I want to try, in this brief article, to sketch a particular approach to the matter of learning, which I term an ecological approach. I believe this to be a new approach and I believe, too, that it is much needed.
Firstly, why is a new approach needed? Simply because the present approaches are generally wanting in some way! Essentially, all current approaches could be said to fall into two territories, externalist and internalist.
The externalist territory is composed of two warring camps, the instrumentalists and the educationalists. The instrumentalists ask what kind of learning is going to be most (literally) profitable in the world and they answer with one word – ‘skills’. The educationalists ask what kind of human beings are going to flourish in the world.
The internalist territory is also carved up with warring groups. The technicists see the mind as a computer and focus their attention on the capacities of the student-as-graduate to thrive in a digital age. The humanists, in contrast, continue to see higher education as a space of character-building and pump up the human virtues that serious learning may bring in its wake.
Despite all their many differences, these approaches to learning all falter in a single way, in being concerned largely with either the student as a human being or the student in the world. What is needed, rather, is a relational account that brings both student as human being and the world together. (It is true that the idea of the student as a global citizen does this to some extent but insufficiently. I shall come back to this matter below.)
However, a relational account is itself insufficient, for the questions remain: what kind of relationship (between the student and the world)? To what end?
It is here that an ecological approach to learning makes its entrance. The idea of ecology points to an interconnected world, and to systems in the world whose sustainability is in doubt. But the idea of ecology also points to humanity’s stake in the world and even to its responsibilities towards the world, not least in addressing the impairments that have arisen due in part to humanity’s actions.
Given these considerations, an ecological approach to learning will invite students to confront and engage the world in its fullest sense. In this learning, the world is not to be perceived as ‘out there’. Rather, the student is helped to understand that she or he is already immersed in the world in all its facets. In this learning, students come to tease out connections between their core studies and the ecologies of knowledge, social institutions, persons, learning itself, culture, the economy and the natural environment.
This makes for unsettling learning experiences. The student is confronted with questions such as: ‘what are the implications of …?’; ‘what would you do if …?’; ‘how would you choose between …?’; ‘how would you compare this as against that?’; and ‘how would you improve the wellbeing of (x)?’.
It will have been noticed that in the list of seven ecosystems just identified, the economy and the natural environment are placed sixth and seventh. This is deliberate.
Over the last fifty years or so, the economy has come to be privileged in Western higher education. If the matter of an ecological approach is broached, there is an understandable tendency to add the natural environment. But, as indicated, a proper ecological approach to learning should go much further than those two ecosystems, and embrace at least those five other ecosystems. For students are people who will be embedded in all of those ecosystems through their lifespan, and higher education is well placed to help them make connections with the wider world.
An eyebrow may be raised at the inclusion of ‘culture’. But culture is also inescapable. However, it needs to treated again in the fullest way. As noted, there is much talk of ‘students as global citizens’. Taken seriously, this is precisely a matter of culture, of enabling students to understand themselves as persons in a world of many cultures.
Nor is this just a matter for the humanities and social sciences. Today, using modern technologies, an undergraduate civil engineering course could be linked to another such course, say in a developing country, and the students be encouraged to explore together the role of the civil engineer in both societies and the ways in which civil engineering might enhance - or impair - the total social and physical environment.
An ecological approach, therefore, can doubly advance learning. It can bring horizons of infinite breadth into the curriculum and it can dramatically advance the pedagogical environment, putting students much more on their own mettle, causing them to confront challenging issues and requiring them to develop as persons.
To speak in these terms is not fashionable these days, but it is difficult to see how otherwise we are to develop a higher education that is going to be adequate for the twenty-first century.
Ronald Barnett is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education, University College London Institute of Education. For forty years, he has been developing the philosophy of higher education as a field of study. His latest book is The Ecological University: A Feasible Utopia (Routledge, 2018).