Ecological Education – What Can Nature Teach Us About Education Systems And Learning?
Ecological education is a lot more than teaching students about the environment (though that’s part of it). Rather, ecological education at its core is about is creating systems that reflect the patterns and principals of ecology.
Why apply ecology to schools?
Ecology is the most resilient and stable system know to us. Ecosystems are self-replicating, self-propagating, and self-maintaining. Natural systems increase in complexity and resiliency over time and use resources effectively by cycling them through tens of thousands of interactions. As it turns out, the web of life is a net held together by connections. It I may draw a comparison, an ecological network is not unlike neural connections in the brain or – perhaps more abstractly – links within the curriculum, or social networks of our schools and communities.
Connections Strengthen Systems
In ecological systems, the end of every process is the beginning of another. Every organism depends on countless others and is, in turn, relies upon the whole. From this lens, the goal of education is not the acquisition of knowledge but the intertwining of it. The purpose of an ecological approach is to create students capable of applying knowledge from multiple domains in new and novel situations. Creative problem solving is the ability to see or combine previously disconnected concepts in new circumstances. So what traits would ecological education have?
- Students are taught various ideas, concepts, and career pathways through their studies.
- Students are consciously asked to apply their understanding across disciplines.
- Value creativity and define creativity as the linking of existing knowledge and techniques in novel ways.
- School projects are encouraged as a way to create cross-curricular collaboration and links.
- The physical structure/layout of schools would help facilitate cross-curricular initiatives by encouraging exploration and dialogue between teachers of different disciplines. The physical space ought to support the “collision” of ideas.
- Differentiated instruction and approaching outcomes from multiple learning angles to ensure that each student is likely to experience concepts in a form that is accessible to them.
- Each student is unique and has unique passions, interests. Individuals interests are encouraged even if they’re outside of traditional curricular boxes. Students are invited to apply curricular knowledge in the pursuit of their passions.
Expanding The Adjacent Possible
Stop for a second and imagine a list of possible actions that you could do this exact moment – among them, you might decide to close this browser, share this article with a friend, or stand up and do a dance. Let’s define this list of possible actions as your personal adjacent possible. In contract, there’s a list of things that are beyond your grasp (at least for now) – your adjacent impossible.
In his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, polymath Steven Johnson speaks of the importance of expanding the adjacent possible. Actions that expand the adjacent possible open doors – that is to say, they increase choices, abundance, and our potential future.
Natural systems (like forests) expand their adjacent possibles in a process called succession; a step by step process in which each stage uses existing connections to creates the conditions for future growth. In fact, the root word of successions is success. Ecologically speaking, success is the act of using what’s available to you and expanding its potential – expanding the adjacent possible. Expanding the adjacent possible is how parking lots turn into forests.
From an educational perspective, we want students to succeed. That’s to say; we want students to expand their potential futures – we want to increase their options and potential. We want students to be forests.
The Resilient Learner
A resilient student is one who’s adjacent possible is so vast that they have a seemingly unlimited number of paths. Over the course of their education (formal or otherwise), this student gathered so many ideas, concepts, and experiences that the see their future as abundant. As pointed out by educational theorist Sir Ken Robinson, we are preparing students for a future that we do not know; the resilient student is one who’s adjacent possible is the widest.