The Importance of Improving Ecological Literacy

Educators are cultivating emotional intelligence for improved ecoliteracy and a path to protecting the natural world.


| January 2013



Ecoliterate

Through stories ranging from the Arctic to Appalachia and New Mexico to New Orleans, the authors of “Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence” reveal how education that engages in some of the most pressing ecological issues of the day advances academic achievement, fosters resilience, and helps school communities play a vital role in protecting the natural world.

Cover Courtesy Jossey-Bass

Hopeful and bold, Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence (Jossey-Bass, 2012) tells stories of educators, activists, and students who embody a new integration of emotional, social, and ecological intelligence. Building on the success of bestselling author Daniel Goleman's emotional and social learning paradigm, this book from the Center for Ecoliteracy shows how educators are extending the cultivation of these essential dimensions of human intelligence to include knowledge of and empathy for all living systems. In this excerpt, the authors introduce the mission of ecoliteracy advocates—to educate for the benefit of the planet.  

Students in a first-grade class at Park Day School in Oakland, California, spent several months transforming their classroom into an ocean habitat, ripe with coral, jellyfish, leopard sharks, octopi, and deep-sea divers (or, at least, paper facsimiles of them). The most in-depth project of their young academic careers, it culminated in one special night when, suited with goggles and homemade air tanks, the boys and girls shared what they learned with their parents. It was such a successful end to their project that several children had to be gently dragged away as bedtime approached.

By the next morning, however, something unexpected had occurred: When the students arrived at their classroom at 8:55 a.m., they found yellow caution tape blocking the entrance. Looking inside, they saw the shades drawn, the lights out, and some kind of black substance covering the birds and otters. Meeting them outside the door, their teacher, Joan Wright-Albertini, explained: “There’s been an oil spill.”

“Oh, it’s just plastic bags,” challenged a few kids, who realized that the “oil” was actually stretched-out black lawn bags. But most of the students were transfixed for several long minutes. Then, deciding that they were unsure if it was safe to enter, they went into another classroom, where Wright-Albertini read from a picture book about oil spills.

The children already knew a little bit about oil spills because of the 2010 accident in the Gulf of Mexico—but having one impact “their ocean” made it suddenly personal. They leaned forward, a few with mouths open, listening to every word. When she finished, several students asked how they could clean up their habitat. Wright-Albertini, who had anticipated the question, showed them footage of an actual cleanup—and, suddenly, they were propelled into action. Wearing gardening gloves, at one boy’s suggestion, they worked to clean up the habitat they had worked so hard to create.

Later, they joined their teacher in a circle to discuss what they learned: why it was important to take care of nature, what they could do to help, and how the experience made them feel. “It broke my heart in two,” said one girl. Wright-Albertini felt the same way. “I could have cried,” she said later. “But it was so rich a life lesson, so deeply felt.” Indeed, through the mock disaster, Wright-Albertini said she saw her students progress from loving the ocean creatures they had created to loving the ocean itself. She also observed them understand a little bit about their connection to nature and gain the knowledge that, even as six- and seven-year-olds, they could make a difference.