Is 21st Century Learning in Need of an Ecological Literacy?

The notion of 21st century learning seems to be in need of analysis. For many, it speaks to a digital literacy and reliance that presumably is paving the way for a future of technological marvel. Or perhaps 21st century learning is the dumbing-down of what we have valued in terms of formal education, creating fodder for our disdain of contemporary generations. For others, however, 21st century learning speaks to transformation; both in terms of the individual and society. Given the current ecological crisis and impending planetary emergency, education and the practice of learning need to be situated in a curriculum that speaks to our understanding of systems, to critical thinking, and our connection to each other and to the biosphere. 

On the weekend of October 13, 2012, two interesting editorials surfaced out of the Canadian mainstream. One of which was an essay written and delivered by the host of CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition, Michael Enright (2012). In his essay, Enright savagely deconstructed the use of technology in the classroom, suggesting that wi-fi, social media, and technological gadgets have made our society dumber. The day previous in the Globe and Mail (Kingwell, 2012), a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto bemoaned the current state of the post-secondary learners and issued his seven steps for academic redemption and 21st century curriculum. Both essays pointed to an almost intangible notion that contemporary pedagogy and curricula are so heavily focused on gadgetry and attention grabbing, that they fail to address our ability to engage in dialogue, to think critically, and to further knowledge through our individual and collective experiences. Presumably these skills are essential to create the culture shift needed in order to perpetuate all species on the Earth and to solve some serious problems challenging humans throughout the world. Out of Enight and Kingwell’s reactions comes a new conceptualization of 21st century learning; at least within the realm of curriculum development. 21st century learning might situate the learner in a context of crisis by which they are asked to generate solutions which transcend technology, disciplines, and instrumentalism.

Perhaps 21st century learning can offer two facets. The first is the idea of critical thinking via experience that which connect students with the Earth. Our neoliberal and traditional curriculum has really made us consumers and we have lost a genuine connection with “the other.” By “the other” I refer to humans, other species, and all systems. It’s my contention that if we allow students space and experiences which situate them in the environment and allow them to think critically about how we have structured our world, they will create important links between contemporary structures and the present crisis. 
To express themselves, which brings us to my second point, perhaps students can use a variety of means to express themselves to solve systemic problems. This will most certainly involve technology, but technology is not only iPads – it’s pencils, paint, books, rulers, Photoshop, Twitter, and other tools which help us to take action. But these tools are used as a means for social reconstruction, not as an end to themselves. 
I guess I have become frustrated, like Michael Enright, when we focus too much on technology. Often I find we feel pressured to use a variety of technologies in our classroom because our administration tells us to, or because stakeholders in the public see it as essential in order to keep up with something. What I might suggest, however, is that technology becomes an expression of our critical thinking and a catalyst for expressing our ecological literacy.
Would love to hear your thoughts.
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One thought on “Is 21st Century Learning in Need of an Ecological Literacy?

  1. Sir you have written a very interesting and profound article here.Ecological Literacy refers to understanding of connections/interactions between nature, society and economy, and how each individual works. It is a basic concept that people need to know about if they want to solve the problem with sustainability.What is the problem?Sustainability = balance between: society + economy + environmentProblem with sustainability is that people currently focus too much on society and economy, but ignored environment. In my opinion, the way to change this phenomenon is to change the basis of our economic activities (“Tragedy of the Commons”: You don’t care about the environment and ecology, why should I? Everyone thinks this way, then the economics will appears to be flourishing, but only in the short term; Define the term “utility”, are environment concerns included in it?) and the model/structure of our society (No specific examples yet, I should take sociology).As for what the students should do to break the current curricular structure you mention, students should be assigned missions that require teamwork. This will improve their interaction/communication skills, and help them to exchange ideas, and develop critical thinking.You say that students need real life experience to understand the basis of ecological literacy. I think maybe they should study outdoors, and travel around for a considerable amount of time during their study. (In terms of economics, maybe only the upper class family can afford the travelling fees, but that is the social class that can actually lead the change/revolution) Therefore, the question becomes: how to change the value of people, especially parents (whether they are willing to pay for these travelling fees)?To solve this problem, media will help a lot since its strong impact on modern value. For example, documentary and TV shows can be effective. (Social Entrepreneurship kicks in?)Further more, from your article I agree that maybe people are misinterpreting the meaning of education. They have forgot that technology is supposed to be used to improve education, not representing education. Higher technology does not imply better educational quality. This is another value that people need to change.PS: This is a great tool “NovaMind” for creating mind map.

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