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Learning: The Ecology of Learning

Many of today's metaphors for "new" approaches to education are connecting themselves to phenomenon associated with the natural environment. For example, ideas about the ecology of learning, or a learning ecology, is intended to explore ideas about how people learn through the lens of the relationships between living things and their environment. A network learning environment invites us to explore learning through the interconnectedness of all things (n.b. - sometimes the idea of a "network" is limited to a new media metaphor which in turn reduces the effectiveness of the connection). However, whether we consider the ideas to be new or not is of less importance than exploring the possibilities for an ecology of learning...

One metaphor that is frequently used to explore learning through is ecology. Of course, life is not always a bowl of cherries and metaphors often leave out more than they serve to connect. Metaphors may also give refuge to a hidden grievance - that thing isn't this, it's that. Metaphors may also represent a retrieval of ideas that have been forgotten. However, it is useful to explore metaphors such as these in order to try to isolate the points of "sameness" being made.

A Learning Environment Is A Natural Environment?

The idea of a learning environment can be hard to visualize. If we were asked to describe an educational environment we would have far less difficulty. But a learning environment is more illusive and dynamic. One of the problems that can occur is when we too closely equate learning with education. When this happens, ideas about a learning environment become a variation on the theme of education. If we elevate learning to include the ways in which people interact (explore, discover, create, think, make, do, etc.) with their own unique set of situations and circumstances in the confluence of everyday life then I believe we begin to approach a more useful perspective to explore possibilities for learning.

If we change our environment for learning, then it seems to follow that we will also change the possibilities for learning. The underlying presumption is that we can and should change the environment. With respect to the natural world human intervention has caused significant environmental problems. We have quite literally changed the natural ecology of living systems, and therefore fundamentally altered our relationship to it. So while it is clear that we have the power to influence and change the natural order of things, it can sometimes have negative consequences.

Whether the changes are positive or negative in the end, it is clear that when we change the environment we quite literally change ourselves. With respect to learning then, this leads to the possibility that if we change the learning environment we can also change ourselves. This is, perhaps, one of the most important reasons for educators to reconsider the environments they immerse the lives of teachers and students in.

If a learning environment were literally a natural environment then learning would proceed as something that is purely organic. There are a number of important thinkers to consider in thinking about the linkages between the natural environment and learning environments (I'll limit myself to my personal three best picks):

  • Edward O. Wilson: Consilience : The Unity of Knowledge offers important insights into natural order and unity. The first sentence of the opening chapter states, "I remember very well the time I was captured by the dream of unified learning." Wilson's belief is that all knowledge in intrinsically unified. An educator wishing to explore the idea of a learning ecology in any serious way should become quite familiar with this work. See also: Consilience by Rick Pan.

  • David Suzuki: The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place In Nature explores a wide range of possibilities for balancing our relationship with natural ecology. In Chapter One Suzuki states, "If there is no absolute certainty at the most elementary level, then the notion that the entire universe is understandable and predictable from its components becomes absurd."

  • Fritjof Capra: The Web of Life : A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems presents the idea of deep ecology: "The more we study the major problems of our time, the more we come to realize that they cannot be understood in isolation." That one sentence has profound implications for any educator.

Of course there are many more authors of note that offer insight into what might be called a learning ecology. As an educator, I often found that the most important ideas came from outside educational expertise. In the case of a learning ecology, we gain insight into potential through the lens of the biologist. This challenges the educator to find meaning connections and practical applications between the ecological unity and learning. Some may refer to this as a multi-disciplinary approach; I simply refer to it as a sensible approach.

Learning Ecology: Shifting the Underlying Ground

As I mentioned above, a metaphor can be used to expose a hidden grievance. If we state that a learning environment is a natural environment we invoke ideas of ecology, relationships across living systems, relationships to our physical reality, connectedness, organic growth, natural order, eco-systems, interdependence, and unity. Using these ideas as a lens, we can then explore human-built environments to seek improvement.

This results in what some might refer to as a paradigm shift. We now have four nickels instead of two dimes. One idea that I have described is that our current orientation to education is a direct extension of the design of the prerequisite. I first came across this idea in Neil Postman's exceptional book The Disappearance of Childhood (see Neil Postman: The Disappearance of Childhood). To risk an over-simplification, the concept of the prerequisite means that one group of people (adults) control what other people (youth) experience throughout their education. The assumption is that adults are somehow wiser and that youth require this wisdom. The proposition is, as Postman aptly describes throughout the book, completely false. I would add that it is also dangerous.

So perhaps then a learning ecology can be seen as a kind of grievance against the concept of the prerequisite in education. What happens here is that we are making an attempt to change the underlying assumption of education. Proceeding from this is a range of from-to statements, that is, statements describing the current state of things and the desired state of things.

For example, the idea of knowledge seems to change when the surrounding environment is altered. In traditional education, knowledge might be considered to be a static and monolithic form of communication. In other words, the knowledge is pre-determined (the concept of the pre-requisite) and therefore, is a sense, frozen in time. Under the influence of a learning ecology, the idea of knowledge becomes mobile and therefore a more dynamic form of communication through time. Is this idea of knowledge being dynamic new? Of course not - it's ancient, but what we are witnessing is an attempt to retrieve and recover this quality in our education systems. The implications of this single proposition are quite significant.

To extend this further, if knowledge is dynamic and communicating fluidly throughout time, then what becomes of curriculum as static knowledge to be delivered via mass communication? The simple answer is that static knowledge doesn't really exist - it is pure fiction, and not even good fiction at that, invented by the educational bureaucracy. The change being suggested by a learning ecology is not merely an ideological or theoretical one. It is a fundamentally practical and concrete change that has significant implications for the existing organizational design.

Tension: In Between Two Dimes

Any fundamental change in education will completely alter the environment. In other words, a move from a static concept such as the concept of the prerequisite to a dynamic concept like a learning ecology will fundamentally alter the organizational design of that enterprise. In simple terms, this means that traditional definitions of words such as teacher, student, knowledge, skill, and attitude will be renovated. It also means that the organizational hierarchy, that is specific jobs and roles, must also change. What happens is a basic and permanent shift in the existing structures of power and authority.

If a learning ecology is by default a dynamic and mobile framework, then the organizational design must be the same otherwise learning ecologies will be denigrated to dedicated teachers trying to promote learning ecologies inside a system that will control, confine and limit the impact. Learning ecologies can exist within a bureaucracy, but they are islands completely surrounded by a vast sea of pre-requisites. This is what makes learning ecologies far easier to imagine and idealize about than to actually implement. And while a learning ecology can be implemented, the opportunity for it to move off the island is remote under existing circumstances.

This is precisely what happened to The Virtual Community Project some tens years ago. It was interesting to remind myself of something I had wrote at that time about the ecology of learning:

The Ecology of Learning focused on developing approaches to learning that foster well-being, community, teams, responsibility, respect and trust. Our Ecology Of Learning sought to provide a place where we could explore learning from both an individual and collective perspective. Differences in ability were viewed as an advantage not a disadvantage. Capacities and abilities in others not normally encouraged by traditional curriculum were seen as an opportunity to grow. Standardized tests were deemed obsolete. The success of each individual student was deemed more important than imposed standards. Interestingly enough, the students would often develop goals that often pushed me pretty hard as well. It was an odd feeling standing in front of a group of thirty-two twelve and thirteen year-olds knowing that I could no longer fall back on my own expertise.

Of course, this is a very elementary line of thought but does reflect where my thinking was, as a teacher immersed in pre-requisites, a decade ago. The classroom was an island, an island that was both advertised yet held in check by those in higher positions of authority than myself. An interesting aspect about an ecology of learning is that it is deceptively simple to implement, but extremely difficult to extend.

How To Embrace The Idea Of A Learning Ecology

In my own experience, I have found that the most important ideas that have come to me have come from outside the sphere of educational expertise. This is not a criticism of the many exceptional educational thinkers in the world, however, it is to say that to embrace learning requires more than educational expertise. A learning ecology, for example, can't really be understood in any meaningful sense without an understanding of natural ecology. This invites the possibility of exploring ideas such as those of Edward Wilson, David Suzki, Fritjof Capra, and others, in order to explore ecology from the inside out. It also assumes that we are willing to go out into the natural environment and experience it first-hand.

The main challenge for any practicing educator is to actually do something about the ideas, not in terms of new visions or theories, but to actually implement ideas about a learning ecology in a practical and concrete way. This means that we must find ways of bridging the gap between various kinds of expertise, in this case, expertise about natural ecology and education.

There are of course other metaphors, or perhaps just comparisons, that can be made. For example, the intersection between learning and new media, or learning and cultural diversity, can also be probed. Ecology is not the only way to probe learning. And perhaps it is in the diversity of perspectives, rather than promoting a single one, that we find the most interesting avenues to explore.

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