09/21/2012 06:03 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2012

Saving Education--and the Planet

With mounting pressures on schools today, the suggestion that teachers should also be preparing students to address our growing ecological crises might seem ridiculous at best. But what if doing so could boost student achievement?

What if it could lead to the kind of thinking and caring we need to solve the unprecedented problems before us? What if it could be accomplished without neglecting concerns about state standards? And most surprising, what if it was actually inspiring education?

If I hadn't seen it for myself, I probably wouldn't have believed it.

During the past several years, I have traveled from the Arctic to Appalachia and New Mexico to New Orleans to learn from educators at the forefront of teaching students to understand and care about our vital connections to the natural world--in particular, through the lens of food, water, and energy.

Along the way, I encountered people like Allyn Steele, a high school history teacher from Spartanburg, South Carolina, a small town at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. To help his students understand where their energy came from, Steele drove 300 miles to eastern Kentucky so they could witness mountaintop-removal coal mining firsthand.

There, Steele and his students met with a couple whose house shook every time dynamite blew off another section of the mountaintop. They saw a stream the color of chocolate milk after the shattered earth (as well as animal and plant life) was bulldozed off the mountain. And they flew in a four-passenger plane directly over a fractured mountaintop--an experience that is unforgettable and almost indescribable, except to say that the scarred land looks like the remains of a brutal war waged against nature.

Then they returned home reflecting on what they learned. They didn't resort to simply blaming coal companies for these cost-cutting practices, which have destroyed 500 mountaintops, one million acres of forest, and 2,000 miles of streams since the mid-1980s. Their insights were a good deal more complex and honest than that.

As student Matt Roberts, now a neuroscience major at Rhodes College, recalls, "We're the ones to blame. We want a lot of energy, and we want it cheap. The coal companies are meeting the demands of the people." Through this learning experience, in other words, these Spartanburg students were able to understand their relationship to energy by applying the systems thinking that is essential to the practice of sustainable living.

The experience also motivated Roberts and his peers to take action at home: writing for the local newspaper, participating in public forums, and organizing the school's first environmental club. According to former school head Chris Dorrance, it helped galvanize a new focus on energy and sustainability throughout the school community.

Of course, few teachers can (and perhaps want to) take their students on a three-day field trip 300 miles away. Steele's story is a big, dramatic one that makes a point: Because we live in a global economy, most of us tend to have a collective blind spot about the impacts of our behavior on natural systems, especially through our systems of energy, agriculture, industry, commerce, and transportation.

But there is a powerful way in which teachers can help students genuinely grasp those connections--and then make a positive difference in their own communities.

It's a model of teaching illustrated in a new book I coauthored with psychologist Daniel Goleman, who wrote Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, and Zenobia Barlow, executive director of the Center for Ecoliteracy, and co-editor of Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World.

Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence presents, as the subtitle suggests, a new integration of emotional, social, and ecological intelligence. It recognizes that each one of these essential dimensions of our universal human intelligence simply expand outward in focus--from self to others to the entire natural world.

The fact that this can lead to some genuinely inspiring education is likely self-evident. It also isn't too much of a stretch to observe that educators can teach about the connections between humans and the natural world within the context of state standards. Teaching kids to be "ecoliterate", after all, does not require displacing other important curriculum but simply covering it with a sustainability perspective in mind.

But can education grounded in emotional, social, and ecological intelligence actually boost student achievement? In a word, yes--because it builds on the success of social and emotional learning. And as a 2011 meta analysis by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning revealed, this approach has led to 11 percent increases in achievement test scores.

Of course, it won't truly save education and the planet on its own. But it will help move us in the right direction.

Lisa Bennett is coauthor of Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence (Jossey-Bass, August 2012) and communications director of the Center for Ecoliteracy, a nonprofit dedicated to education for sustainable living.