Holistic Education Column
The Ecology of Learning
A holistic understanding of education goes beyond any specific method of teaching. It is, rather, a philosophical orientation, a worldview applied to questions of human development, the meaning of knowledge, and pedagogy. We can say that the Montessori approach, or Waldorf education, or some other model embodies holistic qualities, but no one method defines “holistic education.”
This is why I argue that holistic education is a vital part of the larger cultural shift taking place in our time. The new ways of looking at health and healing, spirituality, politics, business and economics, food and agriculture, and even the arts, are closely allied to these new ways of looking at how children learn and how we ought to bring them into relationship to society.
This evolving perspective, across the various domains of our culture, is an ecological worldview. It appreciates the interconnectedness of everything in the cosmos. Nothing exists outside of a context, an intimate relationship with its surrounding environment. Living beings evolve biologically to adapt to the conditions of their ecological niche. Cultures evolve, as the wonderful theory of Spiral Dynamics explains, to adapt to a wide range of environmental conditions (geography, technology, demographics, and so on). Ecology means mutual relationship. Instead of looking for mechanical causes and effects in nature, we look at processes of co-creation, of self-organization in response to surroundings.
Ecology teaches us that natural systems are dynamic, diverse, and intricate. An ecosystem is healthiest when numerous species interact to provide food, habitat, and recycling for each other. When climate patterns change, or sudden events (floods, fires, diseases and the like) alter a habitat, life thrives best if there are various species, with various means of adapting, around to respond. The weakest ecosystem is a monoculture, an artificial selection of one variety at the expense of everything else. Modern agriculture aims to maintain monocultures with aggressive assaults on natural ecology such as powerful and toxic chemicals and genetic engineering. We have learned how serious the consequences of this aggression can be.
Our present system of standardized schooling was devised by the same industrial mindset that invented aggressive agriculture. Schooling strives to produce an educational monoculture—an authorized curriculum, mechanically “delivered” to students through textbooks and scripted lessons, backed up by relentless testing and grading. We accept that this is what “education” means because we are immersed in the modern worldview, which promises mastery over natural processes. But a holistic worldview makes it clear that the organic process of learning is the cultivation of authentic relationships between person and world, between individual and society, and that to mechanize this process is to replace a rich and diverse ecology of learning with an unhealthy monoculture.
This unhealthiness shows up in the alienation, boredom, disengagement, bullying and violence we see in so many schools. As the homeschooling advocate John Holt observed in his insightful writings, children are born to learn, and are naturally curious; the alternative education literature is filled with stories of young people who entered school with enthusiasm about the world only to become discouraged by the routines of industrial schooling. Their enthusiasm usually returns when they find learning environments characterized by genuine community and a flexible curriculum (or none at all) that respects their concerns and questions.
These alternative schools and homeschooling experiences honor basic ecological principles: the multidimensional and dynamic nature of learning and the vital importance of caring relationships. When a learning environment is ecologically healthy, then natural processes of co-creation and self-organization become evident. The arbitrary authority of adults gives way to mentorship and friendship, with teachers able to be learners in appropriate situations. In other words, knowledge is not fixed in advance and handed down (“what every third grader must know…”) but is co-created through dialogue and collaborative inquiry, as radical educators like Krishnamurti, Paulo Freire and Parker Palmer have described.
Furthermore, each student’s understanding emerges through self-organization. Visionary education thinkers since Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Emerson have recognized that true understanding—that is, meaningful and relevant knowledge—must be generated within the learner’s own mind and experience. The psychological theory of constructivism, based on the pioneering research of Piaget, Vygotsky and their followers, confirmed that people construct their own knowledge through engaged interaction with the environment. In recent years, holistic scientists such as Prigogine, Varela and Maturana have supported this picture with their sophisticated descriptions of the chemical and biological process of self-organization. It seems that nature itself is not mechanical and authoritarian; education should not be so, either.So an ecology of learning is not a curriculum for environmental education. We need to get past our cultural tendency to look for a curriculum to address every social issue or political goal. A caring relationship with the planet is one element of a caring relationship with one’s entire environment—family, community, culture as well as local geography. An ecology of learning is concerned with this totality of the growing child’s experience. This is what makes such an education holistic.