Ecopedagogy as a path to sustainability

By María de los Ángeles Vilches Norat

As a university educator, I had the privilege of visiting many schools and learning first-hand about the cultures of these school organizations. From all these visits, I still remember groups of students of all ages working hard in the school garden, in a butterfly garden, in any artistic activity or immersed in nature. When we have a clear intention to act to make this world a better place, we are surprised by our intimate feelings and a very powerful force is awakened that spreads to the environment. That is why, when I had to define the topic of my doctoral research, I had no doubt that I would work with one of those groups that had a vision of the future. I decided to investigate along the lines of the Earth Charter to offer a proposal for improvement to the Eco-Schools Program of Puerto Rico that would enhance the integration of the principles of ecopedagogy (pedagogy that instrumentalizes the Earth Charter) to its vision and strategic plan. From the third sector, the Eco-Schools Program adopts a systemic model of community outreach that pursues cultural transformation by integrating the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Strengthening these efforts within the framework of the Earth Charter could offer us the opportunity to move towards holistic educational philosophical currents that tend to have broader and sustained impacts over time. The Earth pedagogy movement, as it is also known, evolves from the principles of Paulo Freire’s critical and liberating pedagogy to move towards systemic-complex thinking and holism. Its theoretical foundations configure principles of sustainability, biosensitivity, ethics of care and planetary citizenship, offering an alternative project to neoliberal society and economy.

The design of my research which entitles Ecopedagogy and the Eco-schools Program of Puerto Rico: Proposal for the integration of the Earth Charter is supported by an interpretive method structured in two phases. Thus, a system of categories emerged that incorporates the onto-epistemological assumptions and pedagogical presuppositions of ecopedagogy, and the pedagogical approaches and intervention practices of three organizations that promote a sustainable culture: Earth Charter International, the Centre for Ecoliteracy, and the Eco-schools Program. This integrated system of categories could very well serve as a reference when designing, implementing, and evaluating educational programs aimed at sustainability. 

In the first phase of the research, we conducted a deductive-inductive content analysis to extract and describe a series of categories and subcategories that initially emerged from the specialized literature on education for sustainable development, sustainable education, and eco-education. We went on to conduct a repeated reading of the Charter for Ecopedagogy: in defense of a pedagogy of the Earth as well as the analysis of eight educational experiences of the Earth Charter International and four of the Centre for Ecoliteracy. The second phase of the research consisted of an intrinsic case study that allowed us to analyze the Puerto Rico Eco-schools Program through a significant documentary analysis, semi-structured interviews, and non-participant observations. This phase of the method was used to contextualize the system of categories we initially developed, conduct a formative evaluation, and elaborate the intervention proposal.

 I will now share some of the research findings that I selected because of their relevance for these times.

First, ecopedagogy participates in the assumptions of the ecological paradigm in education. On the one hand, it favors a critical and systemic complex understanding of the world; on the other hand, it is oriented towards the common good, solidarity and compassion with the community of life on the planet; and, on the other hand, it requires a praxis that favors the critical construction of a sustainable culture.

Second, ecopedagogy promotes a holistic education for the school context. It participates in a transdisciplinary vision, in a dialogic-communicative approach aimed at facilitating emergent processes among the participants of the learning community to promote personal and collective transformation. The holistic vision in education privileges life and context in its intention to construct meanings, and to propitiate the full development of the learner to evolve to levels of greater transcendence.

Third, ecopedagogy is nourished by various methodological approaches that emphasize the importance of the integral development of the human being. The experiential, interdisciplinary, ethical, affective, and critical-praxical approaches prioritize the development of the emotional, aesthetic, creative and ethical dimensions of the human being. This integral vision of the learner could enhance the development of his or her multiple intelligences, especially the emotional, social, and ecological ones; dimensions of human intelligence that expand from the personal sphere to relationships with fellow human beings and the community of life on the planet.

Fourth, the Puerto Rico Eco-Schools Program promotes environmental education for sustainability through the research-action-reflection method, the integration of environmental lessons into the curriculum, projects, and the celebration of specific activities. Eco-schools that are subsumed in a holistic educational philosophy integrate the principles promoted by ecopedagogy in a more coherent and organic way. It is important to promote the exchange between these holistic schools with more “traditional” educational centers.

Fifth, the Eco-schools Program in Puerto Rico demonstrates commitment to the integration of the principles and values of the Earth Charter, which together with the SDGs is used for the conceptualization of the curriculum.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge Dr. Francisco Miguel Martínez and Dr. Alfonso Fernández Herrería who, from the University of Granada, accompanied me as mentors during this process and inspired me to continue working for a culture of peace.