Learning Ecology: Environmental Patterns for Deep Learning

What constitutes a generative ecology for deep learning? In this blog, Royce talks about how school leaders at all scales can set conditions for deep learning ecologies.


I am lucky to work in a space where I glance up from my computer and look out at a lakeside ecology populated with trees, grasses, reeds, and flowering plants. My little slice of the world also teams with wild life. The birds are diverse—ducks, geese, herons, eagles, crows, hawks, owls, jays, and song birds fill the air. Mammals—squirrels, cats and dogs, and the occasional raccoon—seem to engage in endless games of chase and hide-and-go-seek. The mandatory collection of frogs, toads, and other reptiles and amphibians play along the shore. In the spring and fall, we even get a few deer and foxes wandering through. At this time of year, the scene transitions from a lush, busy summer toward the quieter ecology of a frozen lake in the Minnesota winter. I marvel at the patterns of life that play themselves out in our backyard to create a generative, thriving ecology.

Recently some HSD Associates have been thinking about what constitutes a generative ecology for deep learning. One group of educators in Texas is talking about how school leaders at all scales set conditions for deep learning ecologies in classrooms and school buildings. As we design and implement online learning courses, we consider how best to establish powerful and productive learning ecologies in virtual space. In planning for Adaptive Action Labs focused on different topics, we talk about how to establish generative patterns of learning in those diverse ecologies.

My backyard and the deep learning ecologies we work to create are complex adaptive systems. Each ecology is open to unknown and unpredictable forces. The “agents” are interdependent with each other. The ecology holds a highly diverse array of agents, forces, responses, and exchanges. Each ecology functions in nonlinear ways. There are few direct cause-and-effect relationships. Each one exists in this moment, as a product of the past, adapting as needed in response to environmental changes to find greatest fit as a thriving ecology.  

As I look on this fall day at early evidence of transformation toward winter, I think about the patterns I see in this lakeside ecology that have been and will continue to inform our thinking about deep learning ecologies. I am also thinking about the new website we will launch next week and how we have built it as an ecology for learning about HSD.

  • An ecology requires diversity: Differing patterns of life and activity; water, air, and land; rain, sun, light, and dark; high activity and times of rest; mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, insects; grasses, reeds, shrubs, flowers, and trees. As we build our learning ecologies, we nurture diversity in thought, learning needs, experiences, materials, ideas, and stories. Whether we are face-to-face or in virtual space, we bring as much diversity as we are able to enhance the learning experiences. In our website, you will find a diversity of resources—events, glossary, blogs, downloadable papers and case studies, a rich bibliography—to support your ongoing learning about HSD.

  • An ecology requires coherence: What I see outside my window does not include an arid dessert landscape. Nor does it include the plant or animal life encountered in a jungle or at the South Pole. What I do see is a coherence that is shaped by the population’s similarity of needs for water, growing season, and light, for instance. In our learning ecologies, our work brings together diverse learners, across a variety of venues, topics, and applications. Our learning ecologies set the conditions that build coherence across the whole, sharing the learnings of HSD in high quality, engagement-rich, action-oriented experiences. In our new website, you will find clear themes of learning and action as you move across the different sections of the site.

  • An ecology requires adaptive capacity. As the days get shorter and the average daily temperature falls, I watch my little ecology adapt. Squirrels stock their stores and put on their winter coats. Last year’s fawns have grown stronger, ready for difficulties of a long northern winter. Trees shed leaves, and reeds at the edge of the lake die away. In the same way, we support learners as they adapt to new ideas and build skills in using HSD. We adapt our support, conversation, and engagements, depending on the type of course, on the venue, and on interests and needs of learners. We teach, and we learn, using Adaptive Action to build capacity. We have built the new website to respond to the needs of learners who come there, and we have built in the capacity to change and adapt over time as our resources grow and our learning continues to go deeper.

  • An ecology requires interdependence. Living systems in my backyard are open. Each species relies on other species for food or protection. These systems are open to multiple forces that keep the water clean—or not; that bring the rain—or not; that nurture green spaces in the face of growing urban sprawl—or not. The ecology’s life cycles, food chains, and natural weather cycles influence and are influenced by the choices and decisions of the humans who also inhabit the ecology. On the website we bring diverse learners, ideas, and learning experiences together to support a resilient and interdependent community of individuals, families, and teams who use HSD to shape their shared landscapes.

This week’s tool uses these four patterns as a foundation for a self-reflection about your learning ecologies. Whether you set conditions for a formal course, a meeting, a supervision plan, a performance assessment, or policies to shape your organizational ecology, consider how you can use these patterns to ensure continued deep learning across your organization or system. Be in touch and let us know what you learn.

Learning Ecology Table

In the table above, consider where your own learning ecology “fits” as you read the indicators from left to right. Then, ask yourself, “How can our system-wide policies, procedures, and expectations—both spoken and unspoken—shift to move us toward stronger patterns of diversity, coherence, adaptive capacity, and interdependence?”

  • Talk with others in your learning ecology about supporting each other’s intentions to move the bar.
  • Include these considerations in your short-term and long-term planning
  • Bring this out periodically to reflect on where you have shifted practices and how you might continue to strengthen the learning ecology in your system.
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