An Ecological Approach To Education: Applying Nature To Nurture

What is Ecological Education? No, it’s not teaching students about the environment, though, that is certainly important and something that should be integrated into as many aspects of the curriculum as possible. What I’m talking about, however, is creating a model of education that reflects the actual patterns and principals of ecology.

Why you ask? 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 their resources more effectively by cycling them though their tens of thousands of interaction. As it turns out, the web of life is a net that’s held together by the connections. I personally believe that observable ecological patterns and principals have profound implications for the design of all systems… including those that educate.

In an earlier post, Eliminate Work And Waste, I argued that creating connections creates resiliency. Some simple ecological examples may be:

  • trees being able to draw water from multiple resources (precipitation, aquifers, water trapped in organic mulch) are less likely to suffer drought.
  • birds that have a diverse diet of seeds and insects to choose from are less likely to starve.
  • the branching patterns of trees and rivers ensure maximum contact and distribution of nutrients and water.
  • biodiversity ensures that there are many occupied niches and that nutrients are used as many times as possible before leaving the system.

Sure, that’s great but can we really apply these lessons to education? Well, here’s a few that I see:

  • 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 that bridge curricular content (science and social studies, as an example) help reinforce and connect concepts.
  • the physical structure/layout of schools could set up to help facilitate cross-curricular initiatives by helping to facilitate dialog between teachers of different disciplines.
  • differentiated instruction and approaching outcomes from multiple learning angles helps ensure that each student is likely to experience concepts in a form that is accessible to them.

Coming from an ecological perspective, I would argue that the goal of education should no longer be cramming as much information as possible into the minds of students but, rather, to foster resiliency. In an age of instant access, I argue that 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; often in new and unexpected contexts.

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 opportunities and potential. Like a forest Moneygram online moving through succession, each stage expands the number of possibilities for the next, until one day, bare soil becomes an interconnected forest. From a pedagogical perspective, we too, are in the business of expanding adjacent possibles; 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 then they’d ever though imaginable. As often pointed out by educational expert 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).