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Biodiversity as a Bridge Between Nature Conservation Education and EfS

Number 23 - December 2001

A. Wals





Since the signing of the Convention on Biological Diversity, biodiversity seems to have become an important theme in science and society. Both the science education and the environmental education community are looking for ways to incorporate learning about (mostly science education) and learning for biodiversity (mostly environmental education) into their teaching and learning activities in both formal (mostly science education) and non-formal (mostly environmental education) education.

This integration proves to be quite a challenge to many educators, since the idea of biodiversity is rather fuzzy or ill-defined and refers to concepts that are equally fuzzy and open to a variety of interpretations (think of concepts like sustainable use and equitable distribution). For those who like crisp and clear concepts, with the same meaning in all circumstances and that can be somehow observed and measured, biodiversity proves to be a rather slippery concept that does not transfer easily or meaningfully to the minds of the learner. For those who promote learning on the edges - that is dissonance driven learning on the interface between sometimes conflicting meanings, interests, values, perceptions and so on – biodiversity is an excellent vehicle for teaching and learning.

One’s outlook on the role of education in essence determines whether biodiversity is a suitable theme for education. When education is viewed as the transfer of pre- and expert determined knowledge, insights, values and even prescriptions of the ‘right’ way of living, then concepts such as biodiversity and sustainability either are avoided or become narrowly defined doctrines and are essentially un-educational. However, when education is viewed as the process that guides learners in exploring new knowledge, insights and values and assisting them in determining their own pathways of living, concepts such as biodiversity and sustainability might be very educational. It is the latter view that emerged in a three year Dutch study on the environmental education potential of biodiversity (van Weelie and Wals 1999). [Figure 1 outlines a continuum between more traditional environmental education, that focussed on the change of individual behaviour and more emancipatory environmental education, and education for sustainability that focuses on human development and self-determined lifestyles (this figure is not available in the web version of this article. Please refer to printed copies of Roots - you can access back issues in several ways). ]

Stepping Stones for Making Biodiversity Meaningful

The three year Dutch study which included policy-makers, environmental educators, NGO-representatives, youth representatives, curriculum developers and secondary school teachers, resulted in six stepping stones for biodiversity education within the context of environmental education. The six stepping stones are presented in no particular order and are based on the work of van Weelie and Wals (1999).

Determining Perspective(s)

Determine pedagogical perspectives and translate them into general learning goals for the educational resource to be developed. Possible perspectives include: an ecological literacy perspective (focus ecological concepts, relationships, interdependencies for example); a ‘nature and self perspective’ (focus connecting with and discovering local biodiversity); and a ‘politics of nature perspective’ (focus on biodiversity far and near, equity issues, respect, international cooperation, treaties, action competence, etc).

Selecting Specific Themes and Contexts

Select themes and contexts that are suitable for the intended ways of learning, and complementary to the general learning goals in the given educational setting. Exemplary themes include: 'Backyard Biodiversity'  (focus on diversity of species in the home, school, neighborhood and community); 'Design a Habitat' (focus on the conditions and requirements for species to thrive, survive or take a dive); 'Biosphere not Biosfear' (focus on the wonders and importance of nature, dynamic equilibrium, self healing capacity, interdependencies, etc.); 'The Last Dodo…So What?' (focus on extinction, ethics and values); and 'Shaping Biodiversity (focus on people’s capacities to positively shape biodiversity, action competence, consumerism, citizenship, etc.).

Analysing Meanings of Biodiversity

Analyse the meaning of biodiversity as it is used in authentic contexts (e.g. politics, science and the media) relevant to the educational resource to be developed using a simple working definition: Biodiversity represents variability (v) in biological entities (b) in a specific space (s) at a specific moment in time (t) (Van Weelie and Wals 1999). In this working definition ‘v’ refers to either species richness (number of different species/specific area) or relative abundance (number of individuals of species relative to the number of individuals of other species/specific area), ‘b’ refers to biological entity that is at stake (i.e. particular species or ecosystem or genes or the less commonly mentioned guilds, habitats or homogeneous plots), ‘s’ refers to the geographical location under consideration and ‘t’ refers to the change of a particular biodiversity over a specific time period.

Setting Concrete Learning Objectives

Formulate specific learning objectives that are compatible with the general learning goals and the selected themes. The learning objectives can be derived from four pedagogical arguments: The emotional argument: (re)connecting with nature through discovery and sensitisation, and experiencing biodiversity to create personal meaning; The ecological argument: understanding relationships, functions and (global) interdependencies; The ethical argument: dealing with values, taking a moral position, raising critical questions; and, finally, the political argument: dealing with controversial issues, making choices, developing action competence.

Valuing of Biodiversity

Design activities for each learning context to pay attention to interests and values of various stakeholders in the socio-scientific dispute about biodiversity. Even though we may be able to recognise specific forms of biodiversity within, for instance, our own environment, we also will need to address the underlying normative aspects. For this purpose we need to ask the following questions: What kind of biodiversity is referred to in this particular situation? What facts are known about this biodiversity; what remains uncertain? What values, claims and uses do the various interest groups attribute to this biodiversity? What values, claims and uses do individuals personally attribute to this biodiversity?

Contextualising the Concept of Biodiversity

Attach specific meanings to biodiversity which are useful in the chosen learning contexts and learning objectives and are logically consistent with a chosen working definition of biodiversity. This is where all the previous steps work together to arrive at a meaningful understanding and use of biodiversity. We will illustrate this in the case of the urban rainforest trail which is a composition of suggestions provided by the participants in the Dutch study and, for the purpose of this paper, has been adapted to include a botanic garden education perspective.

Urban Rainforest Trail

The educational staff members of a botanic garden would like to develop an activity that shows that the lives of the town’s citizens are intricately linked to the well-being of people and species in other parts of the world. Up until now the centre has developed a variety of activities that purely focus on the local environment (i.e. interpretive hikes to help people discover the vast amount of nature that can be found in their own botanic garden, but also in unexpected places in the community at large. The garden’s educational program traditionally took on a ‘nature and self’ and an ecological literacy perspective. Inspired by the Local Agenda 21 initiative and the ratification by the national government of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the garden wants to design an eye-opening activity that expands peoples' horizons by using biodiversity as a bridge to both the local and the global community. ‘The trick is,’ according to one staff member, ‘to show that local environmental issues and decisions have an impact on the lives of others – including other species - elsewhere in the world and vice versa’. To achieve this goal, the focus of the programme would have to combine the two pedagogical arguments for focusing on biodiversity:

  • The ethical justification: helping citizens in dealing with values, taking a moral position and raising critical questions.
  • The political justification: helping citizens in dealing with controversial disputes, making choices and developing action competence.

The environmental educators stress the following affiliated learning goals:

  • personal and emotional involvement in the environment as an issue in society and the community
  • environmental literacy and skills
  • intrinsically motivated change in environmental behaviour.

The perspective that the centre, perhaps somewhat unconventionally, would like to focus on is that of the politics of nature, particularly the relationship between local consumer decision making and the quality of life elsewhere in the world.

After brainstorming on a variety of activities they could explore, the staff members decide to create an urban rainforest trail with the help of a local pharmacist, a nearby supermarket, a building and construction company, the local Body Shop and a clothing store.

The idea is that six sites will be developed where people learn about aspects of biodiversity and the way their consumer behaviour is linked to biodiversity elsewhere. For instance, at the pharmacist the sources of a variety of well-known medicines can be traced back to tropical areas. Here the importance of preserving and documenting the gene pool for medical (and other) purposes is explored. At the same time, controversial issues with regards to, for instance, ownership and exploitation could be brought to the forefront. At the building and construction site the different building materials that are in storage have been provided with special labels referring to the materials, source of origin, impact on biodiversity, strengths and weaknesses from both an environmental point of view and a building and construction point of view. The trail hikers are also given a home assessment questionnaire that helps people analyse the materials used for building their own house or apartment. For each material that is damaging to global species richness or genetic variety, an alternative is provided. At the local supermarket people explore the biodiversity aspects of foods (i.e. the number of available apple species now and in the past, the biodiversity index of various meals etc.).

Many of the plants and trees that can be found in the glass houses and the gardens are integrated in the trail. Some have a link to the pharmacist, others to the Body Shop and again others to the grocery store. The trail hikers will discover, the staff members hope, that the rainforest is everywhere and an integral part of their everyday life. At the same time they might come to recognise that individual consumer decisions here have an impact elsewhere in the world.

The team decides on two versions of the trail: a one-hour trail that can be used by school groups, giving sufficient time for a proper introduction to the trail (15 minutes) and a good discussion afterwards (45 minutes). This school trail could be used as the kick-off  to a series of lessons on biodiversity, since it raises a variety of issues that could be explored further by small groups later on. The other trail version is intended for people visiting the centre during the weekend and lasts anywhere between one and two hours (not all sites have to be visited, there are several possible combinations).

By using the working definition, the staff members discover that at each site the kind of biodiversity that is addressed needs to be made explicit, to ensure that genetic and species diversity are not used interchangeably, thus creating confusion. By applying the working definition at each site, they are able to assign a specific meaning to biodiversity. At the end of the tour the participants are confronted with the various meanings of biodiversity they encountered.

One of the strengths of the centre is its ability to design the trail in a hands-on fashion by creating a number of opportunities for the participants to discover the biodiversity aspect of everyday consumption. At each site they have a specific activity that requires participants to make a value judgement. Specific questions lead participants into the socio-scientific dispute that surrounds biodiversity. The questions mimic the first three steps in defining the value of biodiversity as listed in the table below

  1. Identifying- recognising values
    - labelling your own values and those of others without judging them
  2. Analysing- distinguishing the different components of values
    - recognising the relationships between values
    - sorting and prioritising values
    - tracking the source of values
    - studying the implications of values
    - exposing contradictions between values
  3. Choosing- weighing the consequences of different values
    - arguing the merits of alternatives
    - selecting and openly defending the selected alternative.

It is hoped that the trail will plant enough seeds of dissonance in the minds of the hikers to eventually engage them in the remaining three steps (acting, evaluating and reconsidering).

4. Acting- putting your values to work (translating them into actions)
- reflecting on the experience
5. Evaluating- determining the value of the selected alternative
- determining the value of the perceived consequences of putting the new value into practice
- assessing the level of consistency between valuing and acting
6. Reconsidering- confirming the choices one has made and accepting their consequences or
- reconsidering one’s choices in view of one’s reflections and evaluations.


Working with the stepping stones - analysing meanings of biodiversity, determining one or more perspectives based on general learning goals for environmental education, setting concrete learning objectives, selecting specific (sub)themes for learning, contextualising biodiversity and valuing biodiversity - shows that it is crucial to learn about different meanings, interpretations and uses of biodiversity and to be able to observe biodiversity in action. Equally important, however, is the aspect of establishing the value of biodiversity. The normative character of biodiversity needs to be made explicit in the learning process for it to be called environmental education. To answer the question of whether biodiversity loss is a bad thing, and if so, for whom, one must formulate a personal, well-argued position and reflect on one’s own values. In raising such a question we will inevitably have to address the issue of equitable distribution and sustainable use, which are core components of both contemporary environmental education and the Convention on Biological Diversity. Since realising all potential learning goals and paying respect to multiple perspectives in one learning activity would be overly ambitious and in all likelihood, counter-educational, choices will have to be made and learning activities will have to be part of a series of sequential activities.

Botanic gardens are well positioned to tap the educational potential of biodiversity: they house a large number of plant species, they posses large amounts of (scientific) knowledge and expertise on plant biodiversity, they tend to be located in urban areas and they often have educational staff members.

Biodiversity makes it possible to link the gardens to the community as the urban rainforest trail idea illustrates. Sure, the urban rainforest trail is only one idea and there are different ways in which such a trail could be designed, but it is easy to imagine how such a concept might trigger new ideas and re-conceptualise the role of education within botanic gardens. The challenge will be to develop these ideas and learning activities not within the botanic centers; but develop them within the community of which the gardens are a part. This suggests that early on in the development process partners (e.g. store owners, teachers, pharmacists and relevant local NGO’s) in the community are identified and brought into the process. It depends on the possibilities, mission and ambition of the botanical gardens whether they become one of the partners contributing to this process or whether they play an initiating and coordinating role.


Delhaas, R.J. and H.H.M. Koekkoek (1994) Tot achter de horizon: lessen in waardenvorming, een scholingsgids voor natuur- en milieu-educatie-docenten. Enschede: SLO-Instituut voor de Leerplanontwikkeling.
Hesselink, F. Van Kempen, P.P. and A.E.J. Wals (eds.) (in press) ESDebate: International On-line Debate on Education for Sustainable Development. IUCN Geneva. Website on: http: //, A.E.J. (1999) (ed) Environmental Education and Biodiversity. National Reference Centre for Nature Management, Wageningen.
Weelie, D. van and Wals, A.E.J. (1999) Stepping stones for making biodiversity meaningful through education in Wals, A.E.J. (ed.) Environmental Education and Biodiversity. National Reference Centre for Nature Management, Wageningen.

La Biodiversité: Un Pont Entre Éducation à la Conservation et Éducation à la Gestion Durable


Les jardins botaniques et les serres peuvent jouer un rôle important dans les programmes d’éducation à la biodiversité. L’éducation à la biodiversité permet de lier la conservation des espèces végétales au développement durable des communautés. On peut considérer que la Biodiversité est un concept mal défini car il n’existe pas une perspective ou une définition unique qui, de façon précise, la décrit dans tous les contextes et les situations. Elle peut avoir plusieurs sens selon l’utilisateur et le contexte dans lequel elle est utilisée. Bien que cette définition floue soit considéré par certains comme une faiblesse, pour d’autres, elle offre des avantages certains dans une perspective d’éducation à l’environnement. Ces avantages sont explorés ici et liés à la conservation des espèces végétales et au développement durable des communautés.

Est présenté ici une méthode qui permet de donne à ce mot un sens et une utilité pour les personnes à intérêts divergents, besoins et environnements culturels différents (van Weelie et Wals 1999). La méthode est illustrée par l’exemple d’un circuit urbain en forêt tropicale.

La Biodiversidad Como Puente Entre la Educacion Sobre la Conservacion de la Naturaleza y la Educacion para la Sostenibilidad


Los jardines botanicos y los invernaderos pueden jugar un importante papel en la educacion de la comunidad sobre la biodiversidad. La educacion para la biodiversidad tiene el potencial de conectar la conservacion de las plantas con el desarollo de las comunidades sostenibles.
La biodiversidad puede considerarse un concepto no bien definido, en que no hay una sola perspectiva o definicion de la biodiversidad que cubra con exactitud todas sus situaciones o contextos. Puede tener diferentes significados dependiendo en quien usa el termino y en que contexto lo utiliza. Aunque hay quien considera esta caracteristica de no estar bien definida como un punto debil, tambien ofrece algunas ventajas convenientes desde la perspectiva de la educacion medio ambiental. Estas ventajas se exploran y se relacionan a la conservacion de las plantas y al desarollo sostenible de las comunidades.

Se presenta un proceso de paso a paso para convertir la biodiversidad en un tema relevante y con sentido para la gente con diversos intereses, necesidades y ambientes culturales (van Weelie & Wals 1999). El proceso se demuestra en el caso del Recorrido del Bosque de Lluvia Urbano.