Putting the Smart by Nature Principles into Practice

Educational consequences of applying the Smart by Nature guiding principles.

Putting the Smart by Nature Principles into Practice

The four guiding principles of the Center for Ecoliteracy's Smart by Nature® framework, described in our book Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability, have many implications for educators, as seen in this excerpt.

To envision sustainable human communities, we look for lessons derived from 3.8 billion years of natural research and development. We can model human societies and institutions, including schools, after the patterns and processes found in sustainable ecosystems, and learn from the practices of traditional societies that have sustained themselves for centuries. (Inviting nature to be our teacher does not mean turning sentimental or softheaded about the beneficence of kindly Mother Nature; this mother practices tough love, and teaches limits as well as possibilities.)

Some consequences of accepting nature as our teacher:

Ecological literacy is at the center. Understanding how nature sustains ecosystems requires basic ecological knowledge. We need, says Fritjof Capra, to teach our children (and our political and corporate leaders) fundamental facts of life. For example:

• Matter cycles continually through the web of life
• The energy driving the ecological cycles flows from the sun
• Diversity assures resilience
• One species' waste is another species' food
• Life did not take over the planet by combat but by networking (as suggested by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan)

Integrating the curriculum. Focusing on ecological principles integrates teaching across disciplines and between grades — an antidote to the fragmentation and narrowing that often result from standardized testing and state mandates.  Some teachers fear that teaching sustainability will just add another responsibility onto overfull workloads. In fact, tying subjects together in ways that make sense to students can make teaching more rewarding.  

Systems thinking. John Muir famously wrote, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." In education we often try to unhitch everything in order to study the separate parts. In fact, individual "things" (plants, people, schools, watersheds, economies) can't be fully understood apart from their larger systems, which means thinking in terms of relationships, connectedness, and context.

In systems thinking, emphases shift: from the parts to the whole, from objects to relationships, from structures to process, from contents to patterns. For instance, a nutrition lesson that tracks meals from farm to cafeteria can map the relationships between food choices, the health of local agriculture, the environmental costs of shipping food over thousands of miles, and impacts on the livelihoods of farmers halfway around the world.

Solving for pattern. Author/farmer/philosopher Wendell Berry contrasts bad solutions — which solve for single purposes and act destructively on the patterns in which they are contained — with good solutions, which are in harmony with their larger patterns and result in ramifying sets of solutions.  Farm-to-school programs, for example, beget other solutions: they improve health, teach about nutrition, support small-scale farmers, and keep money within the local economy. School districts planning new buildings save resources, energy, and money through integrated design processes in which educators, architects, engineers, and contractors collaborate to create facilities whose parts work together as systems.

Healthy by nature. It shouldn't be surprising that nature teaches solutions that fit human bodies, which evolved for million years before industrialization. Natural daylighting improves health and performance. Children surrounded by more nature — even if just a view out a window — experience less anxiety and depression and fewer behavioral conduct disorders.  Fresh, seasonal, unprocessed foods are better choices for school meals. Children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and other problems improve rapidly when artificial coloring and preservatives are removed from their diets.  


Many ecological principles are variations on a single fundamental pattern: nature sustains life by creating and nurturing communities. Animals, plants, and microorganisms live in webs of mutual dependence. People require each other for emotional as well as physical succor. Qualities that keep natural ecosystems vibrant and resilient, such as diversity and interdependence, shape healthier schools and other human communities as well.

The community is a teacher. A healthy network of relationships that includes all its members makes a community more sustainable. When teachers, students, parents, trustees, and other community members decide and act collaboratively, students practice skills of leadership and community decision-making that they will need in order to be effective agents of change.

Systems change. Understanding change in living systems informs efforts to reform schools, districts, and other social systems. Large-scale changes that have great impact begin as small, local actions, says systems change theorist Margaret Wheatley. "While they remain separate and apart, they have no influence beyond their locale. However, if they become connected, exchanging information and learning, their separate efforts can suddenly emerge as very powerful changes, able to influence a large system."

Nested systems. Schools nest within local communities, economies, and ecosystems. David W. Orr proposes a standard for designers that could apply to any nested system: Think upstream to the wells, mines, forests, farms, and manufacturers from which materials are drawn. Look downstream to the effects on the climate and health of people and ecosystems. If there is ugliness at either end, you cannot claim success, regardless of the artfulness of what you make.

The "hidden curriculum." The "curriculum" encompasses everywhere at the school that children learn. Schools teach — whether consciously or not — by how they treat their neighbors, invest their money, or provision themselves with food, energy, materials, and transportation. Their actions demonstrate their understanding of their relationship with the rest of the world, their regard for students and their health, and what they really believe about sustainability.


Whether restoring a species' habitat, tending a school garden, or designing a neighborhood recycling program, students learn more when their actions have meaning and matter to someone else. In schooling for sustainability, students connect with the natural world and human communities through project-based learning, which inspires them to learn in order to accomplish something they care about. They also learn that they can make a difference.

Seeing nature firsthand. Children experience, explore, and understand nature's basic patterns — the web of life, the cycles of matter, the flow of energy — through immersion in the natural world. They encounter nature in the rich, messy ways in which it exists, and understand nature's rhythms and the time scales at which natural events occur, when they plant and harvest in the garden or watch a creekside they have restored come back to life. Students who learn nature's principles in gardens score better in science, reading and writing, and independent thinking.

Buildings as teachers. Designed and operated with imagination, a campus can act as both the classroom and the lesson, as a laboratory for exploring solutions to environmental problems, a model of sustainable practice, and an inspiration to the surrounding community and other institutions.

School-community partnerships. Students learn what their communities value by partnering with people who were living there before they arrived and who will be there long after they graduate. By working closely with community members, students learn about community resources and how to use them.


When people acquire a deep knowledge of a particular place, they care about what happens to the landscape, creatures, and people in it. When they understand its ecology and diversity, the web of relationships it supports, and the rhythm of its cycles, they develop appreciation and a sense of kinship with their surroundings. Place-based education is fundamental to schooling for sustainability. Places known deeply are deeply loved, and well-loved places have the best chance to be protected and preserved for future generations.

The world reveals itself in its fullness. "A great deal of what passes for knowledge" in contemporary education, says David Orr, "is little more than abstraction piled on abstraction, disconnected from tangible experience, real problems, and the places where we live and play." These actual places, he continues, "are laboratories of diversity and complexity, mixing social functions and natural processes."  Even "common" settings — a schoolyard, a residential neighborhood — can yield rich experiences.

Bridging disciplines and for looking at the world as people experience it. A "Golden Gate" course at Marin Academy in California combines natural and human history and literature, geology, history, and ecology, and helps students discover what it means to be members of a biotic community. Ninth-graders at Lawrenceville School in New Jersey read letters written by Aldo Leopold when he was a student there, and then trace the trails he followed.

Local answers to environmental problems. Whether through buying locally, removing invasive species, or creating decentralized energy systems, relocalization is becoming a powerful strategy for sustainability. "What has served our species well in the past could serve us well in the future if we only relinquish the modern tendency to impose universal solutions upon the infinite variability of both people and the planet. Local diversity lies at the heart of humanity's biological and cultural success," write educators David Gruenewald and Gregory Smith.  Students practice this strategy when finding solutions to issues on campus and in local communities.

Getting from here to there. "I'm anxiously awaiting a good explanation why it's important for second graders to know the order of the planets from Mercury to Pluto," writes Antioch New England professor and place-based education researcher David Sobel. "Wouldn't it be more useful to develop a solid understanding of the geography of the town the second grader lives in?"  A movement from close and familiar to far and strange, he notes, mirrors the development of children's minds.


Smart by Nature® - Schooling for Sustainability


Adapted from Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability, by Michael K. Stone/Center for Ecoliteracy (Watershed Media, 2009)