Belonging to the Biosphere

1 The biosphere

Fig 1  Different parts of planet Earth

The biosphere is made up of parts of Earth where life exists i.e. it includes all the planet’s ecosystems. The biosphere extends from the deepest root systems of trees, to the dark environments of ocean trenches, to lush rainforests, high mountaintops, and transition zones where ocean and terrestrial ecosystems meet.  The presence of living organisms of any type defines the biosphere.  Humans are an integral part of the biosphere, and human activities have important impacts on it.  The burning of fossil fuels and the growth of animal agriculture has led to the accumulation of large amounts of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases trap heat in the biosphere causing global warming. In turn, global warming drives climate instability.  Some of the changes humans have brought to the biosphere are extremely dangerous, such as the atmospheric build-up of carbon dioxide, and pollution of fresh and salt waters, soil and air. 

Earth’s atmosphere is wafer thin when compared with the size of the planet, with about 50% of the atmospheric mass existing in a layer which extends less than 6km out from the surface. The rest of the atmosphere stretches up to about 680km, but  gets progressively thinner as it gets further from Earth’s surface. The distance from the Earth’s core to the outer reaches of the atmosphere is 6,550km. All animal and plant life exists in a layer at most 30km thick.  This a comparatively small amount of space within which humankind has developed a diversity of cultural, socio-economic and political characteristics. Nevertheless, people wherever and however they live also have similar and specific problems that can be addressed in a common way.The ‘Man and the Biosphere’ programme  (MAB) is an intergovernmental scientific programme that aims to establish a scientific basis for enhancing the relationship between people and their environments. It combines the natural and social sciences with a view to improving human livelihoods and safeguarding natural and managed ecosystems.  Thus, MAB provides an international educational setting to promote innovative approaches to economic development that are socially and culturally appropriate and environmentally sustainable.  The  MAB programme was formally launched in 1971 as an intergovernmental scientific initiative to improve the relationship between people and their environment, by proposing interdisciplinary research, education and  professional training in natural resources management.  Over the years it has developed a learning platform based on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), or Global Goals, which is a collection of 17 interlinked targets designed to be a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.  The SDGs were set up in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly and are intended to be achieved by the year 2030. They are included in a UN Resolution called the 2030 Agenda or what is colloquially known as Agenda 2030. The SDGs were developed in the Post-2015 Development Agenda as the future global development framework to succeed the Millennium Development Goals, which ended in 2015.

No matter how it is expanded, the major pillar of cultural ecology is the biosphere and humankind’s interactions within it.  We belong to the biosphere and everything we do has an impact upon it.  Being but one product of its evolution and are absolutely dependent upon it for day to day survival.  

All cultures, especially those in the transition zones of small islands and narrow coastal strips, are highly vulnerable to climate change, the impacts of which cause poverty, natural disasters, depopulation, loss of traditional culture and the detrimental effect of invasive species. These changes alter the balance of marine and terrestrial island ecosystems and cause irreversible loss of biodiversity.  This is why communities in transition zones make good educational models for understanding how to live sustainably. 

Established in 2012, the World Network of Island and Coastal Biosphere Reserves aims to study, implement and disseminate island and coastal strategies to preserve biodiversity and heritage, promote sustainable development, and adapt to and mitigate the transition effects of climate change. Its two technical headquarters coordinate the network and work together at the global level: the office in the island of Jeju (Republic of Korea) focuses on climate change issues while the other in Menorca (Spain) specializes in sustainable development. This network is formed by the representatives of twenty islands and coastal biosphere reserves around the world and is open to all islands and coastal biosphere reserves that want to join it.  The World Biosphere Network is a potential vehicle for organising an educational democracy to implement the 2030 International agenda for sustainability.  This was the target of the young people who wrote a young person’s Agenda 21 arising from the 1992 Environment Summit.

2 The pedagogy

Fig 2 Knowledge silos

Odi Selomane, co-author of ‘Agenda 2030 Through the Complexity Lens’, says the major challenges currently facing the world, including persistent poverty, rising inequalities, biodiversity loss, and climate change, are increasingly recognized as the emergent outcomes of social and ecological interactions.  Classical learning ‘ologies’, are not suitable to handle this cross curricular complexity.  They are isolated information silos designed by examination boards for teachers to feed facts into passive learners, turning them into narrow specialists.  Silo learning is not suitable for understanding how to define, study and manage world development where the aim of education is to answer the question, How does an individual make a place in the world?.  

Actually, there are numerous opportunities for learners to build their own body of cross disciplinary knowledge as a mindset for living sustainably.  The central cross-curricular theme in education for sustainable living is cultural ecology which, as a knowledge framework, can be structured in many different ways by individuals as personal statements of how they see the cultural relationship between themselves and  the environment.  Therefore the pedagogy linking humankind with the biosphere entails the use of digital mind mapping apps with the intent of enhancing the use of mapping in both personal and collaborative settings. In this context, a mind map is a graphical learning tool that allows users to create and share visual representations of things like lectures, notes, and Internet research; in fact, assembling a representation of the individual’s mindset. The purpose is to establish an educational environment where learners can determine their own goals, learning paths, processes, and products. The learner is at the center of the learning process, rather than the teacher or the curriculum.  This has been labelled as heutagogical oriented learning.  The purpose is to establish an environment where learners can determine their own goals, learning paths, processes, and products. 

Learning is a lifelong progression.  As a process it should stretch and challenge the more able and talented learners and enable them to progress along the continuum of learning at a pace appropriate to them.  Instilling learners with passion and pride in themselves, their communities and their country is a central goal.  Learners should be grounded in an understanding of the identities, landscapes and histories that come together to form their homeland. This will allow them to develop a strong sense of their own identity and well-being, and develop an understanding of others’ identities and make connections with people, places and histories elsewhere and across the world. 

3  Progression

Fig 3 Educational progression by self directed learning

As learners progress as individuals assembling their own body of knowledge, they should become increasingly effective. This includes increasingly successful approaches to self-evaluation, identification of their next steps in learning and more effective means of self-regulation. In particular;

  • they become increasingly able to seek appropriate support and to identify sources of that support. 
  • they ask more sophisticated questions and find and evaluate answers from a range of sources.
  • they become increasingly effective at learning in a social and work-related context.  

A number of conceptual models of progression exist. The following prescription summarises the process as it is visualised in a new curriculum for Wales. 

No single model has been employed in the creation of the descriptions of learning. Instead, teachers should be mindful of a variety of ways in which learners may progress at different points in the learning journey, and over different lengths of time, as they help students to create and develop their personal curriculum.  Progression in learning is seen as a process of increasing sophistication, rather than covering a growing body of content. Progression is individual to each learner. It requires space for diversion, reinforcement and reflection as a learner’s thinking develops over time to new levels.   Learners should be able to set goals, make decisions and monitor interim results. They should be able to reflect and adapt, as well as manage time, people and resources. They should be able to check for accuracy and be able to create different types of value.

The development of these skills allows learners to work across disciplines, providing them with opportunities for both synthesis and analysis. There is particular potential for innovation in making and using connections between different disciplines and areas.  The role of the teacher is to support learners to develop as ambitious, capable learners who:

  • set themselves high standards and seek and enjoy challenge
  • are building up a body of knowledge and have the skills to connect and apply that knowledge in different contexts
  • are questioning and enjoy solving problems
  • can communicate effectively in different forms and settings, using both Welsh and English
  • can explain the ideas and concepts they are learning about
  • can use number effectively in different contexts
  • understand how to interpret data and apply mathematical concepts
  • use digital technologies creatively to communicate, find and analyse information
  • undertake research and evaluate critically what they find and are ready to learn throughout their lives to:
  • develop an appreciation of sustainable development and the challenges facing humanity
  • develop awareness of emerging technological advances
  • be supported and challenged so that they are prepared to confidently meet the demands of working in uncertain situations, as changing local, national and global contexts result in new challenges and opportunities for success
  • be afforded the space to generate creative ideas and to critically evaluate alternatives – in an ever-changing world, flexibility and the ability to develop more ideas will enable learners to consider a wider range of alternative solutions when things change
  • build their resilience and develop strategies which will help them manage their well-being – they should be encountering experiences where they can respond positively in the face of challenge, uncertainty or failure
  • learn to work effectively with others, valuing the different contributions they and others make – they should also begin to recognise the limitations of their own work and those of others as they build an understanding of how different people play different roles within a team.

4  Mind mapping

Fig 4 Advantages of mind mapping in self directed learning

Mind mapping software is a set of graphical tools for organizing and representing a body of knowledge.  It is a collection of concepts  arising from a central idea, usually enclosed in circles or boxes of some type, and relationships between concepts and the central idea indicated by a connecting line linking two concepts.  The mind map represents a body of knowledge a learner is exploring.  The non-linear process of creating a mind map makes it an ideal medium for numerous creative activities that link branches of knowledge in new ways. Mind maps are especially useful to explore new concepts, record and take notes, reflect on one’s thought processes, communicate ideas quickly and collaboratively with others, and look for patterns when synthesizing information from existing knowledge frameworks.   Because mind maps reflect the structure of their author’s thought process on a given subject at a particular time, they are useful for creatively filling in “gaps” in a map as well as understanding the author’s holistic conception of a new problem domain.  Most importantly, others can interact with a map by adding branches or rearranging the entire structure.  Supporting real-time collaboration, facilitating pervasive storage of information, and affording dynamic content presentation are all features of digital mind maps that significantly improve the use of such systems to assemble a personal body of knowledge. 

To support real-time collaboration, International Classrooms Online (ICOL) is testing three web applications, Google Blogger, MindMeister and GoConqr, that provide instant feedback of user contributions and allows individuals and groups to contribute and provide feedback on mind maps more easily. The proposition is that digital mind mapping systems enable a dynamic browsing experience for the user, providing a summary of a knowledge system’s most important points and an adaptive layout that supports the user’s browsing intent.  ICOL’s goal is to build and evaluate a working implementation of the digital mind mapping experience to expand the possibilities of real-time networking of collaborative thinking about living sustainably and conservation management. The objective is to encourage the production of customized, digital versions of Agenda 2030, using online data and information about UNESCO’s Man and the Environment Programme.  

Fig 5  Mind map of ‘belonging to the biosphere

Go to the interactive version

5  Rescue Mission: Planet Earth

The starting point for ICOLs initiative is the book entitled Rescue Mission Planet Earth, an educational outcome of the Earth Summit, held in June 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, which was the largest meeting of world leaders ever.  Together these leaders created a document called AGENDA 21, a voluntary blueprint for saving Planet Earth.

Thousands of young people from nearly 100 countries worked together in an extraordinary effort to find out exactly what was agreed in this important document.  The highlight was the speech by 12 year old Severn Cullis-Suzuki, “Listen to the Children”.  At age 9, she founded the Environmental Children’s Organization (ECO), a group of children dedicated to learning and teaching other youngsters about environmental issues.  In 1992, at age 12, Cullis-Suzuki raised money with members of ECO to attend the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Along with group members Michelle Quigg, Vanessa Suttie, and Morgan Geisler, Cullis-Suzuki presented environmental issues from a youth perspective at the summit.

Rescue Mission: Planet Earth was designed, written and illustrated by young people to inspire children all over the world to join the rescue mission “to save our planet, our only home”.

Here is an extract from the foreword written by Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then Secretary-General, United Nations.

“I sincerely hope that this book will help children from all countries better to understand and appreciate this fragile world in which we live and to  dedicate themselves to do everything possible to protect and enhance this Earth”.

On International Earth Day, 1996 the United Nations Environment Program published ‘Taking Action: An environmental Guide for You and Your Family. and ‘Rescue Mission Planet Wales’ was launched’.  This in turn promoted The Schools and Community Agenda 21 Network (SCAN) sponsored by The Countryside Council for Wales, Dyfed County Council and Texaco. 

SCAN is now being promoted by the National Museum of Wales as a network of schools dedicated to recording climate change through the timing of flowering of spring bulbs.

Further developments of rescue mission involving young people are:

1  The publication of Climate Change: Take Action Now, by UNICEF was aimed at getting young people involved with climate change, with the following introduction;

The environment is precious and we should protect it like a mother hen protects its chicks. We should prevent deforestation, find solutions through actions that will prevent air pollution, and promote awareness to the people, particularly young people, who are tomorrow’s future.” Sarah Baikame, age 17, Cameroon

2  The establishment of the United Nations High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) was mandated in 2012 by the outcome document of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), “The Future We Want”. The format and organizational aspects of the Forum are outlined in General Assembly resolution 67/290.

3   The High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development is the central UN platform for the follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit on 25 September 2015.

6 Internet References

Digital mind mapping

Agenda 2030

Heutagogy Explained

Taking Action 1

Taking Action 2

Biosphere: Encyclopedia of Earth

Comments are closed.