Ocean Literacy: A Conslusion

For the last eight weeks we have been discussing the concepts of ocean literacy, a framework for formal and informal education to help us better understand the ocean’s influence on us and our influence on the ocean. Our series wraps up this week as we challenge the existing methods for teaching and learning about the ocean, suggesting that traditional curricula could be re-examined and multi-disciplinary approaches explored so that we may begin to understand the ocean as the defining feature of our planet and the influence it has on all things living on earth.

A vital living natural system demands a vital living educational system to explain the vital living social implications of its value, as addition to our well being at every level. What has interested me about this discussion is the increasing revelation of scale. Conventionally, we approach education through data: the facts of history and science, the explication of philosophical ideas and works of art. We explore the record of inquiry and discovery as a map of knowledge that can be measured, parsed, interpreted, and understood. The ocean has been presented through the disciplines of geology, biology, physics, and engineering — more a didactic construct of many tiny functional parts than a dynamic flow of movements and processes, of discoveries and their consequences. When we speak of the ocean as a global connector, we can also describe it as the historical routes of trade and migration, and by so doing amplify its substance as a system of exchange of goods, people, and ideas. Thus, we have started small and ended large and that extent reveals a scale of awareness that may have surprised many, certainly challenged the existing methods for teaching and learning about the ocean.

Another provocation possible is the suggestion that we completely change the order of approach. That is, move from large to small, start at the largest possible human implication, relationship, and consequence and move downward in increments to reach the structure of the component parts. Let me offer two examples:

First, what if we were to begin our lesson with a powerful, relevant, essential experience of which every student would already be aware? Let’s start with salt. We salt our eggs, our French fries, the many dishes we love, and we have an inherent visceral knowledge of its meaning through taste. What is salt? Where does it come from? How is it made? By whom? What is it made of? What elements and by what process? How do we know this? What is the scientific process to get us to this understanding? In this reversed passage, from large to small, we have moved from the known to the unknown, to be explored and learned in smaller and smaller detail, with perhaps a more immediate and deeper meaning. There is such an ocean curriculum in Africa that is organized in just this way, and, incidentally, all the illustrations incorporate African figures and context to underscore the immediate relation and relevance to the students and their surroundings.

A second example of change in the conventional order is to not present the ocean simply as a natural system at all. At the World Ocean Observatory, we have changed the definition of the ocean from a natural system apart to an integrated global process that begins at the mountain-top and descends to the abyssal plain, transcends the established focus on marine species and habitat, and relates the ocean to climate, fresh water, food, energy, health, trade, transportation, science, research, finance, planning, policy, governance, international relations, community and regional development, and cultural traditions. This is a transformation assumption that upsets the educational order, confronts existing structures, and assumes alternative behaviors to be successful. Traditional curricula must therefore be re-examined, singular disciplines must meld into multi-disciplinary content and team teaching, and other subjects, including civics, history, and art be allowed to inform the lesson plans and activities. Technology has a key role to play as a means to research, manage data, communicate results, and share knowledge of the ocean as a determining force in the educational process.

So, what is ocean literacy? The literate Citizen of the Ocean understands the pervasive influence of all things ocean on all things human, the full range of its contribution to our health and welfare worldwide, and the imperative to conserve that understanding and give back for the benefit of all mankind.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.