To meet the challenge of the twenty-first century we need to buildeducation on the foundation of eco-literacy.
As the Century draws to a close, our great challenge is to create sustainable communities - social, cultural and physical environments in which we can satisfy our needs and aspirations without. diminishing the integrity of the natural world and the chances of future generations.
In our attempts to build and nurture sustainable communities we can learn valuable lessons from ecosystems, which are sustainable communities of plants, animals and micro-organisms. To understand ecosystems, we need to learn the basic principles of ecology - the language of nature. We need to become ecologically literate, or 'eco-literate'. Now, to understand the principles of ecology, we need a new way of seeing the world. We need to think in terms of relationships, connectedness and context. In science, this new way of thinking is known as systems thinking. It emerged during the first half of the century in several disciplines, in which scientists explored living organisms, ecosystems and social systems, and recognized that all these systems are integrated wholes whose properties cannot be reduced to those of smaller parts.
Systems thinking was raised to a new level during the past twenty years with the development of a science of complexity. It involved a whole new mathematical language and a set of concepts to describe the complexity of living systems.
The emerging new theory of living systems is the theoretical foundation of ecological literacy. Instead of seeing the universe as a machine composed of elementary building blocks, scientists have discovered that the material world, ultimately, is a network of inseparable patterns of relationships; that the planet as a whole is a living, self-regulating system. The view of the human body as a machine and of the mind as a separate entity is being replaced by one that sees not only the brain, but also the immune system, the bodily tissues, and even each cell, as a living, cognitive system. Evolution is no longer seen as a competitive struggle for existence, but rather as a co-operative dance in which creativity and the constant emergence of novelty are the driving forces.
This new vision of reality, informed by eco-literacy, will form the basis of our future technologies, economic systems and social institutions. It is obvious that this has profound implications for education in the twenty-first century. It will require a pedagogy that puts the understanding of life at its very centre. It will be an experience of learning that overcomes our alienation from the natural world and rekindles a sense of place. We will need a curriculum that teaches our children the fundamental facts of life - that one species' waste is another species' food; that matter cycles continually through the web oflife; that the energy driving all ecological cycles flows from the sun; that diversity assures resilence; that life, from its beginning more than three billion years ago, did not take over the planet by combat but by networking. Teaching this new knowledge, which is also ancient wisdom, will be the most important role of education in the next century.
Because of its intellectual grounding in systems thinking, eco-literacy offers a powerful framework for the systemic approach to school reform that is now widely discussed among educators in many countries. Systemic school reform is based on, essentially, two insights: a new understanding of the process of learning and a new understanding of leadership.
Recent research in neuroscience and cognitive development has resulted in a new understanding of the process of learning, based on the view of the brain as a complex, highly adaptive, self-organizing system. The new understanding recognizes the active construction of knowledge, in which all new information is related to past experience in a constant search for patterns and meaning; the importance of experiential learning; of diverse learning styles involving multiple intelligences; and of the emotional and social context in which learning takes place.
This understanding of the learning process suggests corresponding instructional strategies. In particular, it suggests designing an integrated curriculum, emphasizing contextual knowledge, in which the various subject areas are perceived as resources in service of a central focus. An ideal way to achieve such an integration is the approach called 'project-based learning', which consists in facilitating learning experiences that engage students in complex, real-world projects - for example a school garden, or a creek restoration - through which they develop and apply skills and knowledge.
Such curriculum integration through ecologically oriented projects is possible only if the school becomes a true learning community, in which teachers, students, administrators and parents are all interlinked in a network of relationships, working together to facilitate learning. In such a learning community, the teaching does not flow fom the top down, but there is a cyclical exchange of information. The focus is on learning and everyone in the system is both a teacher and a learner. Feedbackloops are intrinsic to the learning process, and feedback becomes the key purpose of assessment. Systems thinking is Crucial to understand the functioning of learning communities. Indeed, the principles of ecology can also be interpreted as principles of community.
Finally, the systemic view oflearning, instruction, curriculum design, and assessment can only be implemented with a corresponding practice ofleadership. This new kind of leadership is inspired by the discovery of a very important property of living systems, which has been identified only recently. Every living system occasionally encounters points of instability, . at which some of its structures break down and new structures emerge. The spontaneous emergence of order - ofnew structures and new forms of behaviour- is one of the hallmarks of life. In other words, creativity - the generation of forms that are constantly new - is a key property of all living systems.
Leadership, therefore, consists to a large extent in continually facilitating the emergence of new structures and incorporating the best of them into the organization's design. This type of 'systemic' leadership is not limited to a single individual but can be distributed, and responsibility then becomes a capacity of the whole.
In summary, eco-literacy includes three components: understanding the principles of ecology, thinking systemically, and using the principles of ecology and systems thinking as the context and language for school reform.
As we go toward the beginning of a new millennium, the survival of humanity will depend on our ability to understand the principles of ecology and live accordingly. This is an enterprise that transcends all our differences of race, culture or class. The Earth is our common home, and creating a sustainable world for our children and for future generations is our common task. This responsibility can only be fulfilled if we and our children can learn to live without damaging the fragile ecosystem.
(Reprinted with permission from Resurgence Volume 192 Jan / Feb 1999, pp 52-53.)