A photograph of a group of people sitting on a frosty hillside. One person is standing up and talking to the others.
Outdoor Philosophy Session by the Critique Environmental Working Group: Place-Based Ecological Reflection Exercise in Holyrood Park, Edinburgh. Photo supplied by authors.

This is a guestpost in Justice Everywhere’s Teaching Philosophy series. It is written by Talia Shoval, Grace Garland and Joseph Conrad, of the Environmental Working Group of the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Ethics and Critical Thought (Critique).

In this blogpost, we share insights from the exploratory journey we undertook into ‘environmentalising’ the curriculum: a project aimed at bringing the environment to the fore of learning and teaching in higher education. After briefly explaining the guiding rationale, we sketch the contours of the environmentalising project and suggest trajectories for moving forward.

As political theorists working on issues concerning the environment, we start from the working observation that environmental issues tend to be downplayed—or worse, altogether overlooked—in the context of academic learning and teaching, as well as in scholarly research. The environment, when it is mentioned, is often treated as a miscellaneous category, an ‘Other’ that falls outside the remit of and constitutes the backdrop to human affairs. This tendency is exemplified by the lack of environmental materials in syllabi across the social sciences and humanities. Even when environmental issues are present, they are discussed, more often than not, in human-centred ways. Juxtaposed with the evidence of environmental degradation all around, this felt odd, and somewhat disquieting. Our initial intuition told us that the environment should take up much more space in academic curricula and common research, learning, and teaching practices—even in the social sciences, including politics and ethics.

We drew inspiration from other curriculum transformation efforts, particularly the decolonising movement. The thought is rather straightforward: If we can decolonise the curriculum, then we can surely environmentalise it. Not only is an environmental perspective-taking crucial for addressing present and future environmental crises, environmentalised learning and teaching is potentially already in a productive alliance with decolonial education, de-centring predominantly Western and anthropocentric (‘human-centred’) ways of seeing and being in the world. There is a wealth of empirical evidence to ground such an environmental-decolonial alliance: the suffering and exploitation of more-than-human beings is a result of the same colonial and neocolonial extraction that immiserates non-hegemonic groups in human society worldwide.

What Would it Mean to Environmentalise Learning and Teaching in Higher Education?

What might environmentalised pedagogy entail? One of our insights thus far is this: An environmental pedagogical approach to learning and teaching in higher education requires attending to three key dimensions of human activity—thinking, feeling, and doing, (or, a more lyrical way of putting it: head, heart, and hands).

First, thinking (head) involves critical ecological reflection on the part of the student and the educator, alike. This means reframing the ways in which we—through our ideas, beliefs, language, theories, and concepts—conceive of ourselves vis-à-vis the more-than-human environment. This kind of reframing is hard, because so much about our relationship with the more-than-human is invisible, and many of us live in ecologically disconnected ways. One way of reconnecting students and educators to their surrounding ecological spaces and multispecies communities is through practicing reflective outdoor learning. First-hand experiences in and with the nonhuman realm present students and educators with the opportunity to collaboratively re-think their relationships and attitudes towards nature and other-than-human beings. The end goal is to challenge and disrupt common anthropocentric thinking patterns and explore better ways of co-living with our fellow human and nonhuman beings, as contributing ecological citizens.

Sometimes, our emotions are what help us really see the more-than-human all around us.

Second, feeling (heart) concerns the cultivation of emotional awareness to our immediate and distant environment. Emotional connectivity brings greater theoretical clarity—it helps us think better. Environmentalised learning and teaching should aim to elicit an emotional response from students to environmental issues discussed in the classroom. Indeed, sometimes, our emotions are what help us really see the more-than-human all around us.

Having said that, educators must be mindful of emotions already running high in younger generations. For example, many students already experience climate anxiety and ecological grief. This presents an opportunity for educators and students to join together and channel these emotional responses into a positive force that enhances a sense of forward-looking responsibility, without reducing to a sense of doom. Often, students already know how to do this, and educators can learn from them.

Finally, there is doing (hands): actions count. As teachers and educators, and as academics and intellectuals more generally, we aim to impact the real world and have the opportunity to encourage our students to bring about positive change in the environmental crises that define these times. Again, this may be something that students can educate the teacher about, given the upswell of environmental activism in younger generations. In fact, there is a sense in which a truly environmentalised pedagogy turns the teacher-student ethical relationship on its head, as it is the younger generations who will live longest in the wake of the political decisions made by the elder.

Environmentalising Learning and Teaching: The Importance of Place

The classroom can be exchanged for a classgarden, a classmountain, or the classmeadows, for example, to teach by-means-of-the-environment.

Beyond the three dimensions above, there is a further aspect that becomes important when putting environmental pedagogy into practice: place. Teaching and learning happen in a particular place, not in an abstract, non-material realm. Environmental pedagogy is place-based as well as place-responsive. It should start with an exploration of where students are, connecting them to the physical environment in which they are ethically, politically, and ecologically embedded. This invites exciting and innovative opportunities for outdoor learning and activities that involve community engagement. The classroom can be exchanged for a classgarden, a classmountain, or the classmeadows, for example, to teach by-means-of-the-environment. All this suggests that students themselves should be at the centre of their own place-based learning.

Environmentalising the Curriculum: A Research Agenda is Needed

We firmly believe that ‘environmentalised’ learning and teaching in higher education is an urgent political and ethical challenge, and long overdue. Moving forward, there are still many open questions. We hope this modest contribution will be a stepping-stone for a broader research and education agenda for scholars and academics across the social sciences and beyond*.

*Much of the material in this blogpost is informed by two exploratory roundtable events which we—as part of the Environmental Working Group of Critique: Centre for Ethics and Critical Thought—held in 2021. Speakers from various disciplines within and beyond the University of Edinburgh were invited to share their thoughts and insights into what it might mean to ‘environmentalise’ learning and teaching in light of ecological crises. We then shared some of these ideas at a presentation to the Edinburgh University Learning and Teaching Conference in June 2022. Finally, in our ongoing project ‘Sessional Sessions’, we explore further and attempt to put into practice the environmentalising project.

You can follow the writers on Twitter: Talia Shoval, Grace Garland, Joseph Conrad.

Teaching Philosophy in the 21st Century aims to feature posts, interviews and case-studies broadly relating to the topic of “Teaching Philosophy in the 21st Century.” A non-exhaustive list of possible topics includes:

  • Accessibility and inclusion;
  • Using new technologies in the classroom; 
  • Intersectionality in the classroom; 
  • Teaching controversial topics and/or controversial authors;
  • Ongoing calls to diversify/decolonise the (philosophy) curriculum;
  • Different ways of delivering typical political/moral/social philosophy education.

Please get in touch with Sara Van Goozen if you would like to contribute, or if you have any suggestions (for instance someone who does something interesting and new in the classroom who might be interested in talking to us).