The Ecology of Learning
by Ferdi Serim, Editor, MultiMedia Schools

As we approach the Equinox, our colleagues in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres are arriving at the same experience from opposite directions. Many of us in the North have relied upon technology to shelter us from the chilling forces of nature, while those in the South are ending their summer sojourns and returning to school. The balance point of light and dark has held significance to human culture that extends back into the mists of time beyond our reach. While it seems that the guiding vision of the past century was to dominate nature, we are emerging into a new understanding that elevates the attainment of balance above mastery.

Perhaps we resort to mastery in the face of forces too complex for our understanding. This seems to be the case in education, as every generation or so we attempt to force-fit learners into whatever is pedagogically fashionable. In the 1800s, Darwin’s phrase “survival of the fittest” resonated with the cultural climate, but it wasn’t until 1960 that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring brought the idea into the consciousness of everyday people that human behavior could have profound, global effects upon nature. While our impulses to “save the world” may lead us to recycle, it’s our out-of-balance behaviors that have put the world at risk in the first place. In a world that’s unlocking the secrets of the human genome, we’re still at the Noah’s Ark stage with what we’re willing to allow into our classrooms. Far too often we pit one practice against another in Darwinian mortal combat, rather than seeking a sustainable, balanced model that meets the needs of all classroom creatures.

It’s time we move beyond the convenient, predictable, and pointless discussions of technology versus traditional, process versus product, whole language versus phonics and enter into an understanding that a tool is only useful when it helps us reach the goal. Furthermore, as David Thornburg points out, “Any system that holds time constant and makes learning a variable is flawed.” Learning, like growth, takes as much time as it takes. How long does it take to grow a tree? It depends whether we’re considering apple trees or redwoods.

The first step is to agree upon what these goals are—for all learners. Next, we need the ability to discern whether our efforts are working for each student, as an individual, and tailor our subsequent efforts accordingly. Finally, we need to honor the fact that once the fundamental learning and skills needed for full participation in a democratic society have been mastered, different people will have different life goals. In a Darwinian model our goal would be to evolve a sufficient number of creatures at the top of the food chain, as well as an even larger number of creatures for these predators to feed upon. Sometimes it seems as though this is precisely the result we’re achieving.

In developing an “Ecology of Learning,” our focus shifts to diversity rather than dominance as a goal. Success is measured in the number of people who demonstrate the attainment of skills required to contribute to as well as to benefit from contemporary society. There is no inherent contradiction between the goals espoused by those who favor a “Back to Basics” approach to what I’m advocating, because everyone has a right to be provided with mastery of the fundamentals. Just as every house needs a firm foundation, so does every learner. However, sooner or later we need to leave the basement! In constructing the house of learning that this branch of my metaphor requires, we need more tools than simply a hammer, a saw, or a screwdriver. In designing the house, we need tools for visualizing, whether they be pencil and paper or 3-D Virtual Walkthroughs. In financing the house, we need to consider systems (heating, plumbing, cooking, wiring, and communications) and their maintenance costs. Just try building a house without a spreadsheet these days!

A House of Cards?
Our goal is not to build houses, no matter how sturdy, aesthetic, or economical. Our goal is to build a future, in a world where relationships are becoming more valued than objects. We are more concerned with the people who will live in our metaphorical community of learners than the type of housing they choose. Elevating the noble goal of higher test scores to penultimate status without ensuring that learners know how to apply what they learn is as empty as a house of cards. Here’s where Ecology takes the wheel: Only when we rise above the rooftops can we take in the view where our neighbors, our neighborhoods, and the surrounding environment simultaneously come into focus and into context.

The Right Tools, in the Right Hands
In this issue of MULTIMEDIA SCHOOLS, we glimpse this diversity in action. Fortunately, this miraculous world we share is far more varied than any set of classroom subjects. An Ecology of Learning ought to mirror the responsiveness and inter-relatedness we see in any healthy environment, whether it be high desert, rainforest, tidal flats, or tundra. Each of us, to some degree, lives out our professional life in a unique environment, yet some goals are transcendent, with lessons waiting to be shared.
Nothing is more fundamental than reading, yet in too many classrooms we’re working in the dark when kids don’t learn to read. Scientific Learning Corporation has developed a method which combines the power of technology with the power of neurological research into how the brain works, offering new hope to all students who struggle with developing this critical life skill (see “Glasses for the Ears”). Furthermore, in too many schools, test scores measure kids against a mythical model (the “normal” eighth grader does not in fact exist!) and too often test kids on material they’ve never been taught. Over the past 15 years the Northwest Evaluation Association’s Achievement Level Tests have provided much more useful information to educators, parents, and students. (This will be discussed in the next issue of MMS.)

A Job Worth Doing
How do we learn to manage these new tools? In keeping with our commitment to provide insight to library/media specialists, classroom educators and technology coordinators, in this issue of MMS you’ll find firsthand advice in Mary Alice Anderson’s “Media Center” column, Janet Murray’s “Librarians Evolving into Cybrarians” feature, and Bill Robertson’s “Integrating Technology into Instruction!”

Ecology is more than a metaphor, and Earthwatch is doing the real work of ensuring we have a planet upon which life can flourish. Once we have the techniques and information required to truly meet the needs of each student, we are also free to guide our students to the meaningful application of their knowledge. Our cover story demonstrates that teams of library/media specialists and classroom educators can not only change the world, but can help save it. Riverdeep Interactive Technologies is helping to extend the reach of Earthwatch’s powerful field work into middle and high schools around the globe, through the live, interactive events they host, in addition to the rich math, science, and language arts content that they provide to schools. Brainium is also providing empowered learning environments for students to increase their scientific understandings of the world (visit http://www.brainium.com for a free, 30-day trial membership).

Leaving No One Behind
What of those students who can’t physically participate in the life of their educational community? Rick Hillman shares an innovative approach in his “IDEA Works” column. Any system which fails to provide for the needs of all students is a leaky ark, regardless of its geographical, cultural, or economic profile. Andy Carvin reminds us that the E-rate must not be overlooked or taken for granted, if we are to preserve the health of our society through diversity.

Just as the rainforest needs all life forms it contains to survive and grow, we need all kinds of minds to meet our present and future challenges. Focusing on the learner, adjusting our efforts on the basis of accurate performance data, providing a firm foundation and then daring to direct the energies of our youth toward authentic, challenging tasks will bring us to an ecology where learning can flourish for all.

Communications to the author may be addressed to: Ferdi Serim, MultiMedia Schools, 11 Palacio Road, Santa Fe, NM 87505; 505/466-1901; fax: 505/466-1901; ferdi@infotoday.com.

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