Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Education for Sustainability

by Fritjof Capra

What Is Sustainability?

The Center for Ecoliteracy is dedicated to education for sustainable living. In the words of CEL cofounder Fritjof Capra,

We do not need to invent sustainable human communities. We can learn from societies that have lived sustainably for centuries. We can also model communities after nature's ecosystems, which are sustainable communities of plants, animals, and microorganisms. Since the outstanding characteristic of the biosphere is its inherent ability to sustain life, a sustainable human community must be designed in such a manner that its technologies and social institutions honor, support, and cooperate with nature's inherent ability to sustain life.

The processes and patterns by which ecosystems sustain themselves have evolved over billions of years. Designing human communities that are compatible with nature's processes requires basic ecological knowledge, which is one of the key components of ecological literacy.


To the Okanagan people, as to all peoples practicing bioregional self-sufficient economies, the realization that the total community must be engaged in order to attain sustainability comes as a result of surviving together for thousands of years. The practical aspects of willing teamwork within a whole-community system clearly emerged from having to cooperate in order to survive.

- Okanagan Wisdom Keeper Jeannette Armstrong

The discoveries of both modern science and traditional people tell us that community is central to sustainable living. For this reason, the Center focuses its work in communities, especially in schools that are learning communities.

Many of the schools that are most successful at teaching ecological literacy are also active in their local communities. Their activities range from serving meals made from food purchased from sustainable regional farms to inviting neighbors to participate in school events to involving students in projects that contribute to the well-being of their communities.

Systems Thinking

In Science for All Americans, the American Association for the Advancement of Science defines a "system" simply as "any collection of things that have some influence on each other....The things can be almost anything, including objects, organisms, machines, processes, ideas, numbers, or organizations. Thinking of a collection of things as a system draws our attention to what needs to be included among the parts to make sense of it, to how its parts interact with one another, and to how the system as a whole relates to other systems."

Individual "things" (plants, people, schools, watersheds) are themselves systems, and are not sustainable separate from the larger systems in which they exist. The Center for Ecoliteracy recognizes that learning to think systemically is critical to education for sustainability. One of the ways that teachers and schools teach systemic thinking is to model it themselves.

Shifts in Perception

According to Fritjof Capra, systems thinking requires thinking in terms of relationships, connectedness, and context. Thinking systemically also requires several shifts in perception, which lead in turn to different ways to teach, and different ways to organize society:

From parts to the whole

Systems are integrated wholes whose properties cannot be reduced to those of smaller parts. Their "systemic" properties are properties of the whole which are possessed by none of the parts. The nature and quality of what students learn is strongly affected by the culture of the whole school, not just the individual classroom. This shift in perception can also lead to moving from curricula based on single subject matters to integrated curricula.

From objects to relationships

An ecosystem is not just a collection of species, but is a community. Communities, whether ecosystems or human systems, are made up of sets, or networks, of relationships. In the systems view, the "objects" of study are networks of relationships. Organizations, including schools, that adopt this perspective are more likely to emphasize relationship-based processes such as cooperation and decision-making by consensus.

From objective knowledge to contextual knowledge

Shifting focus from the parts to the whole implies shifting from analytical thinking to contextual thinking. Since explaining things in terms of their contexts means explaining them in terms of their environments, all systems thinking is environmental thinking. This shift sometimes results in schools' focusing on project-based learning instead of prescriptive curricula. It also encourages teachers to serve as facilitators and fellow learners alongside students, rather than as experts dispensing knowledge.

From quantity to quality

Through much of the history of Western science, many of its practitioners have maintained that only things that can be measured and quantified can be expressed in scientific models. 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. Relationships and context, however, cannot be put on a scale or measured with a ruler. In practice, this shift can lead to seeking more comprehensive forms of assessment besides standardized testing.

From structure to process

Living systems develop and evolve. Therefore, understanding them requires understanding renewal, change, and transformation. In practice, this shift can result in shifting emphasis to how a student solves a problem rather than on whether or not he or she gets the "right" answer. In communities, it can mean that the process for making decisions is often as important as the decisions themselves.

From contents to patterns

When we draw maps of relationships, we discover that certain configurations of relationships appear again and again. We call these configurations patterns. Instead of focusing on what a living system is made of, we study its patterns. This shift leads to discovering that understanding how a pattern works in one natural or social system helps us to understand other systems that manifest the same pattern.


In addition to environmental knowledge, education for sustainability includes the acquisition of particular skills, values, and vision needed to put that knowledge into practice.

Education for sustainable living cultivates competencies of head, heart, hands, and spirit to enable children to develop toward becoming citizens capable of designing and maintaining sustainable societies. A few of these competencies:


- Ecological knowledge

- The ability to think systemically

- The ability to think critically, to solve problems creatively, and to apply environmental ethics to new situations

- The ability to assess the impact of human technologies and actions and to envision the long-term consequences of decisions


- A deeply felt, not just understood, concern for the well-being of the Earth and of all living things

- Empathy and the ability to see from and appreciate multiple perspectives

- A commitment to equity, justice, inclusivity, and respect for all people

- Skills in building, governing, and sustaining communities


- The ability to apply ecological knowledge to the practice of ecological design

- Practical skills to create and use tools, objects, and procedures required by sustainable communities

- The ability to assess and make adjustments to uses of energy and resources

- The capacity to convert convictions into practical and effective action


- A sense of wonder

- A capacity for reverence

- A deep appreciation of place

- A feeling of kinship with the natural world, and the ability to invoke that feeling in others

Sustainability and Schools

The Center for Ecoliteracy has based most of its work in schools. The values, habits, and worldviews of individuals are often set, and hard to change, by the time that people become adults. Society gives schools the responsibility for passing on cultural values.

The "hidden curricula" of schools convey the values that are really important to the school, even when they contradict the lessons of the classroom (for instance, a soda machine in the hallway can speak louder than any number of lectures about nutrition). Schools are systems, and they are communities. Schools are themselves important nodes in the web of institutions that constitutes society. Whatever happens in schools will have profound effects on the rest of society.

CEL has also identified a number of qualities and practices that characterize schools that are most effective in educating for ecological literacy:

Schools as communities

The most effective schools are often communities that model the traits of sustainable societies:

- They know that children's ability to learn, and what they learn, are greatly affected by the vibrancy and health of the culture of the school and the quality of the relationships within it

- They function as "apprenticeship communities" in which leadership is shared and members of the community see themselves and others as both teachers and learners

- They recognize that "the curriculum is anywhere that learning occurs" (whether or not it is intended or directed by educators)

Practices of effective schools

These effective schools often incorporate one or several of the following practices:

- They connect children with the natural world through programs and projects outside the classroom, such as school gardens, habitat restoration, and communicating their experience in nature through painting and poetry

- They practice place-based education that teaches students about the people, history, culture, and natural features of their local community and region

- They practice environmental project-based learning, involving students in local projects that are meaningful and make real contributions to their communities

- They integrate in-class learning with hands-on experiences and with all of the activities (including, e.g., lunch) of the school

- They address whole children, recognizing that children's ability to learn is affected by their health and well-being, and that these are in turn affected by such factors as nutrition, exercise, and the health of the natural environment

- They employ the best current understandings of how brains and minds develop and how children learn. They attend to children in all their dimensions, including cognitive, emotional, and aesthetic

Transforming education

Implementing this kind of education often requires changing educational institutions, relationships, and practices. Because schools are expected to pass on cultural values, they are among the more conservative of our society's democratic institutions, and therefore among the slowest to change.

Classrooms, schools, and districts are also systems; effective change agents often use systems thinking and ecological concepts when devising strategies for changing those systems:

- They create networks of students, parents, teachers, administrators, and community organizations working together for change

- They change hierarchical authority patterns to promote the development of learning communities

- They solve for pattern rather than try to address individual "problems"

- They recognize and direct change efforts toward nested systems at multiple levels of organization (classrooms within schools within districts within communities within societies, etc.)

- They build strategies on the understanding that it is in the nature of systems to maintain a dynamic balance (Outside intervention doesn't really "change" a system; it only disturbs it, creating an opportunity for reorganizing in a different, and not completely predictable, way.)


The Center for Ecoliteracy has identified and supported a number of schools and projects that embody processes and practices for effective education for sustainability.

In-depth articles about these exemplary schools and projects are available in our Publications section.

Exemplars include:

The Edible Schoolyard (ESY) at Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley has been recognized around the world for its organic garden, landscape, and kitchen, which are wholly integrated into the school's curriculum. Its goals are grounded in ecological concepts developed by the Center for Ecoliteracy, a supporter since ESY's beginnings. read more...

Laytonville High School and other participants in the North Coast Rural Challenge Network in northern California use project-based learning to help improve environmental quality and community vitality in their small rural towns. While benefiting the community, the projects teach students about living systems and ecological concepts such as lifecycles, feedback mechanisms, and sustainability. read more...

At Park School in Mill Valley, California parents, teachers, students, administrators, and neighbors share responsibilities for creating and maintaining a lively learning community. Park's curriculum integrates academics with gardening, restoration of a nearby creek, and community service. Participation in Center for Ecoliteracy workshops helped the staff network with like-minded educators and provided intellectual underpinnings for the school's developing educational philosophy. read more...

Rethinking School Lunch (RSL) is a comprehensive resource created by the Center for Ecoliteracy, based on five years of applying systems thinking to study school food systems. It explores the relationship of nutrition to students' well-being and their ability to learn; envisions lunch as part of an integrated curriculum using school gardens, kitchen classrooms, and local food systems as contexts for learning; examines the implications of solving for pattern; and addresses strategies for bringing its visions to reality. read more...

River of Words (ROW). ROW, a Center for Ecoliteracy grantee, engages students with their local watersheds through practicing close observation and expressing their connections to the environment in art and poetry. In affiliation with the Library of Congress, ROW annually conducts the world's largest youth poetry and art contest. Through its Watershed Curriculum ROW trains thousands of classroom teachers, park rangers, and youth workers to incorporate nature exploration and the arts in their programs. read more...

Mary E. Silveira School (MES) in San Rafael, California developed the EcoStars program to help students create a sense of community and to become "conscious designers of their habitat and stewards of their place." Elementary school children at MES have participated in designing, planning, building, and maintaining such projects as a pond habitat, school gardens, a composting system for the school cafeteria, and a guide for restoring a near-by canyon. Through these projects, they have learned, and practiced, ecological concepts, critical thinking, and problem solving. read more...

Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed (STRAW) practices hands-on, placed-based education through watershed restoration projects connected to students' classroom lessons. STRAW's growth from a project in one classroom to a consortium of schools, farms, and private and public agencies illustrates solving for pattern and such ecological concepts as networks, cycles, nested systems, and development. read more...

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