Ecological Thinking

Table of Contents:

Balgopal and Wallace (2009) reported Berkowitz's definition of ecological thinking as a combination of ecological understanding and environmental awareness. Ecological understanding refers to understanding of the general concepts in ecology. This includes food webs, trophic levels, carrying capacity, and population dynamics. When people acquire ecological understanding, they tend to also consider their position and role in the ecosystem (Orr 1992, and van Weelie 2002 in Balgopal and Wallace 2009). The definition is further extended to include understanding the impact of human activity on the ecosystem through recognition and application of ecology concepts. This understanding is referred to as ecological literacy (Balgopal and Wallace 2009) and is described as being on a continuum. At one end is the ability to identify dilemmas and propose decisions together with their consequences. This ability diminishes progressively toward the other end of the continuum where there is insufficient understanding to explain how human action impacts on the ecosystem.

Fig. 21.1 Conceptual framework of ecological education

The researchers have developed a conceptual framework (Fig. 21.1) based on the definitions given. Ecological thinking involves understanding concepts in ecology including biotic factors, abiotic factors, and biotic interaction. It is complemented by understanding the impact of human activity on ecosystems. Ecological thinking can be improved through ecological education. Improvement of ecological thinking, and understanding the impact of human activity on ecosystems, will eventually lead to increased awareness regarding environmental risk. An ecological education project was therefore conducted with secondary school students as subjects to effect an improvement in their ecological thinking.

Case Study

Changes in students' ecological thinking were investigated. The changes were facilitated by an ecological education project carried out with secondary school students as subjects. In this project, students set up themed organic gardens. They worked in groups and each group created two gardens: a wild garden and a garden on a specific theme chosen by the group. In the wild gardens, plants in the designated area were left to grow freely and no additional fertilizer was applied. In the themed gardens, students planted species they identified as suitable for their chosen theme. This project was conducted for 3 months. During this time, the students collected vermicompost produced by earthworms they reared on cow dung and food waste. They also carried out experiments to compare the effect of using either organic fertilizer in the form of vermicompost, or chemical fertilizer, on the plants in their themed gardens. In addition, they recorded their observations of other organisms found in their gardens.

Data with regard to the students' ecological thinking were collected using the photo-elicitation interview technique. This is a technique often used in social science by anthropologists and sociologists (Hurworth 2003), as well as in psychology and education, albeit minimally in the latter cases (Harper 2002). Apart from being user friendly and requiring only simple technology to produce, photographs can be used either on their own as content for discussion or as a part of the overall interview process (by varying the way they are presented). Such use enables the interviewer to probe responses about social relationships (Epstein et al. 2006). Furthermore, photo-elicitation incorporates visual language with verbal language (Hurworth 2003) and both interviewer and interviewee share the same visualization that becomes the focus of the interview. Absence of such images requires both parties to conjure their own image of the subject in their minds. In this case congruency of the visualization cannot be ensured as both parties arrive with different experience and prior knowledge.

A total of 140 students aged between 15 and 16 years participated in the project. A sample of students were interviewed prior to its start (pre-test); then they were again interviewed at the end (post-test). Using the photo-elicitation technique, photographs were shown to the students and questions posed to elicit responses (Epstein et al. 2006; Hurworth 2003). The photographs constituted six images of the environment in various situations, as depicted in Fig. 21.2. They included a pristine rainforest, a paddy field, residential apartments, a hill slope being cleared, a riverside settlement, and chemical spraying. Based on the ecological thinking model, the interview covered two aspects, namely understanding of ecological concepts and understanding of the impact of human activity on ecosystems. The students' responses were probed to gain more information about their thinking with regard to the situations presented in the photographs and their responses. After students were interviewed about the first photograph, they were then interviewed about the second photograph, and this process was repeated until all six photographs had been covered. The same process was followed for both the pre-test and the post-test. Interview data from six students are presented in this case study. Comparison of the pre-test and post-test interview responses is made to identify the changes in their ecological thinking after participating in the ecological education project. The interviews were transcribed and analyzed to extract data relevant to the components of the ecological thinking model. Table 21.1 gives a summary of the findings.


The ecological education project succeeded in improving students' ecological thinking. Their understanding of basic concepts in ecology improved. More importantly, students became more aware of the threats to the environment posed by human activity.

Fig. 21.2 Set of photographs for interview

Education is a tool that can enhance understanding of ecosystems in terms of ecological concepts and the effects of human activity on ecosystems. The project undertaken in the case study is one such example. However, there is potential for further research into the ecological thinking of students to assess differences between them with respect to certain demographic factors. Factors for consideration could include their own experience of natural ecosystems, the type of residential area in which they live—rural or urban, for example, or located near a nature reserve or forest—and their worldview.

Table 21.1 Ecological thinking of students

Acknowledgment The authors wish to acknowledge the financial support received from the Exploratory Research Grant Scheme 2012 of the Ministry of Education Malaysia.

Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License which permits any noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited.

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