Monday, August 10, 2009

Ecoliteracy - An Interview with Lisa Bennett

Lisa Bennett is the communications director for the Center for Ecoliteracy. She is also a former fellow at Harvard University's Center on Press, Politics, and Public Policy in the John F. Kennedy School of Government, and is currently writing a book about parents and global warming.

What is the mission of the Center for Ecoliteracy?

Our mission is education for sustainable living. We provide expertise, inspiration, and support to the immensely hopeful and vital schooling for sustainability movement that is rising among a growing number of public and independent schools in the U.S.

We’re committed to this for two reasons: First, because schooling for sustainability is grounded in ecological knowledge and hands-on experiences in the natural world—and this kind of schooling inherently stimulating, relevant, and alive. It makes education exciting again.

Second, schooling for sustainability is a promising answer to our many environmental challenges. Addressing climate change, the end of cheap energy, and other issues, after all, will require citizens who can think ecologically. And where else can young people be prepared for this but at school?

What services do you provide for schools?

We offer a wide range of services, depending on what a particular school needs. In fact, our work typically begins with identifying the appropriate starting point for each school. Usually, this tends to be the theme or pathway most people in that school community care about. It might, for example, be around food, gardens, the campus, community, or larger curriculum.

We offer seminars that attract people from around the United States and many other countries, and books, such as Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World and Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability, which will be available in September 2009.

We also offer curriculum audits, coaching for teaching and learning, in-depth curriculum development, school sustainability report cards, and technical assistance. You can find more information at

What kinds of schools do you typically work with?

We have worked with hundreds of schools, both public and independent, and seen extraordinary successes in almost every setting imaginable. The article, “Greening a K-12 Curriculum,” describes how we worked with one school that sought to integrate sustainability education throughout its entire curriculum. (See

Why is sustainability an important concept for an elementary school student? Shouldn’t they spend their time on reading and math instead?

The good news is that this is not an either-or choice. That is, schooling for sustainability is not another “add on” that teachers must somehow squeeze into their day. Rather, it is a richly creative approach to education that allows teachers to integrate an ecological shift in perspective into subjects ranging from art and English to science and mathematics.

To support this shift, the Center for Ecoliteracy offers a framework called Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability (also the title of our new book!) This is grounded in four guiding principles, which can be applied in a single classroom or entire K-12 school:

1. Nature Is Our Teacher
2. Sustainability Is a Community Practice
3. The Real World Is the Optimal Learning Environment
4. Sustainable Living Is Rooted in a Deep Knowledge of Place

I love the statement that food is an organizing principle for encouraging ecological understanding. It certainly brings ecology from the conceptual level to the practical, meaningful level. Can you explain this more fully?

Food is so central to human survival and experience that it can be a pathway for integrating nearly any subject—science, health, history, social studies, geography, art, economics. Nutrition education makes more sense when studied in the context of how nature provides.

How we grow, process, transport, market, prepare, and dispose of food is critical to the central issues of sustainable living: resource use, energy, pollution, water and soil conservation. Food serves as an ideal entry point for understanding the interrelations of such world issues as hunger, trade policy, energy use, and climate change.

Students can track the sources of the food in their lunches and calculate the resources and energy used to bring it to them. They can research what types of foods would be available to them if they were to adopt a regional “hundred-mile diet”—eating only food grown within a hundred-mile radius in order to emphasize fresh and seasonal ingredients, support local agriculture, and reduce the energy and expense needed to preserve and ship food over long distances.

You advocate education of the head, hands and heart. Why not just the head, as most schools focus on and test?

As our cofounder and executive director, Zenobia Barlow says, "We know from considerable experience that human beings struggle with cognitive dissonance, which means that we can uphold an idea or a value, while simultaneously acting in ways that are inconsistent with that idea or value, causing us to resolve those dissonances or rationalize them. Our current lifestyles are an example in terms of consumption and its implications. Left to the head alone, we are in trouble as a species."

Sustainability is also a practice that involves skills. Addressing environmental problems like climate change requires complex thinking and changes in behavior. For example, look at how the Southern Hemisphere—or the people on the other side of the tracks, so to speak—is forced to live with the consequences of our decisions to place toxic dumpsites or ship toxic waste to their backyards. To fully grasp this issue, one needs to genuinely care about who is downstream, and then act on it. The Head alone won't get us there.

Furthermore, living sustainably implies living in community. It's not for the faint-hearted or the single person dwelling in isolation. Living sustainably involves relationship, communication, and cooperation skills. We can’t achieve mastery by reading or philosophizing about them.

If you read the brain research on how people learn, it's multi-modal. Talking at people about ideas isn't a very effective education strategy. People learn by actively constructing their knowledge base—and that is best accomplished by engagement, grappling with real problems.

The people who dreamed up nuclear energy or bombs without having figured out what to do with the toxic waste exemplify what happens when education primarily engages the head.

Humans have a range of competencies. Education poses the challenge of responding to the vast spectrum of human capabilities. Remember the notion of "I think therefore I am." That was the Cartesian logic of a few centuries ago. We need an updated education model, don't you think?

It seems Ecoliteracy takes on not only the classroom, but the school at large, involving the staff and community as well. It demonstrates that schools are not just institutions for students learning, but, as you put it, they should be a healthy network of relationships that include everyone. What is the school sustainability report card and what is done to help schools achieve good marks on it?

Absolutely! Because, as we say in our Smart by Nature principles, sustainability is a community practice. That is, sustainability depends on a healthy network of relationships that includes all members of the community.

When educators, parents, trustees, and other members of the school community make decisions and act collaboratively, they demonstrate sustainability as a community practice. School communities also have the opportunity to model sustainable practice through the ways in which they provision themselves with food, energy, and other basic needs, and how they relate to the larger communities of which they are a part.

The Center for Ecoliteracy sustainability report card is a broad assessment of schools' sustainability policies and practices. It is conducted through the lens of campus, curriculum, community, and school food systems.

Tell me about Smart by Nature.

Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability a new book from the Center for Ecoliteracy and our senior editor Michael K. Stone. Available in September 2009 from U.C. Press and, it portrays the hopeful new sustainability movement that is growing among public and independent schools in the U.S.

Endorsed by Daniel Goleman, Alice Waters, the National Wildlife Federation and others, Smart by Nature offers a compelling framework for schooling for sustainability that is based on nearly 20 years of experience in schools. With its roots in systems thinking and whole-school change, this framework is organized around the four central principles I mentioned earlier: Nature is our teacher; Sustainability is a community practice; The real world is the optimal learning environment; and Sustainable living is rooted in a deep knowledge of place.

This book also offers concrete strategies for greening the campus and curriculum, conducting environmental audits, rethinking school food, and transforming schools into models of sustainable community.

Smart by Nature is also the name of our larger initiative that is dedicated to supporting the schooling for sustainability movement nationwide. You can learn more by signing up for our newsletter at

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