Natural Ecosystem of Learning

Schools that recognize the need to prepare their students for a changing world are knowingly or unknowingly in the process of converting from an engineered process to a model based on the laws that govern natural ecosystems

Grant Lichtman, #EdJourney p210

In #EdJourney, Grant Lichtman makes the link between schools that are effectively innovating and how natural ecosystems operate. He found that the schools demonstrating transformative learning were:

  • more dynamic – moving far away from one size fits all
  • more adaptable – functioning like outside world and adaptable to future change
  • more permeable – expanding learning beyond the four walls
  • more creative – moving past consumption of knowledge
  • self-correcting – based upon empathy, mindfulness and creativity

Using this, Grant proposes a model that shifts from Assembly-Line Education to a Learning Ecosystem.

The Learning Ecosystem Model of Education  is based on the elements of:

  • Evolution – in response to changing environmental conditions
  • Diversity – of ideas and approaches
  • Interconnectedness – flatter school hierarchies, bilateral relationships between teacher and student, connectedness between schools
  • Resilience – due to inbuilt adaptability to change
  • Permeability – boundaries have been pushed aside and the internet gives access to the cognitosphere.
  • Free Flow of Energy and Resources – money, people, knowledge and time are reorganised, accessed and distributed in a flexible manner
  • Building Structures – structures are created and dissolved based on current and future need

As I read the explanations of each element (much more in depth in the book than my brief summary above) I found myself nodding vigorously, dog earing pages and writing notes. This was all sending me back to my MEd thesis reading and writing on Complexity Theory in Education.

Complexity Theory is the study of complex, adaptive systems and essentially says that all parts of the system are linked through networks and the behaviour of the whole complex system is greater than the sum of its parts (see Complexity by Waldrop and The Hidden Connections by Capra for more). The four requirements for a complex adaptive system  and how they relate to education can be seen as follows:

  • Redundancy amongst agents – some shared experiences and understandings between those involved in the school
  • Diversity amongst agents – different perspectives and opinions
  • A means for agents to affect each other – in classrooms (like all social systems) this means is through communication. Collaborative learning with regular feedback loops can amplify this element
  • Distributed, decentralised control structure – flatter hierarchies and participatory pedagogies enable this. Decentralised control also means no predetermined understandings: more growth minded than goal oriented.

This is not a chaos theory and uses constraints to enable creativity to occur (see my recent post on enabling constraints). It also goes against traditional conceptual change models that aim to move students from their “wrong” understanding to a “right” answer. Under complexity it is seen that students will interpret learning experiences differently according to diverse perspectives, what they have experienced previously and it is unpredictable as to exactly what understanding they will emerge with. Essentially, learning is an ongoing cognitive process where we can grow student understandings but not predetermine what that understanding is.

Learning Pathways Diagram from my thesis

Learning Pathways Diagram from my thesis

Complexity approaches to education situate teachers firmly in the middle working with students and as a part of the system (read Engaging Minds for an in depth exploration of Complexity in the Classroom). This aligns firmly with Grant Lichtman’s vision as teachers as the Farmers who are also part of the ecosystem (in EdJourney but also shared in this great article on Edutopia).

All of these aspects align well with the Supporting Future-oriented Learning and Teaching report by Rachel Bolstad and Jane Gilbert, so if the main question is:

How Might We remodel our school practices to ensure we are adaptive to future societal changes?

The Learning Ecosystem proposed by Grant Lichtman provides the guidelines for just how we can do this. This means the main question really is:

Why hasn’t your school started making the shift?


p.s. apologies as today I definitely broke the 28 minute rule of #28daysofwriting


5 thoughts on “Natural Ecosystem of Learning

  1. I have not read the work on complexity theory, but wonder how it aligns with the Constructal Law of Adrian Bejan that says that all structures through which anything flows will form in ways to minimize resistance to the flow. If what flows through schools is knowledge, then it is inevitable that more schools will organize structurally to maximize the flow of knowledge and that other structural elements will tend to fall away…or the system will fail as artificial.

  2. Great post. Your last question is an interesting one. My thinking around why schools haven’t made the shift has to do with the fact that their entire existence and identity is centred within a reductionists system. It would seem to be a self deceiving belief that you can merely create a school centred on complexity thinking while when in fact everything points the other way. (I can say this from experience of having tried). The schools entire identity is found within reductionism – its either one or the other you cant have both. Perhaps for a school to truly operate as a complex adaptive environment it would not be called a school.
    This same line of thinking goes for the participants in the school as well, the name and role of teacher and pupil presently hold to much power wrapped up in identity formed by the discourse of Western Education. I like the idea of idea of co-learner, as suggested by Davis and Sumara in the book you link to (Engaging Minds) but in reality it is impossible to achieve while still operating within an environment whose entire existence and methodologies operate counter intuitively to the underpinnings of complexity thinking.Love to hear your thoughts

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  5. Hi Steve,

    Dennis Sumara and I have read your post. It reminded us that ideas of complexity within education began as theoretical. In the next phase researchers and educators started to use ideas of complexity to provide explanations. We seem to now be at the stage where it is time to enact the ideas of complexity when designing learning for students, design learning environments, designing curriculum, and designing schools. You ask an interesting question. We suggest that the shift will be more difficult that some of us have ever imagined.

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