Ecological Literacy: Reason and Passion

Over the years I have read many articles and books that spell out the essential components of ecological literacy. These can guide our thinking. Do we need more than this to change the way we see and implement our curriculum?

Might a thought-through focus on feeling and values give us a more direct entry point for engaging our students? A new book by psychologist Daniel Kahnemen, Thinking Fast and Slow, describes the human mind in terms of two systems. System 1 is our largely intuitive and very rapid mode of taking in and responding to the world; system 2 is our slower rational mind. Forty years of research and experimenting have persuaded Kahneman that system 2, reason at work, is not as powerful a determinant in what we do as we like to believe.

Perhaps a straightforward way to pursue ecological literacy is to ask a big challenging question, one that engages students’ feelings about themselves in relation to the world. I observed one teacher whose question is “What are you going to do this year to change the world?” That question gives teachers and students so much to “unpack.”  But once it is out there, it can become a touchstone that any student or teacher can look to from time to time in placing learning activities in a larger context. Not all the time. That would be deadly. But as a kind of background music of the classroom, it would give learning added purpose.

This approach requires bravery. It puts many of us on uncomfortable terrain. What are its advantages for student engagement and learning? For teacher renewal? What are its pitfalls? What place do pitfalls have in a dynamic learning environment?

Changing the world, one small action at a time, appeals to youthful idealism. Learning how to go about it can implicate many learning expectations, can’t it? Students will learn how important it is to know the subject and how to find out what they don’t know, how to be critical learners who check for facts and biases—understanding different perspectives as they firm up their own view; become skilled at communicating effectively; feel the power of collaborating with others and seeing one another’s’ complementary strengths. They can learn about scope and scale: how much can I accomplish myself and with others at this time in my life? What might today’s decisions lead to in twenty years? What is the power of starting small and doing it well? Is that always the best approach? What are my dreams for a future that I want to help shape? Who has the means to help reach this better future?

Thinking, fast and slow. Then using what we have learned to make the world a better place.

If education is not in part about this, then what is education for?