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