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PEACE in Action

Ecoliteracy, Systems Thinking, and Smart by Nature Education


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Building a Culture of Peace
Ecoliteracy, Systems Thinking, and Smart by Nature Education

Educating our children for a sustainable world is more than a timely slogan. Many of the challenges we face today have some connection to the natural world: climate change, energy, food and water security, deforestation, and more. Therefore, the citizens and leaders of tomorrow need to understand how the natural world works. They must perceive the connections between human activity and nature, and have the values and skills to act effectively on this knowledge. They must understand sustainability at a deep level. In other words, they must be ecoliterate.

The natural world is a living system, and humans are an integral part of that system. To build toward sustainability, therefore, the Center for Ecoliteracy, a nonprofit based in Berkeley, California, exists to support schools in preparing students, and the adults who live and work with them, to carry that mantle of ecoliterate leadership.

Our framework for this is Smart by Nature™, an approach grounded in the knowledge of living systems and two decades of work with schools and organizations from more than 400 communities across the U.S. and around the world. A systems orientation helps young people apprehend the complex dynamics of the natural world and human society.

Systems thinking also informs our approach to working with schools around pedagogy, organizational practices, and institutional change. The Center understands schools as whole systems and "curriculum" as everything that leads to students' learning. We recognize that schools teach by classroom lessons, but also by the food served in their dining halls, their use of energy and resources, their decision-making processes, and their relationships with the larger community.

Shifts in Perception

Systems thinking within the Smart by Nature approach entails several shifts in perception with important implications for teaching and school practices. These shifts are not either/or alternatives, but rather movements along a continuum:

From parts to the whole.
In any system, the whole is different from the sum of its parts. By shifting focus from the parts to the whole, schools can help students to better grasp relationships, connectedness, and context. For instance, instead of copying pictures of honeybees from a book, an art teacher takes her class to the school garden to draw bees in their natural setting. This shift can also mean moving from isolated subjects to integrated curricula, and from individual class periods to block scheduling.
Similarly, long-lasting institutional change usually occurs at the level of the whole school or the district, one reason that the Center strongly encourages participants in its seminars to enroll as school-wide or district teams.
From objects to relationships.
In systems, the relationships between individual parts may be as important as the parts themselves. In the systems view, the "objects" of study are often networks of relationships. Farmer/philosopher Wendell Berry uses the analogy of a healthy organ acting within the body. The organ does not "give" health to the body, but is a part of its health: "The health of organ and organism is the same, just as the health of organism and ecosystem is the same."
This perspective emphasizes relationship-based processes such as cooperation and consensus. Though it can feel counter-intuitive to actionoriented school reformers, it's sometimes necessary to spend considerable time cultivating relationships among stakeholders before ever addressing objectives or agendas for change.
From objective knowledge to contextual knowledge.
This shift may be facilitated through project-based and place-based learning instead of prescriptive curricula. Whether restoring the habitat of an endangered species, tending a school garden, or designing a neighborhood recycling program, students learn best from active engagement in which their actions matter and have larger meaning than simply completing an assignment.
Students are inspired to learn because they recognize that the knowledge is essential to completing a project that they or people in their community care about. This process also encourages teachers to be facilitators and fellow learners alongside students, rather than experts dispensing knowledge.
From quantity to quality.
Western science has often focused on things that can be measured and quantified. It has sometimes been implied that phenomena that can be measured and quantified are more important—and perhaps even that what cannot be measured and quantified doesn't exist at all.
Some aspects of systems, however, like the relationships in a food web, a school, or a community, cannot be measured. Rather, they must be mapped. In education systems, this shift can lead to efforts to define more comprehensive and more appropriate forms of assessment than standardized tests. Cultivating this perspective also inspires efforts to improve the quality of life in communities while requiring less material consumption or stress on the environment— necessary strategies for sustainable living on a finite planet.
From structure to process.
Living systems develop and evolve. Understanding these systems requires a shift in focus from structure to processes, such as evolution, renewal, and change, which are important concepts for understanding ecological principles. In the classroom, this shift can mean teaching students that how they solve a problem is more important than the answer. How decisions are made can be as important as what is decided. When educators, parents, trustees, and other members of the school community make decisions and act collaboratively, the school serves as an apprentice community for acquiring skills and values needed for sustainable living.
From contents to patterns.
Within systems, certain configurations appear repeatedly in patterns such as cycles and feedback loops. Understanding how a pattern works in one system helps us to understand other systems that manifest the same pattern. For instance, recognizing how flows of energy affect a natural ecosystem may illuminate how flows of information affect a social system.

As Fritjof Capra has emphasized, the phenomenon of emergence within systems offers clues for facilitating change in institutions such as schools. Leaders need to be able to recognize emergent novelty, articulate it, and incorporate it into the organization's design. Effecting change sometimes requires that leaders loosen their apparent control and take the risk of dispersing authority and responsibility more widely.

In our experience, a systems perspective is basic to ecological literacy, and hence to schooling for sustainability. To explore in depth the ideas explained in brief here, and to learn more about the Center, see our website and our publications, especially our recent book Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability.


Michael K. Stone is senior editor at the Center for Ecoliteracy, and the primary author of Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability (Watershed Media/University of California Press, 2009) and Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World (Sierra Club Books, 2005).

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