A school curriculum is quite a complex thing - many people have different views and ideas as to what it should contain. The definition of a curriculum is simply ‘the subjects comprising a course of study’, which immediately implies that we have divided up the potentially vast amount of knowledge that a student could learn, into separate compartments – the subjects. In medieval Europe the curriculum was mostly Latin and Greek and the study of grammar, rhetoric, and logic; later, subjects like arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy were added.
This subject division transformed slowly into what most people would now expect: reading, writing, arithmetic, history, geography, other languages, chemistry, physics and biology and so on to produce the traditional curriculum. This creation of subjects, dividing knowledge into separate silos, continues throughout all formal education, with the number of subjects proliferating and splitting. In my original subject of study, mathematics, there are at least 48 major subdivisions - and experts in one of these subdivisions are unable to understand the experts in another.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, the vast range of knowledge is just that, it is too vast for anyone to know everything. There are many contenders for the title of the last man (sic) to know everything that was to be known in their day: Aristotle, Erasmus, Da Vinci, Kant to name some but once we got past the 18th century things really took off and now we might soon be heading towards the point where knowledge is doubling every 12 hours.
What has all this got to do with ecology? Why should this subject be privileged above others and be consider as part of the core, alongside what others might say are part of the core, subjects like arithmetic and English, why choose ecology over say music for a core subject?
Perhaps we ought to look at what a curriculum could be from the perspective of what type of person do we want to emerge from the process of schooling. What knowledge then should a student learn? Of course we want good, kind, caring and thinking people to emerge. So shouldn’t the curriculum be shaped to answer some pretty big questions? Questions like: Who am I? What are my values? Where do I come from? How do I work? How does the world work? What is happening in the world and what is shaping the future? How do I look after myself? How can I be a good person? How can I contribute to others? How do I think?
If we are to equip students for life then a deep appreciation of process is essential and another word for process is ‘system’; we need an appreciation of how everything is interconnected and interdependent
If the curriculum were shaped like this then we can easily map the traditional subjects into these broad questions: biology, embryology, genetics, chemistry and physics, nutrition all contribute to the question ‘How do I work?’ Most of these questions, however, are about processes, we have a worldview that is about change and flow. I work, I am alive, because I emerge from a flow of materials, energy and information. If we are to equip students for life then a deep appreciation of process is essential and another word for process is ‘system’; we need an appreciation of how everything is interconnected and interdependent, how everything has a history and is on a pathway to something uncertain. Learning that we are part of many different systems that support us, as we contribute back to them, must be at the core of a life-focussed curriculum.
And so at last we get to ecology. The planet is a vast, self-regulating system, from the microbes in the soil to the elephant tearing up grass for dinner, everything is connected in this wonderful, complex and emergent ecology. We humans are well and truly embedded in this ecology. And that is why I believe placing ecology and systems thinking at the core of a life curriculum is vital.
Perhaps it is vital for another reason as well. What we have done, and continue to do, to our planet is transforming, disrupting, and in many cases destroying our ecological systems. The biggest threat from these massive disruptions is climate change. Our activities are on such a large scale in such a tiny amount of time that we are likely to knock the whole planetary ecosystem into a different phase, a period of significant global warming (if we haven’t already done so). That will create serious stresses and cause huge shifts in – you guessed it – all our ecosystems.
We can change, if enough people have the ability to understand how this all works, how it all connects, then we might set to and prevent further damage and at the same time we can restore and regenerate ecologies – we can work with the system rather than see the system as something to exploit for just our own short term gain. We all need to fully understand ecology.
To communicate in ecological terms is essential, we need to speak a common language if we are to discover ways to regenerate systems and to restore the damage. Ecological literacy (or ecoliteracy) is about understanding the principles of how ecosystems work and about understanding how to build a sustainable human society. The pursuit of sustainability requires everyone to be ecoliterate – hence it should be at the core of all curricula.