Assessing Ecological Literacy: Dispelling the Hunch

June is often a stressful time at public schools throughout the world. Educators can be seen scrambling to finish their assessment of student growth, development, and transformation following ten months of intense and rigorous study. Coupled with this, learners are often placed in highly stressful situations whereby they are asked to empty their brains onto a piece of foolscap paper, sitting in cold gymnasiums.

More often now, learners are madly trying to finish up project work, hurriedly putting the final touches on public exhibitions, and/or wrapping up their intense internship experiences.

However a particular school is designed, June can be intense and chaotic. And all of this frantic activity has one goal in mind: to summatively assess the growth and development of learners in a meaningful and authentic way.

What is often not assessed, however, is the one skill that may be most important skill of our time — the ecological literacy of our learners.

While we place heavy emphasis on numeracy, language literacy, we seem unable to assess one’s ecological literacy — that is one’s ability to see the Earth as the very thing which sustains life combined with one’s desire and ability to take meaningful action. (See attached infographic.)

Matt Henderson

Assessing for an ecological literacy is a perplexingly difficult endeavour, and it’s one that I have struggled with for my entire career. But it is also an opportunity as a community of educators to think deeply about the skills and attitudes required to compete against  those who are hell-bent on destroying the planet.

Given our our seemingly insurmountable task of overcoming these destructive forces and to some degree a general societal malaise, how do we teach and assess for an ecological literacy? What are these skills and values we are attempting to impart, and when do we know when someone has indeed become ecologically literate?

For educators, whether teachers, parents, older siblings, homeschoolers, etc., these are exciting times!

David Orr, the American academic who coined the term Ecological Literacy, suggests that someone who is indeed ecologically literate needs to have an understanding of basic concepts such as the laws of thermodynamics, energetics, carrying capacities, environmental ethics, etc.

At a content level, we are able to assess whether someone has developed at least some sense of an ecological literacy. For instance, we can determine to what extent a student is aware that energy/matter cannot be created or destroyed. This has huge implications, as those who are aware of the first law of thermodynamics understand why burning fossil fuels has its limit and they begin to understand the notion of externalities. We can assess as to one’s understanding of carrying capacity and systems thinking. We can assess as to whether one can determine what is right and wrong when making decisions about our environment.

The change in behaviour comes with creating educative experiences which cause disequilibrium within the learner. The more learners are able to question their role within the universe, the greater questions can be elicited about human existence on this planet. This is a different type of assessment – one which involves a dialectic and democratic conversation between educator and learner and one that is authentic. We don’t have to look into a crystal ball to see if a learner has been impacted by a deep educative experience and a meaningful relationship within a learning community if the design is sound.

A few years ago, my friends Pauline Gerrard and Dean McLeod and I had the idea of creating an educative experience for young people at the IISD’s Experimental Lakes Area. This intense whole ecosystem field course for High School students has most certainly impacted the learners who have engaged with the ecosystem, the world-class scientists, and the quiet conversations around campfires or in the middle of a lake.

But the experiences don’t have to be as intense, so long as we are equipping learners with the tools they will need in order ask deep and powerful existential questions and as long as the experiences are designed with purpose. This type of learning arguably occurs outside of the confines of a traditional classroom and leads to curiosity, inquiry, and praxis.

To assess this questioning and praxis, we then need to create learning environments which allow for a horizontal conversation about our role on this rock hurtling through space. This is the heart of assessment and a pathway towards an ecological literacy and a better future for all species and systems.

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CdnPoli DoNow: Ratifying Climate Deal

Saturday April 23, 2016

Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday April 23, 2016 

In November 2015, the Federal Government, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, signed the Paris Climate Change agreement, whereby Canada, amongst other countries,pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the extent that global temperature increases could be kept under two degrees.

You can check out this TED talk by Johan Rockstrom to get a clear understanding of the impending ecological crisis:

Johan Rockström Planetary Boundaries from john on Vimeo.

In this Globe and Mail article, the premier of Saskatchewan, Brad Wall, expressed concern that the provinces, members of the federation of Canada, have not been consulted.

Here is a Liberal MP speaking with the CBC about the need to ratify the Paris Agreement.

Using some of your new parliamentary literacy, answer the following question: Should Canada consult with the provinces before ratifying the Paris agreement and should Canada be doing more in terms of reducing emissions?

Answer using the comment section below or Twitter, Instagram, Vine, and/or other social media. Be sure to use the hashtag #cdnpoliDoNow. Be sure to use evidence from the sources provided and from your own research to support your claims.


 

For those keeping track of outcomes for your portfolio, here are some you may wish to address and provide evidence for:

Grade 9

Social Studies

  • Give examples of ways in which government affects their daily lives. Examples: rights and freedoms, security, laws, education, health care, services…
  • Describe Canadian parliamentary democracy. Include: constitutional monarchy, federalism, Governor General, Prime Minister, Cabinet, House of Commons, Senate.
  • Describe the responsibilities and processes of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the federal government.
  • Be sensitive to the impact of majority rule on minorities and marginalized groups.
  • Evaluate Canadian perspectives regarding current global issues.
  • Give examples of Canada’s participation within international organizations. Examples: United Nations, Commonwealth, la Francophonie, Olympics…
  • Evaluate implications of living in a consumer-based economy.

Science

  • Develop a formula for domestic power consumption costs, and solve related problems.

ELA

  • question and reflect on personal responses, predictions, and interpretations; apply personal viewpoints to diverse situations or circumstances
  • acknowledge the value of others’ ideas and opinions in exploring and extending personal interpretations and viewpoints
  • analyze and explain connections between previous experiences, prior knowledge, and a variety of texts [including books]
  • obtain information and varied perspectives when inquiring or researching using a range of information sources [such as expository essays, books, radio and television transcripts, charts, tables, graphs, diagrams…]

ICT

  • Discuss information, ideas, and/or electronic work using tools for electronic communication. (Examples: email, electronic whiteboards, web pages, threaded discussions, videoconferences, chats, instant messages, camera phones, wikis, blogs, podcasts, online whiteboards…)

 

Grade 10

Geography

  • Draw conclusions and make decisions based on research and various types of evidence.

    Explain the importance of stewardship in the preservation of the Earth’s complex environment.

    Respect the Earth as a complex environment in which humans have important responsibilities.

    Describe sustainability issues related to natural resource extraction and consumption.

 

Experimental Lakes Area 2016

The 2016 Experimental Lakes Area Student Experience (ELSE) applications are now open. If you are a high school student entering Grade 11 or 12 this fall, check out the application form here. The dates for this year’s experience are July 18th-29th, 2016.

ELSE is a joint project between the IISD and St. John’s-Ravenscourt School. Students from all schools in Manitoba are invited to apply.

Check out this slide show to see what happens at ELSE!

Experimental_Lakes_Area_by_Matt_Henderson_-_Storehouse

For more information, contact me at hendem at learners dot sjr dot mb dot ca

Sustainability & the Environment

eco-literacy-tube-map-3-1-no-districts

Image taken from Eco-Labs.org

For those folks in the Post Baccalaureate programme at the University of Winnipeg or for those teachers thinking of heading back, here is a preview of a course I will be facilitating in the Winter term.

The course is officially titled Sustainability and the Environment and it is a requisite for the Sustainability stream in the Post Bac programme. The course can also be used as an elective in other courses.

The course is a hybrid course, meaning that much our interaction will be online using Edmodo while we will also meet on three Saturdays between January and March. We will meet on the following days:

January 16th – 8:30 AM – 4:30 PM

February 20th – 8:30 AM  – 4:30 PM

March 19 – 8:30 AM – 4:30 PM

If you wish to join the Edmodo group now, simply enter this code: nxmw6d.

Here is the official description of the course: This course is designed to expose educators to the concepts of sustainability, ecological literacy, and systems thinking within the context of teaching and learning. As such, our learning community will explore the ecological crisis that confronts our age, the reasons why we are often paralyzed to engage in meaningful solutions, and how education, be it in its present form or other, may act as a catalyst for changes in our individual and collective attitudes and behaviour.

Course participants will be asked to engage in scholarly research and writing, virtual discussions, curriculum design, resource review and creation, and application of learning pertaining to how we help develop an ecologically literate society.

This is an intensive course and will require full engagement from all participants within the learning community.

Here are the texts we will be using:

Denton, P. (2012). Gift ecology: Reimagining a sustainable world. Rocky Mountain Books, Vancouver, BC (Those who took the Global Citizenship course with me will already have a copy of this.)

Orr, D. (1992). Ecological literacy: Education and the transition to a postmodern world. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.

Callenbach, E. (1975). Ecotopia. Bantam Books, New York.

I would also heavily recommend the following texts for the course and for our teaching and learning in general:

http://www.amazon.ca/Beyond-Learning-Doing-Theoretical-Experiential/dp/0415882087

http://www.amazon.ca/Beyond-Learning-Doing-Theoretical-Experiential/dp/0415882087

To advance our thinking within our learning community, there will be weekly assignments, tasks, and subsequent readings to help us focus on how and why we teach and learn and how, as educators, we might play a massive role in creating sustainable communities.

As a learning community, we will be creating two ebooks in our time together. The first will be a review of resources currently “out there” which focus on systems thinking and ecological literacy. The second ebook will be a collection of learning experiences we have created and applied in our teaching.

You can check out the rest of the assignments and University policies on the official course outline. Please note, if you take the course, you will need to be active on Twitter, Edmodo, Google Hangout and other platforms which will enable us to connect and share ideas. The course, ultimately, is what you make of it. I am looking forward to it, as I love learning from master teachers.

If you have any questions, please email me at mhenderson at sjr.mb.ca

A Tale of Two Countries

IMG_1824Canada is a perplexing concept; our country can often be conceptualized in shimmering positivity, and then, upon closer inspection can be dragged through the dusty and bloody streets of reality. This has often been the case when we teach history or have been taught history — we try to dichotomize issues, cultures, and versions of history as an experiment in critical thought or controversy. MacLennan’s Two Solitudes is an obvious example of cultural paradoxes within the “narrative” of Canada, as is the the story of the Winnipeg General Strike.

In Manitoba we experience this in the divide between indigenous and non-indigenous communities. Many Winnipeggers are placing their hope in our new mayor to help bridge these colonial divides and painful scars — a most difficult task to say the least. A recent CBC poll suggest that the divide between indigenous and nonindigenous on prairies and in Red River is considerably and alarminging wide: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/people-on-the-prairies-less-tolerant-cbc-poll-says-1.2831876

In recent weeks, I have also been struck by an increasingly larger divide in Canada that is often left unarticulated – that is our image as a massive expanse of natural beauty contrasted with our 400 year history of resource exploitation. This really hit home when I attended the Hudson Bay Company Archives’ screening of Kevin Nikkel’s film Romance of the Far Fur Country . Nikkel has managed to splice together two hours of original HBC footage from 1919 and curate this silent footage in such a haunting way that the viewer really is able to situate themselves in the fur trade at the beginning of the 20th century.

As beautiful as the film is, however, there is a striking recognition that as the HBC enters into indigenous communities and encounters the immense landscape, that there is only one agenda: resource exploitation, both natural and human.

What follows in the film is a shocking barrage of the treatment of the first peoples of Canada and the land itself. Created by the HBC in 1919 as a celebratory film and ultimately an advertisement for its first department stores, the Company was simply not aware of its savage devastation of all systems on earth – at least this is what I hope.

 

As the film ended and everyone left the Archives of Manitoba, my friend (who I dragged out) and I silently sat in our seats trying to process what we had just witnessed.

A few days later, I came across this photo essay in the Globe and Mail encapsulating life in Fort McMurray. I was astounded at the level of consumerism, greed, and resource exploitation that is completely unabashed.

You will notice one photo of a gentleman in a cowboy hat drinking a Coors’ Light. At first glance I thought nothing of it, and then my uber critical thinker of a wife alerted me to the paradox: A cowboy hat is a symbol of freedom. It conjures up imagery of connection to the land, notions of freedom and autonomy, and a recognition of the interconnectedness of the natural systems that sustain the land. . The fellow in the coffee shop, however, who works for Suncor, is part of a  system of resource exploitation that destroys these vast and wild lands. He’s a slave to consumption and a dogged drive for wealth accumulation above all else. This is not the wild west. This is as well-engineered money generating machine with little room for cowboy antics.

But this does fit with our history. It sounds like the HBC in 1919.

And so, as Canada delves further into oil sands development, pipeline construction, and dependence on fossil fuels, so too continues the dichotomy of Canada. On one hand we have a country jam packed with scientifically-literate, empathetic citizens who cherish our land, water, and air. On the other, we are complicent in an economic and political system that is bent on exploiting natural and human resources. These are  the new two new solitudes of our time.

As Slavoj Zizek suggests, the ecological catastrophes of the present and future will not be solved by free markets and corporations. No, Canada’s sick duality can only be synthesized into a sustainable vision through social and political action. This begins in the homes in Fort McMurray, at the kitchen tables of local constituency associations, and ultimately at the polls in 2015.

Canada’s reputation in the global community has soured as of late; we no longer lead in peacekeeping (we are ranked 65th), we rank first in deforestation, and our record on treating our indigenous peoples speaks for itself. I would reckon that we have an opportunity to build a better Canada — one that is sustainable, innovative, compassionate, and inclusive. Our first step, however, is to take an honest look at what we we have become. Let’s take off our cowboy hats for now. We have to earn the right to wear symbols of freedom. First we need to take the collective action necessary to shed the dichotomies of the past and create one singular and positive vision based on respect for the land and each other.