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About TRCA Education

As one of Canada’s largest providers of outdoor and experiential education, the TRCA is well positioned to be a champion of education for sustainable living. With its roots in the Conservation Education movement and partnership building, the TRCA has a rich fifty-year history in formal and non-formal education that today reaches 180,000 learners of all ages. TRCA programs encourage the growth and development of life-long learning, creative problem solving skills, ecological literacy, and foster commitment to action.

A closeup of a large spider sitting in the center of its' web.Our world is a web of relationships. Ecology, the economy and the human community interact in ways that we have just begun to truly understand. Our way of seeing the world has been shifting to reflect a more accurate view of how the world works - in networks of connections, rather than in discrete and separate compartments. This is called systems thinking, although it is also known as holistic thinking, or relational thinking.

In our old way of thinking, we used to make a distinction between natural and urban space - in our mind they were two very separate systems - but we can no longer afford to do so. Cities are growing at a phenomenal pace all over the world. So, if according to our old way of thinking, nature doesn't exist where the city does, we are in global trouble! We must begin to think of cities as living systems - places where both natural and human elements interact and thrive. Without this shift, sustainability may be a goal that continually eludes us. This is why Toronto and Region Conservation (TRCA) has named its 10 year strategy Moving Toward The Living City.

To reach our goals, TRCA Education believes that, as teachers and learners (of all ages), we need to have tools that will help us combine sound scientific knowledge and meaningful physical and emotional experiences into a deep understanding of the relationships in the world around us (this is called ecological literacy). If we are inspired to value The Living City through investigating and experiencing its many systems first hand, then we will be much more likely to change and shift our behaviours to sustainable ones. Providing these opportunities is the work of TRCA Education.

We strive to embrace these concepts in our goals, which in turn create a ripple effect in our practice as educators and learners.

TRCA Education for Sustainability Goals (Based on A Systems Thinking Curriculum for Learning in The Living City) Learning should be:

  • Image of children on a rivers edge watching teacher perform a water testLocally Based or "Grassroots": designed for or by a particular population which values their specific geographical, socio-cultural, economic and physical needs;

  • Relevant to Learners: personal meaning is powerful, for example, learning is much more likely to endure when students clean up a ravine they play in, rather than watch a video of a similar clean-up in a place they will never visit;Experiential: when engaged in learning programs, people retain about 10 per cent of what they read, 20 per cent of what they hear, 50 per cent of what they hear and see, 70 per cent of what they say (in presentations or answering questions etc.) and 90 per cent of what they do themselves;

  • Life-Long: the joy of learning doesn't end with graduation, but continues throughout a person's personal and professional life; and

  • Systems Thinking: is one important tool that can help learners and teachers simplify the relational and interconnected issues of our times, and thereby help them to identify effective, realistic and sustainable solutions.


Image of systems thinking process model

Systems Thinking:

What is Systems Thinking?

Have you ever noticed that there is a mismatch between the way the world is and the way we think about it? We tend to speak about things or events as if they were separate entities, when really they are connected to each other. For example, in the news we may hear about people accelerating desertification in the Sahel region of Africa because they are cutting down trees to make charcoal. In another story we may hear about the desperate poverty of those living in the Sahel because their governments are paying crippling debt payments to international banks. However, the story we might not hear is about the connection between a national debt and accelerated rates of desertification in these countries. Or we hear a story about congested highways, and then a story about the rise of asthma rates in children, but we might not hear a connecting story about how improved public transit would lead to fewer hospitalizations and lower health care costs due to a decrease in asthma rates. What this means is that we tend to think in boxes such as, "health", "environment", "transportation" or "poverty" when in reality we might be better off thinking in webs of interrelationships. Essentially, this is what systems thinking helps us to do. It is simply "a perspective, a language and a set of tools for describing and understanding the forces and interrelationships that shape the behaviour of systems."

(Excerpted from A Systems Thinking Curriculum for Learning in The Living City)


The Debate Around Sustainability

The concept of sustainability has been around for a long time. It was introduced in the early 1980s by Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, but it became more widely used after 1983, when the United Nations established the World Commission on the Environment and Development. The document that came out of the commission, Our Common Future, defined sustainable development as "Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

The commission, led by Gro Brundtland, was asked to propose a global agenda for addressing environmental problems. The team she put together interviewed people from all walks of life from all over the world, and found that there wasn't one environmental issue that was first and foremost in peoples' minds. People talked about living conditions, resources, population pressures, international trade, education and health. Environmental issues were related to all of these, but there was no clear division separating environmental, social and economic issues. Rather, all the problems were interconnected. Links between the environment, the economy and society caused problems in one area to affect other areas. As a result, the Brundtland Commission adopted this definition of sustainable development which emphasizes meeting needs, not just now, but in the future as well.

Since Our Common Future, there have been many critiques of sustainable development; one criticism is that the term is too often used improperly as a buzz-word to pacify or to make political gains by sounding environmentally concerned. In such cases, the need for education becomes apparent. Everyone, from politicians, to business leaders, to teachers, to professionals in many fields, from elementary to university students need to become literate in what true sustainable development is - development that values human rights, democracy and environmental protection - development that is just as much about saving nature's life as it is about saving human life.

Essential to the practical application of sustainable development is understanding the local community. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has suggested that the best practices of sustainability will be found in communities that have taken ownership of what sustainability is in that particular place. There are two main reasons for this relationship between sustainability and the local community. Fritjof Capra observes that "Sustainable communities evolve their patterns of living over time in continual interaction with other living systems, both human and non-human. Sustainability does not mean that things do not change; it is a dynamic process rather than a static state." Citizens of these sustainable communities are ecologically literate and are therefore much more capable of adapting social, economic and environmental practices and policies in a timely fashion when change does happen. Combined with the idea taken from grassroots development that place-based definitions of sustainability have a greater chance of capturing the imagination, inspiration or passion of local people, it is possible for "sustainability" to be more than just a buzz-word! The Living City is TRCA's vision of what sustainability means in the work of the organization.

(Excerpted from A Systems Thinking Curriculum for Learning in The Living City)

Moving Toward The Living City:

The Living City - What does it look like?

It's the year 2100, and our great-great-grandchildren enjoy living and working in a city region that is cleaner, greener and healthier than the one we inhabit today. Smog days no longer exist. The air in The Living City is clean. Buildings provide their own energy requirements and generate surplus energy for other community needs. Emissions in The Living City are minimized. Many people walk or bike to work, or use clean electric and fuel cell transit. The concept of "waste" is a historical curiosity to our great-great-grandchildren. In 2100 all products, from clothes to cars, are designed so that when their usefulness is over, their components are used again and again to make similar high-quality products. The Living City is a vibrant part of nature that values and protects diverse habitats for wildlife and in the process protects the sources of its own drinking water. Our great-great-grandchildren are grateful to us for pioneering the Eco Revolution, preserving our cultural heritage and for creating the conditions that make The Living City thrive.

(Excerpted from A Systems Thinking Curriculum for Learning in The Living City)

ecological literacy:

What is Ecological Literacy?

While Our Common Future defined sustainable development and gave us an "important moral exhortation", Fritjof Capra observes in his book, The Hidden Connections, that "this definition does not tell us anything about how to build a sustainable society." For this task we need ecological literacy. Just as relationships between words can be taught with literacy and relationships between numbers can be taught with numeracy, understanding how to make wise decisions with regard to the natural world can be taught with ecological literacy. As teachers and learners, we are required to engage three basic questions, 1) How do nature's systems work together? 2) How do we have an impact on these natural systems which in turn impact humans? and 3) How do we live within those systems more responsibly and sustainably? Capra makes the connection between ecological literacy and sustainability clear. "We do not need to invent sustainable communities from scratch but can model them after nature's ecosystems which are sustainable communities of plants, animals and microorganisms. Since the outstanding characteristic of the Earth household is its inherent ability to sustain life, a sustainable human community is one designed in such a manner that its ways of life, business, economy, physical structures and technologies do not interfere with nature's inherent ability to sustain life."

(Excerpted from A Systems Thinking Curriculum for Learning in The Living City)

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