Can Educators Cultivate Ecological Intelligence?

By Jill Suttie | December 5, 2012 | 0 comments

A new book, co-written by Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman, argues that schools are the best places to cultivate an understanding of our relationship to the natural world.

Humankind is in a position to do a lot of damage to our world through our energy consumption, food production, and waste. Since the early 20th century, the estimated population of the planet has risen from two to seven billion people, an increase that taxes our air, food, water, and atmosphere—what we need to survive.

We all know this—we hear about it all of the time—yet still many of us remain unmotivated to make significant changes in our lives to counteract these effects.

But Daniel Goleman, author of the popular books Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence, and Lisa Bennett and Zenobia Barlow, both from the Center for Ecoliteracy, aim to change that.

In Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence, they argue that schools are the best places to cultivate an understanding and caring for our relationship to the natural world, or “ecoliteracy,” and they hope to inspire educators to impart these lessons to their students.

The book is primarily a collection of stories of activists and teachers who are focused on environmental issues, with ideas for lesson plans that teach students how human activity affects the natural world, what can be done to counteract negative effects, and why they should care and take action.

For example, the book includes the story of a South Carolinian teacher who traveled with his students to the Southern Appalachia region of Kentucky to both witness the destruction of mountain communities by coal mining and to hear the viewpoints of coal mining executives. The students came away from the experience feeling horror at the devastation wrought on behalf of energy, while recognizing their own connection to coal mining, which powers the lights they use hundreds of miles away. Eventually, they used this experience to write articles in the local paper and to make their community more aware of the problem.

The book is inspiring to read—full of stories where teachers have made a difference—but it’s a little low on actual curriculum. Still, a teacher looking for ideas for imparting lessons like these might find some good ideas here. I particularly liked the opening story of a teacher in Oakland, California, who came up with an ingenious way to show children how it might feel to them to know an ocean they loved was being harmed by an oil spill.

The main contribution of the book, however, is in recognizing that most of us are not motivated to act by articles or statistics, but by experiencing empathy and connection. Referring back to Goleman’s work on social-emotional intelligence, the authors recognize that these same skills are essential to engage when extending the curriculum to environmental concerns.

“This book aims to support and inspire you in your efforts to foster the kind of learning that meets the critical needs of the twenty-first century,” they write.

A lofty goal, for sure. But one that could use a few more books on the topic—perhaps with more curriculum guidance—to succeed.

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About The Author

Jill Suttie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s book review editor and a frequent contributor to the magazine.


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