Designing for — and telling stories about — ecological pedagogy

Today a handful of my graduate students at the University of Colorado Denver begin an eight-week adventure in digital storytelling. Our course, Learning with Digital Stories, has — after serving for many years as a staple of the Information and Learning Technologies Masters program — been redesigned to align closely with the digital storytelling phenomenon DS106. Like DS106, my students will blog regularly (they’re utilizing a variety of platforms — Blogger/Blogspot, Wordpress, and Wix are favorites), explore narrative and develop technical design skills driven by personal interest (or “focal themes”), and will leverage open and social networks (we’ll use Twitter more frequently than our university-sanctioned LMS).

As noted in our syllabus, student “success in this course will not be determined by showcasing a glittering final project. Rather, you are challenged to practice digital storytelling with others on a daily basis, and to demonstrate your understanding of why this matters for you and others.” For students in INTE 5340, our course is, quite literally, learning with and through digital stories, or a series of social practices imbricated among multiple academic, social, and professionally-relevant settings.

Because we’re learning within the constraints of a shortened summer term, it’s necessary that my students quickly identify and then deeply dive into a chosen “focal theme.” In this respect, our course differs from recent DS106 iterations that have focused collectively upon noir or The Wire. For our course, student interest-driven storytelling will likely — and intentionally — lead to a fracturing of narrative pathways as students select personal and professionally-relevant topics to explore and share with one another, with colleagues, and (perhaps for those who are K-12 teachers) their own students. Not surprisingly, some of my students have already begun sharing their themes with me; grief, change management, heritage conservation, becoming a mother, becoming a vegan — these are but a few of the themes that will serve as conceptual cairns guiding students’ chosen storytelling journeys.

Wonderfully, some of my students have already begun to engage the DS106 community as they develop their themes:

And like my students, I, too, have selected a focal theme for my storytelling. Learning with Digital Stories not only provides me with an opportunity to explore a particular passion and curiosity, it also motivates me to more fully embrace a long-standing professional commitment — ecological pedagogy. The forthcoming activity of this blog will allow me to reflect upon designs for ecological pedagogy, share stories that describe and expand understandings of teaching across settings, and make public my practice as a (teacher) educator who creates, facilitates inquiry, and researches across multiple classroom, community, and online settings.

A few weeks ago I was invited to address CU Denver’s CU Online Spring Symposium. There, I offered an initial definition of ecological pedagogy as an approach to teaching that “leverages the tools, resources, and social practices of multiple settings in service of student interest-driven, networked, and production-centered learning.” My initial definition was informed by a number of influences —from my own K-12 and higher education teaching, to my civic engagement and game-based learning collaborations with students and teachers, to the learning and design principles articulated by the Connected Learning Research Network (stories about these influences will undoubtedly appear on this blog in the near future). Characteristic practices of ecology pedagogy, I further argued, would ideally draw upon various relations and resources situated both within and outside traditional classroom (or online education) settings, including: discipline-specific conventions and bodies of knowledge, social media platforms and networks, professionally-relevant applications of learning, community relationships and circumstances, grounding in culture, and sustained engagement with critical issues. Collectively, these features can help create the conditions for teaching within and across settings.

I concluded my talk by challenging CU Denver faculty and instructional designers to consider the following:

  1. How are my students’ practices — those that are cultural, disciplinary, and locative — honored and then incorporated into my (online) teaching?
  2. How do my professional practices already cross multiple settings, and how might this inform my (online) teaching?
  3. If the relevance and impact of my students’ learning is so-called “real world” application, how does my (online) pedagogy connect across settings?
  4. Why does this “place” — a classroom, an online LMS, a park — and its relations among a learning ecology, matter to my students and their learning?

Questioning how pedagogy might jettison the classroom in favor of cross-setting activity recognizes that learning is already ecological. Thanks to research by learning scientists (seminal examples here and here), the richly documented practices of (teacher) educators, as well as efforts like Connected Learning and Cities of Learning, it is now well known that the interests and practices that seed and broker learning are not constrained by single settings like schools, or discreet points in time, or rigid disciplinary boundaries. Learners — whether youth or teachers — are no longer beholden to the classroom-as-container. Rather, learning occurs within and across settings, sometimes referred to as formal, informal, and nonformal. These various settings — such as a classroom, a community park or organization, an online affinity space or social network, a field-based science station, or someone’s workplace — are comprised of networks of people, resources and tools, information, cultural practices, and other relations. It is these distributed and dynamic learning ecologies that support the pathways and expressions of both individual learning and shared activity. Examples include the social learning ecology maps of youth in New York City or the civic caucusing of undergraduate students in Michigan. Despite the constraints of formal schooling, learning is an ecological practice situated within and across the social, cultural, and academic practices of various communities and settings.

So if learning — particularly learning that is openly-networked, peer-supported, and interest-driven — may be understood as ecological, then it should be possible to also design and facilitate teaching as a complement to cross-setting dispositions and practices. Yes, it should be possible. Sadly, formal schooling does a bang-up job of ensuring that learning occurs in this particular place, at that particular time, and for only these specific objectives (fortunately, Connected Learning and Connected Civics efforts appear to be chipping away at the much-maligned “grammar of schooling”). Even much-hyped K-12 trends — such as blended learning, flipped classrooms, and personalized learning — seldom recognize the cultural and community-based assets that learners carry as funds of knowledge from one realm of their life into another. Blended learning and flipped classrooms, in particular, dichotomize two settings, “classroom” and “online,” while failing to articulate how pedagogy can situate learners’ inquiry with(in) a multitude of everyday locations and communities. On the other hand, I contend that an educators’ orientation to ecological pedagogy likely exhibits strong affinity with other setting-specific commitments, such as those to place, equity, civic engagement, social justice, and cultural relevance — all are antecedents indicating how teaching can be designed to support students’ cross-setting learning.

My understanding of and experience with ecological pedagogy is formative, and will certainly change in concert with the activities of Learning with Digital Stories and my complementary research agendas. Over the coming weeks and months, I hope this blog documents with insight and honesty stories about the many locations, practices, and outstanding questions related to an ecological, or cross-setting, interpretation of pedagogy.

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