November 16, 2021

Connected Learning: Mimicking Nature?

Category: Connected Learning

The natural world is full of connections and interactions. Some are obvious, others are not so obvious. Still, relationships between various elements contribute to the way that a natural system functions. Exploring these relationships can provide insights and further support the importance of connections in a learning system.

This picture-perfect fall day has challenged me to consider all that might be unfolding in front of me. As the golden aspen leaves fall from the trees, I watch the birds migrating south. The field mice are busy storing up the nuts and seeds that the trees and flowers have left behind. The bees are gathering the last vestiges of pollen before tightening their hive for the winter months.  The elk and deer graze remaining green grasses in the fields while leaving behind scat as a nutrient for spring grasses and forbs. Water, air, soil, rain, foxes, rodents, bees, and bears all have a place in the system. Even the smallest organisms, the microbes and bacteria, contribute to the system, a complex network flush with interactions. In the waning days of fall, the multifaceted, intricate web of life is busy making the most of its resources. Each element in this system is deeply dependent and supportive of other elements in the system.

Complex systems exhibit a multitude of connections within them. Most ecologists would contend that when more connections exist, the healthier and more resilient an ecosystem might be. As connections are removed, the aptitude for the system to recover from disturbance is diminished, and it doesn’t function at its highest potential. Simply put, ecosystems thrive on connections. In a very similar way, learning can be amplified and enriched when connections are sought. Cultivating a network of learning resources can provide depth of insight, offer new angles for consideration, open new doors of opportunity, and support the overall educational experience. For this reason, studying the function and behavior of an ecosystem can reveal how necessary connections are for efficient and meaningful learning.

Although connected learning is not necessarily a new approach, its principles are surprisingly simple, logical, engaging, and effective. Connected learning challenges the learner to be part of a broader community of individuals, organizations, and resources that are aligned with a common interest and purpose. It asks the learner to construct networks and own their learning in an outwardly focused fashion. Nature functions through relationship and interaction. No species operates independently of other elements in the system. Admittedly, nature is excellent at building connections. Potentially there is much to learn from nature regarding the value and importance of a connected system for the purpose of learning.

The idea of gleaning insights from nature may not necessarily be new, but its emergence as a formal method of innovation certainly is. Biomimicry, the term for such innovation, asks, what might we learn from nature? The Biomimicry Institute proposes that the practice “seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.” Biomimicry looks at what nature does well and attempts to apply such designs or principles to social needs. Nature may have already solved some of society’s most vexing challenges. Accordingly, there is likely much to learn.

Returning to nature for inspiration offers exciting opportunities. Education is an area that society longs to improve upon. New strategies, techniques, systems, or plans are rather common. Many are well thought out and offer tremendous benefits. A connected learning approach encourages a “web of relationships.” Sound familiar? Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the premise for connected learning seems to take its cues from nature.

Much like linear energy chains in nature are impractical and leave the system poorly prepared, linear learning leaves students isolated from many more learning resources and potentially unprepared for larger life goals. Just as a fox is not dependent on one food source, a learner should not be dependent on one learning resource, a textbook or instructor. Resources can be found in the community, industry, home, school, or online. Connections, which all support the learner’s passions, may be teachers, coaches, employers, experts, parents, mentors, or even peers. Moreover, nature has shown that having multiple and diverse resources that can contribute to the system’s function adds strength to the system. For instance, a wide variety of bees, butterflies and other species perform the job of pollination. The task is not left to one species (functional redundancy), or the system would be vulnerable and not operate optimally.  Similarly, building a diverse network of resources that can contribute to learning goals can promote stable, thorough learning where gaps can be overcome.

Generally speaking, nature doesn’t pursue connections that it won’t benefit from or that it isn’t passionate about. Trees don’t pursue soils they won’t grow in. Pollinators don’t search out plants without flowers. Likewise, students should be empowered to explore topics through connections that spark their interest and curiosity. Connected learning must be interest-driven and to a great degree self-inspired. Connected learning is learning for a purpose. While there are exceptions to every rule, most of what nature does, including the connections that it builds, has a purpose. Typically, nature does not waste valuable energy on unnecessary tasks. Likewise, connected learning encourages production-centered learning that is relevant to the social system. Finally, the outwardly focused approach stimulates additional learning and can benefit others, an openly-networked concept. A cyclical process of learning, teaching/sharing, and learning again begins. Others in the system benefit from the learner’s commitment and involvement. Once again, this reflects the symbiotic connectivity we find in complex natural systems.

Connections in the natural world are essential. Connections serve as the basis for the way the entire system functions. The natural world thrives off interactions between various players in the system. Over time nature has learned that it must depend on other elements. Given nature’s insights, might this be an area that we can learn from? Wouldn’t it make sense to promote educational systems that mimic the sound principles that nature has already displayed?

Guest blog post by Philip Halliwell, PhD (Colorado State University – Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory)