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Ocean literacy: Why do we have to talk about it in schools?

By Carmen Pazoto

English edit by Malu Abieri and Katyanne Shoemaker

Have you ever seen a picture of our planet taken from space? If you've somehow never seen it (or perhaps if you never tire of seeing it) take a look at the picture below, taken by the Apollo 17’s crew in 1972, available on the NASA website.

Picture of the Earth seen from space with the African continent in the center and Antarctica at the bottom surrounded by the blue ocean covered in clouds.

“The Blue Marble” is the name of this picture taken in 1972 by the crew of the Apollo 17 mission and republished on the NASA website on April 22, 2020 to celebrate Earth Day. While not new, it represents the amazing view that early astronauts had of our blue planet. (By: Nasa).

One of the features of our planet most apparent to the first astronauts to go into space (and me as well), was the realization that it is predominantly blue. As you may know, this is because more than 70% of the Earth's surface is made up of ocean and seas. Although this is one of the main features of our planet, people, in general, do not usually give much importance to the ocean. I say ocean in the singular and not in the plural, as usual, since the ocean basins are all interconnected, forming a single global ocean.

Despite the lack of attention or interest that the ocean inspires in our daily lives, it is fundamental to our existence. Just think what would happen if it disappeared. The physical landscape of the Earth would be vastly different, without water, it would be very similar to that of Mars: a brown world, with mountains, long flatlands and deep gorges. Without the ocean, we would lose much of the planet's biodiversity. All major groupings of living beings have representatives in the marine environment, and some groups are even more diverse in this environment. Among those marine beings that would disappear are the microalgae, invisible to our eyes, but essential to life, as they produce more than 50% of the oxygen gas we breathe. The atmosphere would not be different just by reducing the amount of oxygen gas, but also by increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide, since the ocean absorbs most of this gas, acting in the control of the planet's climate. In addition, much of the precipitation that occurs on land comes from evaporation of water from the ocean.

Can you see how without the ocean, life, at least as we know it, would not be possible on Earth? I just mentioned a few examples of its importance, but there are many more essential functions and services it performs for those living on land. If you weren't familiar with the indispensable role of the ocean, don't feel bad! For a long time it was believed that the ocean’s resources were infinite and that its vastness would be able to withstand everything we threw at it, as well said by oceanographer Sylvia Earle in her book The World is Blue, 2009. She urges us to not stand still! There is still time to learn, get interested and defend the ocean. After all, ignorance is perhaps one of the greatest factors responsible for neglecting the health of this environment.

In 2002, a group of American marine scientists and educators began to reflect on what key issues people should know about as a way to fight the lack of knowledge about the ocean. After a large online workshop in 2004, this initiative became known as Ocean Literacy, and was defined as “an understanding of the influence of the ocean on human life, as well as the influence of human beings on the ocean” (check the post on uncomplicating ocean literacy here).

Ocean Literacy embraces the idea that the more educated we are about the ocean, the more humans will respect its limits in regards to the sustainability of marine ecosystems and their resources. One way to achieve these Ocean Literacy goals is to introduce, through both formal and non-formal education, content related to the ocean in line with the principles and concepts on which Ocean Literacy is based and, further, insert them in the school syllabus! In this way, we can address issues related to marine environments from the earliest stages of school education.

As a teacher and marine biologist, I was interested in if and how content about the ocean and the marine environment was presented in schools. To pursue this topic, I decided to go back to school in 2019 to gain a doctorate in marine biology at the Federal Fluminense University (UFF). My research aims to understand whether the oceanic theme is represented in Brazilian school programs, how teachers insert this content in their classes, and what level of knowledge about the ocean is presented to students in the state of Rio de Janeiro. So far, only the first part of my research has been concluded; therefore we will only talk about this portion: is content about the ocean and marine environment in school curricula?

To answer this question, I analyzed the National Curricular Common Base (BNCC), a document that includes all of the content that should be taught as a part of basic education in Brazil. This document presents the mandatory contents for each school subject throughout each school year, in kindergarten, elementary, and high school. In addition to this core content, each state and municipality can complement their curricular framework with a diversified part, related to their culture, which is why I also analyzed the Curriculum Document of the state of Rio de Janeiro.

For this analysis, I read these documents in search of the words: ‘ocean’ and ‘sea,’ as well as others that refer to these environments and could arise from the reading. And the result is that knowledge about the ocean is not highlighted in the BNCC. I found 6 words related to this theme (aquatic, sea, maritime, oceanic, ocean, and tsunami), which appear in the subjects of Science, Geography, and History. Altogether, these words are cited only 10 times, and only in the part of the document that refers to elementary education, which goes from the 1st to the 9th grade (students from 6 to 14 years old). Considering that the BNCC has 600 pages and refers to three teaching segments, the content related to the ocean is very under-represented…

Unfortunately, this situation is no different in the Rio de Janeiro curriculum document. In this document, the marine environment is a little more represented, with four more words related to the marine environment, in addition to those already mentioned in the BNCC: beach, mangrove, sandbanks (restinga), and coastal. In all, there are 15 citations, which continue to appear in the contents of the disciplines of Science, Geography, and History. However, I have to say that these occurrences fall far short of the principles and concepts proposed by Ocean Literacy at an international level.

Of course, Ocean Literacy should not be restricted to school! But school is a great place to share this content, as well as to encourage a human connection with the ocean. Therefore, I would like to take this opportunity to appeal to education professionals, in an effort to implement content about the ocean in their classrooms, even if it is not so present in school curriculum and textbooks (worth knowing: “Maré de Ciência project” - “Science tide” in a literal translation).

As well stated by the diver and sailor Tosca Ballerini, in the toolkit Ocean Literacy for All (can be downloaded for free here), “a necessary condition for wanting to protect something is to know and love it”. Thus, there is a need to inform citizens about the impact of their actions on the ocean, so that all living beings can enjoy a healthy ocean in the future. There is an urgent need to spread and expand Ocean Literacy for every resident of this planet called Earth. After all, we don't just want to save the ocean, we want to save OUR ocean and all the life forms that depend on it, including the human race!



Cava F, Schoedinger S, Strang C & Tuddenham P (2005). Science content and standards for ocean literacy: A report on ocean literacy. report.pdf. Data de consulta: 04.01.19

Earle, S A (2017). A Terra é azul: Por que o destino dos oceanos e o nosso é um só? São Paulo. SESI-SP Editora. 320p.

UNESCO (2020). Cultura oceânica para todos: kit pedagógico. Data de consulta: 01.06.2020


About the author:

I am a Marine Biologist, with a Bachelor’s degree from the Federal Fluminense University (UFF) and a master's degree in Zoology from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Since my graduation, I have dedicated myself to a passion that emerged during college: education. I work as a Science and Biology teacher in public and private schools in the city of Niterói/RJ. I decided to combine the two passions of my life: marine biology and education. In 2019 I started my doctorate in the Marine Biology and Coastal Environments Program at UFF, where I have dedicated myself to researching Ocean Literacy in Brazilian formal education.

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