Overcoming Challenges of the Soil Education Gap: Part 1


By Loren B. Byrne

GSBI Education Program Coordinator

Associate Professor of Biology and Environmental Science, Roger Williams University, Bristol, RI USA

The main point of this two-part blog entry is direct:

The world needs more soil education efforts, especially emphasizing soils’ biodiversity, ecological complexity, and human relationships.

That thesis is surely uncontroversial to anyone who knows about the many wonders of soil organisms and ecosystems, and their importance to humanity. However, filling in the “soil education gap” faces two major challenges: 1) convincing more people that soil education is a pressing concern that should be prioritized, which, in turn, is needed for 2) catalyzing the actions—at individual and collective scales—to actually increase the world’s soil education efforts.  A key follow-up question is how to respond to these two challenges. This entry will address the first challenge and Part 2 will discuss the second.

Convincing more people about the need to expand soil education efforts is in itself an education problem. An essential response is raising general knowledge (i.e., soil literacy) across all sectors of society that soil ecosystems are precious, limited natural resources that must be managed more thoughtfully and carefully than in the past. Recent reports by the GSBI (Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas) and UN-FAO (Status of the World’s Soil Resources) are helping focus needed attention—especially among policymakers—on the ecological complexity of soils and associated research, policy and management gaps.

Students sample soil. Photo credit V. Bala Chaudhary

Students sample soil. Photo credit V. Bala Chaudhary

Thankfully, both reports acknowledge the need for more soil education. However, this issue is addressed briefly in their latter halves and by framing education as a broader policy issue rather than a standalone question. For instance, formal discussion of soil education was only allocated ~1/4 page within the governance and policy chapter of the UN soil status report. In contrast, “education” was included in the title of the Atlas’ chapter 7 which devoted six full pages to education themes and resources; this is still only ~4% of the report’s main pages.

How education is framed and presented is perhaps subtle but a critical concern. Very few, if any, educators are likely to think of their day-to-day work as a “policy” problem; framing it that way may inappropriately bias or narrowly define conversations. Further, when soil education is presented very briefly toward the end of documents, readers might be left with the impression that it is of less concern, perhaps an afterthought, not worthy of additional space—or, at best, that it can be set aside for discussion elsewhere. At worst, underemphasizing the need for expanded soil education may generate the assumption that the state of the world’s soil education is fine and does not require much attention.

What if, instead, high-profile discussions about soils started with education as a central—even the central—problem and used that issue to frame other soil-related questions and concerns? What if the main motivating factor guiding, even dictating, the work of international and national soil organizations and committees was the need to expand the work of soil education (rather than research, policy making, or management)? Could such emphasis help us overcome the challenge of the soil education gap?

These are questions that coauthors and I had in mind when writing our letter that was recently published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (June 2016, V 14, pp. 238-240, downloadable as a pdf here). In this letter, we make a concise argument about how and why soil education efforts should be prioritized and expanded. We highlighted the fact that “soil- systems education (is) an essential foundation for ensuring humanity’s long- term well- being” because “without soil education, future scientists, educators, policy makers, and land managers, among many others, are less likely to consider soils in their decisions, which will undermine policy making and scientific efforts to increase the sustainability of soil systems” (emphasis added). Naturally, as an environmental educator, I am biased in thinking that education should be the starting point for most discussions and is an essential foundation for solving problems! Nonetheless, it seems hard to argue that educating more of the world’s citizens about soil ecosystems is not essential to achieving their sustainable management.  

“Pedagogy for the Pedosphere” emphasizes hands-on, inquiry based learning activities such as sampling and analyzing soils as a means to increase students’ “soil literacy.”  Photo courtesy of V. Bala Chaudhary.

“Pedagogy for the Pedosphere” emphasizes hands-on, inquiry based learning activities such as sampling and analyzing soils as a means to increase students’ “soil literacy.” Photo courtesy of V. Bala Chaudhary.

Perhaps one way to talk with, and ultimately convince, more people—especially those who control budgets—about our need to allocate more resources to soil education is to use a unique, compelling vocabulary. Having key phrases is an important way to identify and frame questions and focus diverse stakeholders’ attention on a common concern. Above, I used “soil education gap” and “soil literacy” to help articulate two aspects of the “soil education question”. In our aforementioned Frontiers letter, we defined a solution as “‘pedagogy for the pedosphere’ – innovative, interdisciplinary, systems-based education grounded in the study and appreciation of soils, their ecology, and their vital human relationships.” Although some people might find such phrases “corny” or unneeded jargon, I argue that they are useful, in part, because they are memorable (e.g., with the alliteration of “ped”) and provide practical shorthand when discussing a larger set of concepts and concerns. (Expanded analysis of these phrases is outside the scope of this short blog entry but needs done as part of advancing the soil education conversation.)

Let’s assume that the three strategies described above (increasing society’s soil literacy, emphasizing soil education, defining compelling vocabulary) help more people become convinced that the world does need more “pedagogy for the pedosphere.” What then? What specific teaching actions can be taken to educate others—of all ages—about the beauty and immense value of soil ecosystems and their fascinating creatures? Thankfully, many soil educators have developed resources to guide effective and expanded soil education programs, curricula, courses, and lessons. (For examples, see the GSBI education websites for selected references and resources). In Part 2, I will share some ideas that I hope will inspire more efforts to fill in the world’s soil education gap.