A compost theory of learning

Ecologists have discovered that ecosystems go through successive stages in continual evolution. The current state is emergent from the last and sets the stage for the next. Each stage changes everything as if it depends on total cooperation and interdependence. This gave me a new way to picture learning and instructional design a decade ago.A lake is an ecosystem. There are obviously fish and aquatic plants that thrive in this environment. There are also particular insects, birds and bacteria that contribute to the health of the lake. Lakes eventually evolve into wetlands. Top soil erosion and decaying life forms raise the bottom of the lake to become uninhabitable to fish and aquatic plants. Plants that thrive in marshes take root. Reptile and amphibians find homes in the shallow water and dense foliage. The birds and insects change also.

Swamps choke themselves out by composting everything that dies. The decaying plant and animal life fills in the wetlands and a meadow emerges. The very rich top soil supports an amazing abundance of different grasses, wildflowers and fast growing trees. Mammals appear as the reptiles and amphibians disappear. Different birds and insects move in and reproduce. As the meadow life forms decay, the PH balance of the soil is changed. It eventually becomes ideal for hardwood trees, but lethal to all the meadow life forms. A forest then appears with ferns that thrive in shaded ground and fungi that need moist and dark places to grow. Different animals, birds and insects take up residence. Rotting logs and underbrush provide kindling for raging forest fires. This destruction creates clearings in the dense forest canopy for other life forms that need sunshine to thrive. The evolving is endless.

Learning occurs in successive stages like this. Movement depends on composting. The initial lake is like a briefing where we learn of ideas. We know what is being said. The composting takes over when we realize we only know how to talk the talk, not walk the walk. We can sound smart but not act smart. We know what the idea is, but we don't know how do it.

The wetlands is like ways we learn a new skill, procedure or workaround. We practice it until we get it right. We learn by doing and making mistakes. We get a better idea of how it make it work and how to get the results every time. The composting takes over when things go wrong and trying harder makes it worse. Our routine success feeds the failure. Our reliable habit becomes a problem. Everything we know how to do falls short of fixing the mess we've made.

The meadow is like the ways we learn to see the system, change the diagnosis, understand the cycles and close the causal loops. We understand why things happen, why our routines make it worse and why the system pushes back when we resist it. Our awareness expands to include all the stakeholders and all the interdependencies between them. The composting begins when we are overwhelmed by the complexity of the situation. Our minds cannot cope with all the viewpoints, hidden agendas and long term interests. We feel defeated in our attempt to outsmart the system, second guess the emergent dynamics and control the effects we have on everyone.

The hardwood forest is like the ways we return to innocence. We value our questions more than our knowledge. We let go and go with the flow of happenstance. We prefer to "not know" to have the fun of finding out, realizing and relating to new discoveries. We've outgrown our fear of ignorance, mistakes and criticism. We allow for everything to be the way it is. Everything looks like a solution becoming a better solution, not a problem. Composting is essential. Without destruction, there's no change and change is life.

1 comment:

  1. What a fantastic post -- full of interesting insight. Thanks for sharing.

    I often think my mind is like a big compost pile.

    Best wishes.