The keys to a saner world

Environmental Coordinator-2

In years to come, people looking back will judge our education system by how well it equipped students o prevent a planet under stress from having a serious nervous breakdown.

The signs of stress are everywhere around us, from chaotic weather patterns, to water shortages, population growth, spreading deserts, species extinctions, the death of coral reefs, increasing illnesses, huge cities that are becoming dysfunctional — the list goes on.

And the future, with a population that will grow by at least half as much again before it can be stabilized, promises no let-up in pressure.

If there is such a breakdown, the success of anything else — be it globalization, corporate restructuring, political regrouping, or the so-called miracles of genetic engineering — will count for little.

The hope is that we learn to treasure the planet and, in doing so, find ways to relieve the stress. But treasuring needs understanding to be effective, and that means coming to terms with the diversities, interconnections, and complexities of the web of life that envelopes us. It means accepting that we are only part of the web, not its chief executive officer.

Building this understanding should now be the primary task of education. Build it, and the treasuring will follow.

But how, you ask? How can you teach science, or mathematics, or drama, in ways that simultaneously expand an understanding of ecosystem dependencies?

Richard Christie, the newly appointed coordinator of global and environmental education for the Toronto District School Board, has begun to answer that question. Working over the summer with Eleanor Dudar, the board’s environmental education officer, and a team of volunteers and paid consultants, he has produced the board’s first set of materials for teaching conventional subjects around environmental themes. He hopes similar materials can be produced for all grades from kindergarten to grade 12.

This first set of materials is for teaching grades three and four, over one term, in the combined subjects of social studies, drama, and science and technology.

Here’s one sample from the new materials. It asks the question: How many bears can live in this forest? The students are told that a mature black bear eats about 40 kilograms of food in a 10-day period of which nuts, berries, and plants each account for 10 kilograms, insects account for six kilograms, and meat for four kilograms.

Cards representing the food in differing quantities are scattered — for instance, a card representing five kilograms of nuts, and another representing two kilograms of insects —  but not enough to ensure the survival of all the bears in the exercise.

The students are divided into groups, told they are black bears, and asked to pick up as many cards as possible.

In the following discussion, the students will learn some bears don’t survive. They are expected to learn how plants and animals depend on each other, « to recognize that animals (and plants) live in specific habitats because they are dependent on those habitats,’’ and « to demonstrate an understanding of the concepts of habitat, and to identify the factors that could affect habitat.’’.

In another series of lessons students are called upon to « investigate the history of white pine forests in Ontario, identifying the area originally covered, calculating the amounts cut down, for what purposes, and how much is left, (and) to record, graph, and display the results.’’

They are also asked to « investigate and record the population of a given species of wildlife in an area of Canada over the years since the European pioneers settled.’’

The materials propose field trips, outline experiments, pose issues that can be analyzed through acting and dancing, and generally are so imaginative, and most important of all, so relevant, that to my mind, they’re the key to a saner world.

CORRECTION: Rod Thompson, executive officer for instruction at the Toronto board, and the person who appointed Christie, was formerly director of education for the East York board. Last week I incorrectly said he was from the Scarborough board.

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