Each epoch has a burning question it needs to address. Certainly, our age has to consider the ecological question.

From a pedagogic standpoint, the ecological crisis is not only a question of lack of scientific knowledge, but also of thoughtlessness. Given this assumption, it can be supposed that the priority question in environmental education is that of educating to think, and specifically educating to think by oneself.


What does Educating to Think in an Ecological Way Mean?

Critical thinking

From a Socratic standpoint, critical thinking is that which does not accept any idea as taken-for-granted, but scrutinises all ideas attentively.

For example, an ontological presupposition which must be critically questioned is the idea that nature has no intrinsic value. This anti-ecological presupposition is at the basis of the dominant instrumental and utilitarian worldview (characterist of western thought), which legitimates the use of nature without raising any kind of ethical dilemmas.

The critical investigation of this presupposition requires enlightenment about its ecological implications: conceiving nature as a thing without intrinsic value permits it to be defined as a set of resources at the complete disposition of humans, who can thus use it without any limitation.This devaluation of the natural world in which human life is inescapably entangled, is strictly connected with a devaluation of our earthly life, which is conceived as an imprisonment of our spiritual life.

Thoughtful analysis of our symbolic environment should also include epistemological and ethical presuppositions. For example, an anti-ecological approach in epistemology is based on the grounds of an atomistic assumption according to which reality is divisible into many distinct beings. This disjunctive approach to knowledge is unable to disclose the complexity of biological life. The ecological paradigm suggests the adoption of a relational epistemology in which all beings are strictly related to all others.

Much needs clarifying, and this analysis would require further specific work in order to do so. From a pedagogical perspective it is important that this issue is raised, specifically that thinking critically about our presuppositions means interrogating any idea deeply and unmasking its anti-ecological implications.

Meditative thinking

In order to live authentically in modern times, deconstructive thinking is not sufficient; constructive thinking is also needed. Here, constructive thinking is that which is engaged in working out frames of ideas which help to orient a person in the intricate worlds of his/her own existence.

The objects of meditative thinking are the questions of meaning:‘What is good?”, ‘How to distinguish right from wrong?’ and also,‘How to conduct a good human life?’, ‘What things are right and just to do? ’, ‘What is the right relationship between humans and the Earth?’. Humans do not have certain and indubitable answers to these questions: the answers are always uncertain and fragile. Since the questions of thinking do not have definitive answers, they seem entirely idle and have always been conceived as such. In order to ponder the questions of meaning, the mind needs time – it needs to interrupt any activity and come to rest. The mind needs to stop and think.

But there is another reason which makes meditative thinking essential: it has ethical implications, in the sense that the possibility of finding an answer to ethical dilemmas has a clear relationship with commitment to the practice of thinking.

The ecological crisis unceasingly raises ethical issues to which our culture has no ready answers. We have no solutions to eco-ethical dilemmas because Western thought is marked by an ancient inattention towards nature, as though relationships between the human world and the natural one were not a problem.

Aesthetic thinking

In the prevailing instrumental and utilitarian framework, nature is devalued to a set of resources to be exploited without any limitations: trees are timber, water is energy, animals are tools for experimental processes. Furthermore, in the tourist culture which celebrates contact with nature, it is only an instrumental backdrop for human adventures.

In order to change anti-ecological conceptions of nature into an ecological view which acknowledges its value, it is important to promote aesthetic thinking capable of expressing appreciation of the surrounding world. The outstanding characteristic of ecological aesthetic thinking is the capacity of admiring the elements and phenomena of the surrounding living world. This capacity has its generative source in the cognitive disposition to let the mind be seized by the wonder of the world in front of it.

From a pedagogical standpoint, the kind of thinking generated by the experience of wonder is an ecological way of approaching the surrounding world because it safeguards things from an instrumental perspective.

The aesthetic attitude of the mind towards the environment, which manifests itself in avoiding any way of manipulating it, is accompanied by a feeling of pleasure: the pleasure of experiencing the phenomena of life in its unforeseeable blossoming of appearances. Promoting direct contact with nature is the way to educate people in aesthetic thinking.

In order for environmental experiences to become educative it is not sufficient ‘to do’ things in contact with nature, we must ‘think what we are doing’. No experience yields any meaning without undergoing the operations of reflective thinking. Only when the mind reflects on the lived experience does this experience acquire significance. The outstanding characteristics of this kind of experience is learning an ‘ecology of mind’, of which a quiet and released attitude are evidence.

The outstanding feature of aesthetic thinking is that ‘open attention’ which is a necessary part of contemplative wonder. Open attention is the ability to suspend any kind of preconception and expectation in order to make the mind empty and permeable to the original appearance of the thing.

Political thinking

In order to develop active citizens who are capable of bringing about the transition to ecological culture, education for the environment must enhance the political thought which deals with reality critically and creatively. Through education in political thinking, schools empower students so that they can become critical thinkers and transformative agents.

Acting politically means taking actions which have high political meaning, but it also includes making speeches which are politically significant. In order to make this study interesting for educators, it is necessary to explain how political thinking comes about. It means the following different things: expressing judgements about pivotal questions; having the courage to say what one really thinks; and planning a better world.


How do we Educate to Think?

Thinking is the soundless dialogue of the I with itself, hence it appears to be a mental activity which the subject develops in solitude. But from a socio-constructivist approach, the capacity of thinking is an internalisation of the shared practice of thinking with others. Thus, if humans learn to think by thinking with others, dialogue is consequently the generative matrix of thinking.

If we learn to think by thinking with others, then the adequate context for learning is a class which is structured as a ‘community of thinking’ or ‘community of discourse’ where students can learn the practice of thinking-together in the form of dialogue.

Learning to dialogue is not a simple task. Dialogue is not conversation and neither is it discussion: conversation is merely speaking without a precise purpose; discussion is often conceived as a competition. Dialogue instead is a dialectical interchange in which speakers cooperate, in order to reach a shared point of view regarding the question in object.

It is through dialogue that thoughtfulness develops. A new ecological culture needs a concept of life where happiness does not coincide with a high level of consumption, but where it is important to care for mental and spiritual life, to dedicate time to aesthetic education, to assume political responsibility and to care for social relationships.

In a class conceived as an ‘ecological community of discourse’ students are involved in investigating what it would mean to live wisely on the earth, and at the same time, in order to make this mental activity really educative, they should be encouraged to discuss the underlying assumptions of the worldviews, and furthermore, to explore other cultural perspectives. But an ecological community of thinking cannot remain enclosed in the classroom; it must go outdoors. The human disposition to appreciate nature needs to experience the surrounding natural world directly.

Outdoor experience is not only aimed at developing sensorial life; it is possible to organise a ‘dialogical circle of discourse’ in the forest where the silence and the tranquillity offered by the natural settings are conducive to stopping and thinking – stopping our frenetic way of life, which does not allow time for a released reflection in which thinking about the relevant questions takes place.

The role of the educator is crucial: above all he/she is asked to involve students in a passion for thinking, and this happens when the educator shows the pleasure of asking questions and raising issues without hurrying to provide answers.


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