Is Environmental Education in the Why, What & How of BC’s Draft Curriculum?

Sustainability.  Systems.  Ecology.

These are words you will not find in the Big Ideas of the Science and Social Studies Curriculum Drafts shared by the BC Ministry of Education.  Several environmental organizations have shared criticisms that the Draft Curriculum does not embed principles of ecological thinking, particularly in the scope and sequence of big ideas.

For example, the Sierra Club of BC writes in a letter to Education Minister Peter Fassbender, “It seems that opportunities to integrate environmental education and environmental learning principles have not been explicitly recognised in the new draft. In addition, the assigned grade level for some subject matter (for example, weather) reduces the opportunities for learners in older grades to fully engage with complex issues such as climate and biodiversity.”  The Sierra Club of BC has even created a petition to encourage the Ministry to, “to revise the proposed K to 9 curriculum to include environmental education “Big Ideas” in science and social studies for each grade level.”

Members of the Environmental Educators’ Provincial Specialist Association of BC (EEPSA) share among several concerns with the Draft Curriculum that, “Complexity and systems thinking need to be addressed more fully through a focus on ecology. A complexity/systems continuum should include age-appropriate, focused inquiry into such key concepts as habitat and communities in late primary, ecological principles in intermediate and ecosystems in upper intermediate.”

EEPSA  members also note, however, that the Draft Curriculum “gets it right” in encouraging greater emphasis on place-based education and connection to First Nations, as well as greater opportunities for teacher autonomy.

In my view, the inclusion of big ideas in the Draft Curriculum is the most exciting change I have seen in my ten years as an educator and my time as a learner in public education.  I am excited by the opportunities educators have to facilitate students connecting their learning across subjects and grades.  Opportunities to connect transferable concepts facilitates a systems thinking view of topics that recognizes the multi-dimensional complexities of issues that should not be viewed in isolation.  In the Goals & Rationale for Science, the Curriculum Draft notes, “We continually revise and refine our knowledge as we acquire new evidence. While maintaining our respect for evidence, we are aware that our scientific knowledge is provisional and is influenced by our culture, values, and ethics.”  Therefore, while the big ideas may not focus enough on key aspects of ecological education such as biodiversity, cycles, nested systems, and so on, the opportunities for teachers and students to connect learning across subjects and grades to create a network of learning that teaches learners about the world and who they are in it, is a marvellous opportunity to promote ecological thinking.  Even if the “what” is taught could be strengthened to promote environmental education, the structures are in place for “how” concepts are taught to support ecological thinking.

David Orr has noted however, that, “All education is environmental education,” meaning what is included in education teaches students as to whether they feel they are part of or apart from nature, as to what our society considers important and unimportant.  Therefore, it would be hard for any educator who is hoping to help students become caring stewards of the planet to not incorporate core ecological principles into what they teach as well as how they teach. The very nature of big ideas, defined by the Ministry as “broad and abstract,”generally timeless and transferable,” and that are, “central to an area of learning or across disciplines that links numerous understandings into a coherent whole,” suggests the development of big ideas, seemingly ecological or not, would be supported by and would support, core ecological principles, which are also timeless and transferable.

I think many of the Core Ecological Concepts  shared by the Center for Ecoliteracy are inherent in some of the big ideas of the Draft Curriculum, and if they are not, connections can be made to them.  These principles include learning about networks, nested systems, cycles, flows, development and dynamic balance.  While these concepts could be embedded more explicitly in the curriculum, perhaps as big ideas themselves, educators have the autonomy, and great opportunity with the organization of the Draft Curriculum, to promote ecological education and thinking.

Feedback can be given on BC’s Draft Curriculum here.



Resources sharing design principles for ecological education:

Environmental Learning and Experience:  An Interdisciplinary Guide, BC Ministry of Education

A Systems Perspective, Center for Ecoliteracy

Our Approach, Sea to Sky Outdoor School

Design Principles for Expeditionary Learning, Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound

Environmental Education Programs & Resources in BC, EEPSA

BC’s New Draft Curriculum – What can students do?

Draft_Cover“It’s not what you know, but what you can do with what you know that matters.”  You may have said this to someone or had someone say this to you; likely both.

It is a person’s abilities, or competencies, that operationalize knowledge and make it useful.

B.C.’s Draft Curriculumhas two new key and interrelated parts.  The first part, the “big ideas” of the curriculum, “link numerous understandings into a coherent whole.”[i]  (I wrote on this topic earlier here.)  As such, the big ideas frame the content and concepts students develop within and across subjects and grades. This part of the curriculum allows students to say, “I know,” or “I understand” something about a topic or idea they have studied.

The second major new part is the Core Competencies.  Students rely upon and further develop Core Competencies as they acquire knowledge and develop understandings.  This part of the curriculum allows students to say, “I can,” or “I am.”  In previous curriculum documents what students were to be able to do was described as “skills and processes” which were subject specific.  In the Draft Curriculum, subject-specific skills and processes are still identified – as Curricular Competencies – but overarching Core Competencies, which span all subjects in all grades, has been added.

The Core Competencies, the Ministry of Education asserts, “are vital to personal and social success, life-long learning, and to the changing workplace,”[ii] so a student’s development of these abilities are core to their quality of life.

So if Core Competencies are about what students can do, what should students leaving BICS after Grade Seven be able to do?

There are three Core Competencies:

“Thinking—the knowledge, skills, and processes we associate with intellectual development. It is through their competency as thinkers that students take subject-specific content and transform it into new understanding.”[iii]

This competency includes a student’s ability to be a critical thinker (inquisitive, aware of biases, honest, persistent), a creative thinker (curious, open-minded, enjoys learning and is willing to think divergently and tolerate complexity), and finally a reflective thinker (the ability to understand oneself as a learner).

“Communication—Communication competency encompasses the set of abilities that students use to impart and exchange information, experiences, and ideas, to explore the world around them, and to understand and effectively engage in the use of digital media.”[iv]

This competency goes beyond traditional understandings of literacy skills – reading and writing – and math skills.  It includes exchanging information, experiences and ideas through many modes such as written language, spoken language, movement, body language, images and symbols.  It also includes digital literacy, which includes accessing, evaluating, and using digital information as well as creating and using digital content in an ethical and effective way.


Personal and Social—Personal and social competency is the set of abilities that relate to students’ identity in the world, both as individuals and as members of their community and society.  Personal and social competency encompasses the abilities students need to thrive as individuals, to understand and care about themselves and others, and to find and achieve their purposes in the world. Personal and social competency is a responsibility the school system shares with families and communities.”[v]

This includes developing a sense of personal awareness and responsibility which is to understand and take responsibility for one’s actions and make constructive and ethical decisions with regards to their personal and social behaviour.  Finally, it includes social awareness and responsibility which is, “the ability to cooperate and collaborate with others, empathize and appreciate the perspective of others, and create and maintain healthy relationships with one’s family, community and society.”[vi]

BICS’ School Growth Plan, described by Principal Jennifer Pardee here, explains our school’s head and heart goals which align well with the Thinking as well as Personal and Social competencies.  As the Core Competencies involve all subjects and grade levels, they will likely continue to be at the heart of decision making for future school goals.  Continuing with our school’s current goals as well as examining strategies and tactics that support other aspects of the competencies will be important so that all BICS students can confidently say, “I can” and “I am” to the competencies described.


BICS Growth Plan Focus – 2013-2014

The key to these competencies though is not what students can do by the end of Grade Seven because that is not where their learning ends.  A more important assessment is how well prepared and interested students are for further learning; for life-long learning.


More Information:

  •          Click here to see a narrated tour of BC’s Draft Curriculum.
  •          Click here for more information on Big Ideas.



[i]BC Ministry of Education, “Glossary of Terms”:

[ii] BC Ministry of Education, “Competencies”:

[iii]BC Ministry of Education, “Defining Cross-Curricular Competencies”:

[iv] BC Ministry of Education, “Defining Cross-Curricular Competencies”:

[v] BC Ministry of Education, “Defining Cross-Curricular Competencies”:

[vi] BC Ministry of Education, “Defining Cross-Curricular Competencies”:

You Keep What You Make

Just before Spring Break, students in outside45 built canoe paddles under the guidance of Ian Magrath, master craftsman and husband of BICS teacher Laura Magrath.


Photo: Laura Magrath

Students were visibly and justifiably proud of their creations:  They understood that their paddle was unique because of their efforts in shaping it and they appreciated the aesthetic and practical value of their paddles.  It was evident to me that students planned to keep their paddles for a lifetime.  I can think of few other material things for which this is true.

It occurred to me that people typically keep what they make and I began to think about how true this is of learning.

If students are able to construct meaning and shape their understanding, they are more likely to “keep” their learning than were information simply told to them.  This construction of learning goes beyond the transmission model of education where information is transmitted from teacher/textbook/website/documentary to the student to a transactional or transformational approach to learning.[i]

In transactional learning, students do not simply adopt the knowledge of the transmitter but construct their own meaning through seeking various perspectives, problem solving, as well as considering their experiences to draw their own conclusions and develop understandings.   In transformational learning, the learning experience may shape the student’s perspective on a topic or even their worldview and transform the way they approach and synthesize future learning.  I have described these three approaches in more detail here.

In October 2013, the BC Ministry of Education released a new Draft Curriculum[ii] for Kindergarten to Grade 9 for most elementary and middle school subjects.  The curriculum is organized in such a way that teachers and students can connect learning from subject to subject and from grade to grade in a way where students can construct a story of their learning.

How is this done?

The new curriculum is organized around four to six “big ideas” for each subject in each grade.  In some cases, the big ideas are the same or very similar across many grades.

Big ideas, according to the Ministry of Education, are “statements that are central to one’s understanding in an area of learning.  A big idea is broad and abstract. It contains two or more key concepts. It is generally timeless and is transferable to other situations.”  I have shared one big idea in the Science curriculum from Kindergarten to Grade 7.

Grade Big Ideas from Science related to Life Science
Kindergarten The basic needs of plants and animals are observable through their features.
Grade One Living things have features and behaviours that help them survive.
Grade Two All living things have a life cycle that includes birth, growth, reproduction, and death.
Grade Three Classification organizes diverse organisms into groups based on their characteristics.
Grade Four Living things sense and respond to stimuli in their environment.
Grade Five Living things are comprised of cells, tissues, organs, and organ systems.
Grade Six Multicellular organisms rely on internal systems to survive and interact with their environment.
Grade Seven The theory of evolution by natural selection provides an explanation for the diversity of living things.


The scope and sequence of these big ideas allows students to develop increasingly complex understandings of living things, from observation of features to a theory on how they adapted these features.  As noted above, big ideas are timeless and transferable to other situations so that the learning in Kindergarten Science can be related to learning in other subjects.

An example:

Imagine a student learning about the Social Studies Grade Five big idea:  “The development of natural resources has shaped the economy of different regions of Canada.”  By observing the resources humans extract, students learn about the current needs and wants of humans that these resources fulfill.  This understanding can be linked to the big idea in Kindergarten Science:  “The basic needs of plants and animals are observable through their features.”  In Kindergarten, the needs are observable through the organism’s features; in Grade Five, the basic and not-so-basic needs and wants of humans are observable through their resources.

Through these connections, big ideas allow learners to deeply understand concepts rather than try to memorize a broad array of content.  In my experience both as a teacher and learner, people do well at retaining and making connections with their understandings of concepts but content is more easily forgotten.  In this way, big ideas – developed with content knowledge – are useful for future learning; unstructured content far less so.  Teachers and learners are less likely to connect discrete information from subject to subject and from grade to grade.  But it is possible to connect big ideas – there are only 4-6 per subject for each grade – to other subjects horizontally and other grades vertically.  This creates an opportunity for teachers and schools to help students think holistically about a topic, and in great depth.

There will be no guide for teachers to follow in connecting curriculum from one subject to another and one grade to another.   The curriculum is left intentionally open-ended so that learning, while focused and purposeful, can be personalized and contextualized to schools, classrooms, and students.  After all, the intent is for students, with structure and guidance, to construct their own understandings of big ideas and connect their understandings to other areas of the curriculum and their lives beyond school.

It will be the job of educators and students to not only understand the big ideas of their subjects and current grade, but to understand how these big ideas relate to different subjects in different grades as well as life beyond school.  Doing so is complex work but it is also a great opportunity to connect learning so that students can construct their understanding of the world, and who they are in it.


[i]John P. Miller, Whole Child Education, some of which is available here

[ii] For a narrated tour of the online draft curriculum, click here.