In the natural world, every organism inhabits an ecosystem which comprises the complex set of relationships and interactions among the resources, energies, habitats, and residents of an area for the purpose of living. Each organism within an ecosystem has its own ecology within the ecosystem interacting in its own unique way with its environment and the other inhabitants, seeking and using particular resources and forming particular relationships with the materials and events in its world.
Human beings are no different. We inhabit our own ecological (ecosocial) system which comprises the set of relationships and interactions among the people, resources, energies, habitats, and other residents of the particular environments we inhabit for the purpose of living. Where we are different to all other organisims on this planet is in our ability to learn and develop through this learning and to pass on this learning to other members of our species. Learning is therefore one of the most important dimensions of our ecology for sustaining and enhancing our life and the concept of a learning ecology provides us with the means to visualise the dynamics of complex self-determined and self-organised learning process and appreciate how the different elements of the ecology - contexts, process, will and agency, relationships and resources, fit together in a particular set of circumstances.
The concept of a learning ecology provides a more comprehensive and holistic perspective on learning, development and achievement than is normally considered in higher education. The value of an ecological perspective is that it encourages us to see our learning and development as a process that connects us in a holistic and profound way to other people, to the material resources in our environment and the events and circumstances of our lives, and to the things we want or need to do and achieve.
The proposition I'm developing is that an individual's self-created learning ecologies grow from the circumstances (contexts and affordances) of their life and they are established for a purpose that is directed to accomplishing short term (proximal) goals connected to more distant (distal) goals or life purposes. Their learning ecologies include their processes, activities and practises, their relationships and networks, and the tools and technologies they use, and they provide them with the opportunities, experiences, information, knowledge and other resources for learning, developing and achieving something that they value (Figure 1 & 2).
Figure 1 Components of a learning ecology (1)
The perpetual challenge of development
The perpetual challenge facing all human beings is fundamentally adevelopmental challenge focused on problems like 'learning to deal with and make the most of the situations, resources and opportunities in our lives' and 'solving the problems and challenges we encounter day to day'. There is also a developmental challenge emanating from within, 'how can I be and become a better human being.' These two forces, one intrinsic the other extrinsic drive our motivations which lead to us creating ecologies for learning, developing and achieving. These forces involve us in the continual process of becoming different which invariably means learning new things by adding to existing knowledge or skill, or replacing something which we already have. In this way development is integral to our daily project of perpetually becoming.
Figure 2 Simple conceptual tool for evaluating the components of an ecology for learning and development (1) .
Our ecologies for learning, developing and achieving are revealed in the narratives we tell about our significant learning and development projects and events. Our projects come in all shapes and sizes, and in all contexts. We might illustrate the idea of an ecology for personal development through the scenario of learning to drive a car (Figure 3) an important learning project for most young adults. The scenario involves the learner in a comprehensive and mainly informal way interacting physically and emotionally with his environment in order to develop the knowledge, awareness and practical skills to drive competently and safely.
The process begins when the learner decides they want to learn to drive(motivation/will) and take the test to demonstrate proficiency (proximal goal). Consciously or unconsciously their desire to drive will be embedded in the idea of a better and more productive life (distal goal). The individual has created a need and they must perceive and find the affordances available to them in their environment in order to meet this need. The individual, often with parental guidance and support, creates processdrawing on the affordances in their existing ecosocial system, to learn and develop themselves in line with their objective. The ecosystem they create includes context, resources, relationships and an unfolding (emergent) process over a significant period of time.
Figure 3 Personal learning ecology created in order to learn to drive a car and pass the driving test. Includes my context, affordances and process for learning to drive, the contexts in which I learn to drive, and a set of relationships and resources that enable me to learn.
Typically, the process involves:
- several months of dedicated activity reading, practising, discussing, observing,
- access to a car so they can practise
- access to information about driving and the rules of the road - either as a book/booklet, DVD or on-line resources
- a range of driving instructors including a trained professional instructor and untrained family members and friends
- physical environment - safe areas for practising - like empty car parks and quiet roads - then public highways with various traffic conditions
This example of an ecology for learning shows the learner seeing and using the affordances they have to learn to drive in their particular context - their social, physical and virtual environment. They formulate a specific goals - to learn to drive and pass the test to become a qualified driver. Their self-determined learning process may well be aided by a professional instructor but the learner also draws on resources available for learning in their own environment - the knowledge and experience of people they know (relationships) - family and friends. As they practise driving they are immersing themselves in situations that are relevant to their learning and developing their own case examples of situations they encounter on different sorts of roads in different sorts of driving conditions. The experience is rich in emotion (I experienced some today as I accompanied my daughter who is learning!!) which helps anchor their learning in memorable moments and incidents. Over time experience is accumulated in a range of contexts - road, traffic, day time/night time and weather. As they participate in this process they can tap into the experiential knowledge (resources) of the people who accompany them on journeys as both drivers and passengers and their new awareness also encourages them to be more observant as a passenger so that they begin to think like a driver, reading and anticipating situations even when they are not driving. The conversations they have about their experiences will also encourage them to reflect and learn through this process. This ecology aimed at becoming a competent driver - may last several months and perhaps involve 10's or 100s hours of time and effort in which learning and its embodiment in their driving practise is the primary goal. If they are not successful in their test they will experience and feel failure and have to overcome this as well.
Through their learning ecology a person will gradually master a body of procedural and experiential knowledge and practical skill and embody this knowledge in their driving and eventually reach the standard to pass the test. Their learning, development and achievement have emerged from their interactions with their everyday environment and the circumstances of their life and the idea of a learning ecology embodies all these things.
What's the point?
The point of any idea is in its value. Does the idea convey meaning that is useful, that helps us understand, appreciate or explain something. If it does can we use the idea to help us design/create better practices. In developing an idea like a learning ecology I'm trying to give the ecological metaphor new meanings that are relevant to learning, education personal development. But its one thing to persuade myself that an idea has meaning and quite another to persuade other people. Its my belief that the idea of a learning ecology holds different value for different audiences.
Firstly it has conceptual value: as a means to visualise the dynamics of a complex self-determined and self-organised learning process and to appreciate how the different elements of the ecology fit together to achieve a goal.
a means of enabling people to develop themselves for ever more complex relational and connected ways of thinking and behaving
For learners: The concept encourages them to see learning as a process and appreciate the ways in which they create processes that utilise and develop relationships and resources in order to do what they have to do in order to accomplish things they value.
For teachers: The concept may open up new possibilities for contexts, relationships and interactions as they appreciate that the learning ecologies of their learners' extend beyond the ecology they have created for their learning.
For universities: The idea offers great affordance for universities to visualise themselves as ecological entities enabling learners to create their own ecologies for learning, development and achievement.
I welcome feedback on the ideas I have set out in my book Exploring Learning Ecologies. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
1) Jackson N J (2016) Exploring Learning Ecologies Chalk Mountain https://www.lulu.com/ 2)Lifewide Magazine. Several issues on learning ecologies. Free to download at http://www.lifewideeducation.uk/magazine.html