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Embracing Earth-Centric Learning

When today's students inherit a host of environmental problems, they will need to have the knowledge and courage to act

An excerpt from EarthEd:Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet.

It was 1992. Laurette Rogers, a fourth-grade teacher in San Anselmo, California, had shown her students a film about rainforest destruction. Distressed, they asked what they could do about it. “I just couldn’t give a pat answer about writing letters and making donations,” Rogers recalls. Instead, she took the advice of a trainer for a former Adopt-a-Species program: “Pick any species. Find out all about it, and you’ll fall in love with it.”

photo of environmental educationPhoto by Brisbane City Council, Flickr Children in Brisbane, Australia participate in an environmental education program.

Rogers wanted a local species, and she wanted it to be obscure, to counter bias toward beautiful and charismatic species. Her class chose an endangered shrimp that lived in only 15 streams within a few kilometers of the school. They studied the ecology and lifecycle of the shrimp, which they learned are one strand of a web that encompasses insects, songbirds, streams, dairy ranches, watersheds, and, ultimately, the San Francisco Bay. They discovered that habitat restoration on behalf of the shrimp — planting willows and blackberries while ranchers built bridges and fencing to keep cattle out of the streams —required nurturing a network of people who sometimes see themselves as adversaries: ranchers and environmentalists; for-profit companies and public officials; teachers, students, and parents.

They persevered, prospects for the shrimp improved, and the California Freshwater Shrimp Project evolved into STRAW (Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed), cosponsored by The Bay Institute and the Berkeley-based Center for Ecoliteracy. STRAW has since expanded to address additional watershed issues, and celebrated its five-hundredth restoration in 2015. Some 40,000 students — kindergarten through high school — have restored more than 56 kilometers of creek banks. And it’s been good for more than shrimp. As one of the original fourth graders later reflected, “I think this project changed everything we thought we could do.... I feel it did show me that kids can make a difference in the world, and we are not just little dots.”

STRAW is a powerful example of education for ecoliteracy. The need is evident to prepare students as they inherit a host of environmental challenges: climate change, biodiversity loss, the end of cheap energy, resource depletion, gross wealth inequities, and more. This generation will require leaders who can understand the interconnectedness of human and natural systems and who have the knowledge, will, ability, and courage to act. Responses to this imperative go by many names: ecological literacy, education for sustainability, eco-schools, green schools. They follow no blueprint or one-size-fits-all formula. Some embrace “sustainability” as a goal, while others find the concept problematic. Ecological literacy, as understood by the Center for Ecoliteracy, lies at the junction of schooling for sustainability and Earth-centric learning.

Guiding Principles of Ecoliteracy

Physicist and systems theorist Fritjof Capra, a Center for Ecoliteracy cofounder, notes that common definitions of sustainability, such as “satisfying needs and aspirations without diminishing the chances of future generations,” are important moral exhortations, but they do not give much practical guidance. However, he says, we can look to nature: “Since the outstanding characteristic of the biosphere is its inherent ability to sustain life, a sustainable human community must be designed in such a manner that its ways of life, technologies, and social institutions honor, support, and cooperate with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life.”

Ecological literacy, then, is the ability to understand the basic principles of ecology — the processes by which the Earth’s ecosystems sustain the web of life — and to live accordingly. Among the ecological principles articulated by Capra: diversity assures resilience; one species’ waste is another species’ food; matter cycles continually through the web of life; and life (as suggested by authors Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan) did not take over the planet by combat but by networking.

The Center for Ecoliteracy has distilled its decades of experience into four guiding principles: “Nature Is Our Teacher,” “Sustainability Is a Community Practice,” “The Real World Is the Optimal Learning Environment,” and “Sustainable Living Is Rooted in a Deep Knowledge of Place.” These principles begin with nature, as Capra suggests, and reflect work with thousands of educators.

Nature is Our Teacher

Accepting nature as our teacher has several implications: Focusing on nature as we encounter it integrates teaching across disciplines and between grade levels, providing an antidote to the fragmentation and narrowing of subject matter. “We do not organize education the way we sense the world,” writes author and educator David W. Orr. “If we did, we would have Departments of Sky, Landscape, Water, Wind, Sounds, Time, Seashores, Swamps, Rivers, Dirt, Trees, Animals, and perhaps one of Ecstasy. Instead, we have organized education like mailbox pigeonholes, by disciplines that are abstractions organized for intellectual convenience.” Orr argues that “at all levels of learning, K through Ph.D., some part of the curriculum [should] be given to the study of natural systems roughly in the manner in which we experience them.... Doing so requires immersion in particular components of the natural world — a river, a mountain, a forest, a particular animal, a lake, an island — before students are introduced to more advanced levels of disciplinary knowledge.”

Nature also teaches us to think in terms of systems. Living beings, watersheds, or ecosystems cannot be fully understood apart from the systems they contain and the systems in which they are nested; neither can schools, communities, or economies. Ecological literacy entails thinking systemically, in terms of relationships, connectedness, and context — for example, understanding the complexities of the food web.

That, in turn, changes how schools operate. Author and farmer Wendell Berry contrasts bad solutions — which solve for single purposes and act destructively on the patterns in which they are contained — with good solutions in harmony with their larger patterns that result in ramifying sets of solutions. Farm-to-school programs are examples of good solutions that beget other solutions: they increase access to healthy food, teach children where their meals come from, support small-scale farmers, and keep money circulating in the local economy. As of October 2016, the National Farm to School Network reported programs in 42,587 schools in the United States.

Learning from nature is often best accomplished by learning in nature. The London Sustainable Development Commission reviewed 61 studies on children’s experiences with nature. They judged as “well-supported” findings that time spent in natural environments as a child is associated with adult pro-environment attitudes and feelings of being connected with the natural world. They found a “well-supported” conclusion that experience of green environments is associated with greater environmental knowledge.

Forest schools and nature schools were introduced in Scandinavia in the 1950s. The Association of Nature Schools, which comprises 91 schools throughout Sweden, calls a nature school “not a building or a place, but a method of learning” that can be applied to teaching all subjects. “Naturskolan offers teachers opportunities to explore and develop different ways of teaching science and education for sustainable development (ESD) primarily using outdoor education in the community,” according to one teacher.

From Chapter 3 of EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet by The Worldwatch Institute. Copyright © 2017 Worldwatch INsitute. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, DC.

Michael K. Stone
Michael K. Stone is senior editor at the Center for Ecoliteracy, coeditor of Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable Future (Sierra Club Books), author of Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability (Watershed Media), and winner of the Green Prize for Sustainable Literature.

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