Ecological education is about applying natural patterns and principals to the design and implementation of our education systems.
Contrary to how it sounds, ecological education is not teaching students about the environment, though, that is certainly important (for reasons that I hope will become clear). What I’m talking about is creating a model of education that reflects the patterns and principals of ecology.
Why apply ecology to schools? Ecology is the most resilient and stable system that we know of. Ecosystems are self-replicating, self-propagating, and self-maintaining. As natural systems increase in complexity and resiliency over time, they use resources more 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. This net is not unlike the social connections of a school, links between concepts, or the neurons that make up our minds.
In ecological systems, the end of every process is the beginning of another. Every organism depends on countless others and is, in turn, relied upon by others. From an ecological perspective, the goal of education is not the acquisition of knowledge but the creation of links between concepts. Put another way, ecological education is about how connected that knowledge is. It’s about seeing individual concepts as being part of a whole. In an age of instant access, knowledge is less important than skills. Education should be less about regurgitating facts and more about finding the right information for the situation and applying it in new and unexpected ways. This means creating links. Creative problem solving is the ability to see or combine previously disconnected concepts in new and novel ways. So what would ecological education look like?
- students being exposed to multiple ideas, concepts, and possibilities have more choices to draw from when solving complex problems or working on creative tasks.
- school projects consciously created to bridge curricular content (science and social studies, as an example) help reinforce and connect concepts.
- the physical structure/layout of schools should facilitate cross-curricular initiatives by helping to facilitate dialog between teachers of different disciplines. The physical space ought to encourage 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.
Expanding The Adjacent Possible In his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson speaks of the importance of expanding the adjacent possible. The concept is simple enough to understand; actions that expand the adjacent possible open doors; that is to say, they increase choices. Like a forest moving through succession, each stage expands the number of possibilities for the next, until one day, the bare soil becomes an interconnected forest. From a pedagogical perspective, we all want to be forests. Learning is a successional process that builds off of past learning and expands possibilities for next. I propose that the resilient student is one who’s adjacent possible is so wide and vast that their potential is limitless; to have been exposed to as many different ideas, concepts, and experiences as possible so that by the time they leave high school they have more options than they’d ever thought imaginable. As often pointed out by educational theorist Sir Ken Robinson, we are preparing students for a future that we do not know; the resilient student then, the one who’s adjacent possible is the widest, is best positioned for success (however defined).