the previous day in their school’s Nature Garden immersed in the plant world, with each student taking a picture of one tree or shrub. The picture was then pasted into their poetry books and became the focus for writing a Tanka poem (5 lines with 5-7-5-7-7 syllables). But first came the class co-creation of an example. Line 1 was a “Unicorn prancing.” When line 2 popped up as “Sasquatch dancing in the night,” the class was on the road to having fun with writing poetry. As the poem was completed and the hilarity subsided, the focus came back to the task, with the teacher having students remember the words they’d found to describe their experience in the Nature Garden’s grove of trees. The explosive imaginative power of the Sasquatch never disappeared, but it was gradually displaced by the photograph in each person’s poetry journal. For a while the room grew very quiet, with some students silently tapping out the rhythm of each trial line to see if it met the requirement of the form.

What are the ingredients of this lesson? First, it exists in the context of the child’s other personal experiences in nature and with words. Its rich classroom context is not only other lessons in language, writing, poetry, but likely some science classes as well—all somehow nestled within earlier experiences outdoors.  Another valuable addition was the students’ tapping, anchoring their learning in their own bodies. Who knows how much that one small integrated act can help the developing brain pay better attention?

And this brings me back to “attention” as the holy grail of learning, and to wander sideways to the debate about the role of nature vs technology in aiding or distracting the attention of the developing brain that was being debated by those five neuroscientists in the wilderness.

For almost all the students I observed, their attention was grabbed by the well-laid out task, and by their own photo. Would the quality of attention have been as high if instead they were gazing at their own photo of, let’s say, the CN Tower? Is it possible to argue, credibly, that the memory of that short time observing “their” chosen tree in their own school ground, and recollecting that quiet moment through the photo, helped these students’ brains to focus? And hence to better “hold on” to that complex piece of learning (as well as completing the task)?

Elements of ecological literacy in the classroom—a rich design!

Every classroom lesson has a “history” for the child and for the teacher. The pursuit of ecological literacy is one strand in the classroom web of teaching and learning. The teacher’s job is in part to make that history as richly woven with ideas and accompanying feelings as she can, to encourage ongoing connections that happen both consciously and unconsciously. This one has layers in abundance—the recent outdoor experience, the classroom mini-lesson on the form and function of the Tanka poem and the high-spirited fun with the Sasquatch model poem, the tree photograph as a prompt to memory, and the photo itself—a piece of ‘nature’ chosen by the child.

Tanka poemThis poetry lesson was superb in its interweaving of the students’ contact with the natural world and the classroom experience that artlessly blended teacher-direction and student-focussed learning. The Sasquatch is an important reminder that we have to honour the other interests that our students have, that engagement and enthusiasm are preconditions for paying attention. Just like adults, students’ strong engagement is likely related to their having some choice in what they learn and even, sometimes, how a lesson proceeds.  Often, the richer the lesson in both content and pedagogical style, the richer the learning.

This is a much longer discussion, isn’t it? I haven’t even touched on the role of the school’s culture, influenced by the nature that is “right there,” and seen as part of the whole learning environment. Or the teacher’s long-standing practice of including the environment as part of students’ discovery of the world.

“Education in, about, and for the environment”

Education in, about, and for the environment is our short form for talking about different entry points into building ecological literacy. Writing a Tanka tree poem is clearly the fruit of education that has happened in the environment, but has blossomed into so much more within this classroom. Such a lesson may become a stepping stone to a science lesson about the environment—habitats in grade 4, diversity in grade 6, ecosystems in grade 7, and beyond! Or it might some day lead to an exploration and campaign—locally, education for looking after school ground trees by better mulching and watering, or on a bigger scale, for investigating how to become a protector of Ontario’s boreal forest.
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What the five neuroscientists on the Utah wilderness trip agreed on is that becoming disconnected from the digital world did change their experience—and functioning—of their own minds. It seems possible that something similar can happen with small doses of nature, even right on the school grounds, or in a nearby park, or at an Outdoor Education Centre. Like a tonic, we need that contact with nature regularly. It is the accumulation of such experiences that can settle the mind and lead to paying better attention.

Thank you to Anne and her students for sharing their Nature Garden Tanka Poems
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Additional resources: Instructional Leaders Pam Miller and Annelies Groen highly recommend two books for teaching and learning outdoors,  Outdoor Inquiries by Patricia McGlashan, Kristen Gasser, and Peter Dow and Herbert W. Broda’s Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning.

– ED


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


Here’s a source of solid research and opinion on green issues that some of you may already know. This very active blog is content-rich. Started in 2006 by Canadian public relations guru Jim Hoggan, it dissects the half-truths and outright lies that surround climate change. These opinions do not necessarily represent the opinions of the Ecolit Blog writers, but it is a treasure trove worth sharing. Hoogan’s critical thinking (Dec. 6) lays bare the fallacies in Margaret Wente’s December 1 Globe and Mail column about climate change science, in which he links to an April 18th post by Chris Mooney on “motivated reasoning” which accounts for the psychology of climate change deniers. Like Daniel Kahnemen in Thinking Fast and Slow, this perspective cautions against assuming that all “logic” is rational. In a Dec. 4 post, David Suzuki also looks at “twisted logic” and the ethics, of nature’s opponents. Lots of food for thought—and lively debate!

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?