Why Ocean Literacy?

A magnificent halo: Looking North from the South Pole

Photo ©NOAA photo library

The Ocean defines and dominates everything about our planet. It covers most of our planet, is home to most of the life on Earth, regulates our weather and climate, provides most of our oxygen, and feeds much of the human population.

Stories about climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing, hurricanes, tsunamis, etc. dominate the news. And the ocean provides over $43 billion per year to the economy in California alone. While it is obvious why understanding and protecting the ocean is so critical to the future health of our planet, it is sometimes difficult to understand how we got quite where we currently are.

When the National Science Education Standards (NSES) were published in 1996, ocean scientists and educators were dismayed that the National Standards contain almost no mention of the ocean and aquatic sciences. As a result, none of the 50 US states, which each have their own science standards, include much about the ocean, coasts, Great Lakes or watersheds. Consequently, concepts and topics about the ocean, coasts and Great Lakes are hardly taught in K-12 schools, and hardly appear in K-12 curriculum materials, text books, or assessments. Understanding about these ocean topics was being ignored in most K-12 classrooms.

How could it be that in states like California, Florida and Hawaii, the ocean is not systematically incorporated into the curriculum? Marine education had become marginalized. When it was taught, it was often presented in a very local context: if you live in “coastal community,” then of course you might teach a little about your local area, but this resulted in an idiosyncratic presentation of ocean concepts. So, there grew a perception that marine educators were neither on the cutting edge of scientific discovery nor on the cutting edge of innovation in pedagogy. The science education reform movement in the U.S. left marine education behind.

There were exceptions of course … but without a coherent framework of concepts and messages, the ocean educators and ocean scientists began to realize that these topics would remain on the margins of teaching and learning about science.

Marine educators frequently found themselves complaining about the absence of ocean concepts in the curriculum, and then just as frequently being asked back, “Well, what about the ocean IS missing?  What SHOULD be taught about the ocean.”  And of course, we had no consensus about what the answer should be.  The absence of ocean sciences in schools resulted in a generation of Americans largely ignorant of the importance of the ocean, which in turn, has made it even more difficult to convince the adults in our school systems to insert ocean concepts into future standards.

Educational standards are the strategic point of leverage for bringing about significant systemic change in the content of science education. Our current educational system is defined by the goal of alignment. The content of curriculum, instruction and assessment are all derived from agreed upon standards. Therefore, if ocean sciences are not present in science standards, efforts to include ocean sciences in curriculum, texts and assessments will perpetually be marginalized and out of the mainstream. Conversely, if ocean sciences are present in the science standards of the future, they will naturally and automatically be incorporated by textbook publishers, curriculum developers and assessment specialists.

Those concerned about science education and about the future health of our ocean planet must be poised to influence the development of science standards by local educational agencies (school boards; school districts), state departments of education and professional societies and associations. In order to be effective, we must document agreed-upon science content and processes related to the ocean, coasts and Great Lakes.

In recent years, there have been a number of efforts underway to define ocean literacy, assess what the public knows about the ocean and redress the lack of ocean-related content in state and national science education standards and assessments.

The story of Ocean Literacy in the US is an extraordinary one about a process that many NMEA members and hundreds of other American scientists and educators have been engaged in over the last four years to come to agreement about what we think all people in the United States should understand about the ocean by the end of high school. The process has in many ways galvanized and re-invigorated ocean sciences education in the U.S.  We have reminded ourselves that the ocean is unique, inspirational and important like no other subject. We call our work together the Ocean Literacy Campaign.

The Ocean Literacy Network (OLN) was formed in 2004 as one more step in that process. Building on the work of those earlier efforts, the Ocean Literacy Network has been working to describe and document the science content and processes related to the ocean, coasts and Great Lakes that should be included in all future science education standards at the local, state and national levels.

The OLN first had to come to a consensus about what it means for any adult to be ocean literate. This naturally led to the big ideas or essential principles that people need to know about the ocean in order to be ocean literate. And then using a process somewhat akin to backwards design ( Wiggins & McTighe, 1998 Understanding By Design), the Network worked on describing the concepts and standards that need to be taught and learned at various grade spans in order attain an understanding of these essential principles.

For more information, see the webpages on the history of the development of the Ocean Literacy Essential Principles and Fundamental Concepts Guide and the Scope and Sequence Conceptual Flow Diagrams and on the impacts of the accomplishments of the Ocean Literacy Network.

This website also provides links to a number of products that teachers, parents, administrators, scientists, informal educators and policy makers can use to influence the development of future science standards and to support ocean literacy. While the primary focus of these tools and products is the formal K-12 educational system, it is our hope that these same materials, especially the descriptions of ocean literacy and the essential principles and fundamental concepts, will be of use in guiding and influencing the development of educational efforts in informal and free choice learning environments.

(adapted by Scott Carley from Craig Strang’s “Preamble” from the 2004 online conference and the winter 2009 Current article based on his talk at IPMEN 2008 in Australia (Craig Strang. Education for Ocean Literacy and Sustainability: Learning from Elders, Listening to Youth Current: The Journal of Marine Education, Winter 2009)