In graduate school at the School of Natural Resources and Environment (now the School for Environment and Sustainability) at the University of Michigan, I had the privilege of learning environmental education concepts from one of the truly great environmental educators, Dr. Bill Stapp. One of our class exercises was to debate a variety of definitions of environmental education. My favorite: “Education in, about, and for the environment.”
Education in the environment is affective learning. Affective learning opens our hearts and creates an upwelling of care. Reconnecting with nature taps our inborn biophilia, a concept defined by Harvard biologist and Alabama native E.O. Wilson as “the rich, natural pleasure that comes from being surrounded by living organisms.” We have a built-in affinity for the natural world, with which we are deeply interdependent. The time we spend in nature strengthens and heightens these natural connections, which are proven to be healing and restorative. We become much more aware and appreciative of the extraordinary beauty and diversity of life on Earth.
Education about the environment is cognitive learning. Cognitive learning enables us to understand how nature works and the challenges nature (including humans) faces as a result of human-caused degradation of natural systems. Some examples of cognitive learning include: understanding what an ecosystem is and how it functions, how the water cycle works, what food webs consist of, and so on. Understanding human-caused ecosystem degradation and its consequences means learning about land, air, and water pollution; destructive land use practices; loss of biodiversity and species extinction; global warming; toxic chemicals and their impacts on living things; invasive species; overharvesting, etc.
Education for the environment is conative learning. Conative, a derivation of conation, is an unfamiliar word. Its origin is Latin, conari, which means “to endeavor, to try.” Conative learning teaches us the skills we need to act on behalf of the natural world.
Most environmental education programs I am aware of focus heavily or exclusively on education in and about the environment, with little to no attention on education for the environment. The problem with this, as I see it, is that affective learning develops caring and cognitive learning develops understanding, but lacking the skills to act on that caring and understanding can leave us powerless and frustrated. In my experience, most people don’t know what to do or how to act on their awakened caring and newfound understanding. I think neglecting education for the environment leaves much of the potential impact of environmental education unrealized.
Education for the environment means learning first that as citizens in a democracy we have agency, the ability and power to act on things we care about to create positive change. Civics education in primary and secondary education has fallen way short in teaching students that people in democracies do have agency. For a powerful example of what effective conative education can accomplish, look no further than the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. I am certain their teachers taught them how to take action on things that matter. Those students are empowered and effective. They are exercising their responsibilities and opportunities as citizens to make a difference.
In addition to teaching agency, conative learning includes advocacy and organizing skills, communications and presentation skills, power mapping skills, relationship-building skills, strategizing skills, and how to create effective teamwork. Equipped with these skills and the confidence that people in a democracy have the ability and power to act, organized and educated citizens can accomplish just about anything. I saw the power of conative learning in middle and high school students when I worked as a program resource person to classes for
the Rouge River Project during graduate school. It was a water quality monitoring project across the Rouge River watershed in southeastern Michigan based on Action Research/Community Problem-Solving concepts. But that is another story.
Education “in, about, and for” can be applied to sustainability, of which Nature is a key element, along with the Economy, Society, and individual Wellbeing, the other aspects of the Sustainability Compass. In brief, education “in” sustainability means having experiences in the world that reveal to us what sustainable living and practices look like, and what unsustainable living and practices look like. Education “about” sustainability is learning what it is, its key principles and practices, its underlying values and ethics, and why it matters. Education “for” sustainability is exactly like education for the environment. The learning and skills needed are the same whatever the issue of concern and opportunity.
As election season gets underway in earnest, we have the opportunity to learn and practice education “for” sustainability by engaging in our political system. We can meet with candidates and ask them their positions on issues we care about. We can inform them about these issues and tell them what we require from them should they expect to receive our votes. We can organize with people sharing similar concerns and interests, write letters to the editor, meet with editorial boards, and meet with local government office holders, civic organizations, and the business community to share our interests and concerns and build coalitions for action. April 22nd of this year, 2018, will be the 49th Earth Day. The first Earth Day, April 22nd, 1970, was the largest demonstration in American history. Globally, more than 200 million people in 141 countries participated in an event that was the brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. In fact, Earth Day was more than a day. It went on for weeks before and after April 22nd and included teach-ins on college campuses and in communities about environmental issues and conditions, and about how to take action to improve environmental and human health. The first Earth Day was the culmination of highly effective conative learning and action-taking experiences. Its outcomes were substantial and are still felt today.
The same thing is true about Rosa Parks, who in 1955 sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She didn’t just decide one day not to give up her seat on that bus. Her action was the result of substantial conative learning “for” civil rights, undertaken in collaboration with many other people who were well organized and had a strategic plan which when implemented changed the world.
The need is even greater today for people everywhere to undertake the learning necessary to act for a more sustainable world, with healthy, life-generating ecosystems, a productive and inclusive economy, vibrant societal conditions in communities everywhere, and individuals and families that flourish in wellbeing.
We have the ability and power. We need only to learn and act.