Deep Learning Ecologies: Set Conditions for 21st Century Learning

You live and work in turbulent times. You face wide-ranging change in many areas. Increasing contact with diverse individuals brings new perspectives. Decisions grow more difficult. Underlying dynamics create massive interdependencies. Almost every challenge emerges from multiple possible causes. In all parts of your life, you recognize a swirl of uncertainty. The organizations where you work, play, and worship experience uncertainty of membership, funding, and focus.

Now, imagine you find yourself charged with leading or supporting learning in your setting. You are accountable for ensuring that people get feedback and support they need to do their jobs. Or you are a leader who wants establish patterns of learning and curiosity across your system. Or you might be a professional development leader who is accountable for learning across the organization. And in this turbulent world, you recognize that traditional modes and methods of teaching and learning don’t provide what people need.

The complexity and uncertainty of work and life in the 21st century requires systems to be resilient. The people who work in them need adaptive capacity to respond to unknown and emergent challenges and stressors. In human systems dynamics (HSD) we talk about “adaptive capacity” as being:

  • Sensitive to patterns of interaction and decision making
  • Responsive to the opportunities and challenges that emerge from those patterns
  • Robust enough to build connections that are agile, strong, and flexible

Adaptive capacity prepares you to meet the needs of this century. In a time of burgeoning knowledge, facts, and information, adaptive capacity goes beyond learning based on isolated facts. It includes the ability to make sense of the world through observation and interpretation. In a diverse world, individuals and groups must be adept at finding what is true and useful. They need to take this awareness from one experience to another. In a world where you encounter new ideas and challenges at every turn, teaching and learning must reach beyond either/or and find a more generative path. Everyone is learning. Everyone is supporting others’ learning.

At Human Systems Dynamics (HSD) Institute, we believe that teachers and instructors of the future set conditions for building adaptive capacity. This requires a more organic, emergent approach to teaching and learning than the expert-based, mechanistic models that dominated in the past. This innovative approach will create deep learning ecologies that support generative teaching and learning. Both the role of the learner and the role of teacher will shift, blurring as they move into a shared role of co-learners, working together to set the conditions that shape the interdependence and diverse working relationships that characterize natural ecologies. In HSD we have identified differences that are possible in these new ecologies.

Consider first how we have thought about the systems we established to carry out our educational purposes. The metaphor was born in the early industrial age. Education or training was established as an assembly line. Learners passed from one grade to the next; one class to the next; one set of standards to the next. Adults who were being trained passed from one course to the next; one set of competencies to the next. It was what we knew would move large numbers of learners through a series of courses with the least variation or disruption.

In such a system, progress is measured by the age or tenure of the learner. Success is measured by how well learners replicate learning that is expected. They are rewarded for how well they follow policies and procedures that define what it was to be a good student, learner, or worker. In this assembly-line metaphor, teachers or trainers are often given specific curricula, with a set scope and sequence of teaching events. They are even, in extreme approaches, given scripts that dictate their interactions with students. Their role is to stand as the expert, controlling the flow of information to ensure students find the “right” answers.

In the “assembly line” metaphor, policy making is about standardizing the work for all teacher/trainers and students. Expectations are specifically defined to eliminate variance and increase efficiency. Learning and behavioral change are seen as linear experiences, with clear cause-and-effect relationships. External rewards and incentives reinforce desired behaviors at all scales of the system.

In HSD, we envision a different metaphor for teaching and learning. Rather than an assembly line, we see an ecology. Learners, teachers, and others in school systems work together in interdependent relationships that focus on real-world problem solving and learning.

We see learners as having opportunities to engage with materials and concepts, generating new questions and finding answers that are both true and useful. Students engage in their own learning, having agency to set conditions for their own success. Teachers engage with students as they support them, providing necessary resources and inviting innovation. They help their students build adaptive capacity that truly prepares them for the uncertainty of the 21st century.

Policies and practices support these relationships by building coherence across the system, while ensuring agility to meet local needs. Change is recognized as unpredictable and emergent. Motivation and incentive to change emerges from the interactions of individuals and groups who are engaged in meaningful work.

The table at the end of this article outlines these differences. As you review these descriptions, consider your own experiences in your years in school. Consider your experiences as a learner in countless workshops and training courses. Consider your experiences as a supervisor or provider of those training situations. What parts of this ring true to you?

We want to honor those creative educators—teachers, trainers, supervisors—who work inside the system, as it exists, to provide a different experience for their learners. We each can point to highly engaged classrooms or workshops that function with the interdependence and diversity of an ecology. Those teachers and instructors intuitively recognize and account for the complex nature of teaching and learning. They set conditions in their learning spaces for generative growth and development.

Given what we have seen in classrooms for adults and children, we believe these interactive, meaningful learning experiences can become the norm at all scales. Embedding this organic view of teaching and learning into our systems will allow us to better prepare learners for a complex future they cannot predict or control. We use the principles, concepts, models, and methods of HSD to set conditions across the system for deep, generative learning.

In early May we will offer an Adaptive Action Lab where you can use these principles to explore your most challenging teaching and learning situations. You can consider how you to about system-wide change to establish these deep learning ecologies.

If you find yourself in the following list, you should plan to attend. Are you:

  • A supervisor who wants to engage your employees in ongoing learning to strengthen current skills or build new ones?
  • An organizational leader who wants to build adaptive capacity across your system?
  • A leader in professional learning or professional learning groups, you can use these principles to establish deep learning ecologies in your courses, workshops, and labs?
  • A searcher who is curious about how you might use this approach to create self-organizing patterns of transformation for yourself and others?

Follow this link to learn more about Learning Ecologies and Adaptive Action: Engage in Generative Teaching and Learning. It will be offered May 7, 9, and 15, 2018, online for 2-hour sessions, 11a – 1p (CDT). Don’t miss out! Join us and become a part of this lively and continuing conversation.

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