What is wrong with ecological education now?

Why should we seriously consider a new, imaginative approach to ecological education?

The development of what some call ecological understanding is often cited as the aim of ecological education. To understand ecologically is to make sense of the human world as part of, not apart from, nature; it is to understand humankind’s involvement in all life. The problem, however, is that ecological education is ill-equipped to achieve this aim.

There are currently at least two major obstacles to developing ecological understanding in schools. The first is that current approaches to ecological education neglect the imagination in theory and practice. As a result, the ends and means of ecological education are misaligned; the ways students are learning about the natural world—and the pedagogical approach teachers are using to plan their lessons—are ill-suited to develop adequate ecological understanding. Understanding ecologically has an emotional core. One’s knowledge about ecological processes and principles is made meaningful and personal by an emotional attachment to the natural world. One of the implications of this attachment is a sense of care or stewardship towards the Earth. We rarely acknowledge, however, that ecological understanding requires imagination, that it has, indeed, an emotional and imaginative core. At both theoretical and practical levels there is very little work in the field acknowledging the importance of imagination for the development of ecological understanding. Bringing imagination to the core of ecological education theory and practice is what IEE is all about.

The second problem is the peripheral position of ecological education in the curriculum. In mainstream schools ecological education is, more often than not, tied to particular units of study in particular subject-areas such as science or social studies. It is often considered an add-on to an already extensive curriculum, rather than a more comprehensive approach to how everything might be taught. IEE is a cross-curricular approach that addresses this problem by indicating how all topics we teach can be made imaginatively and ecologically engaging.

Ecological education programs are in a rather difficult situation. On one hand they strive to fulfill a mandated curriculum and on the other to fulfill the overarching goal of emotionally and imaginatively engaging students with their world. Despite what may, on the surface, seem like suitable pedagogical practices, current approaches to ecological education are ineffective when it comes to achieving this larger goal. Why? Because ecological education pedagogy—at both theoretical and practical levels—tends to pay little attention to the distinctive features of students’ emotional and imaginative lives. Imaginative Education (IE), a theory based on the ways in which we engage emotionally and imaginatively with the world around us, can contribute to ecological education a way to both teach the curriculum in meaningful ways and support ecological understanding. In this way, IEE offers ecological education a resolution to the difficult situation in which it currently finds itself.