The Learning Landscape

“the impossibility of knowing the totality of the learning landscape is not as important as understanding that such a vast, ever-changing landscape exists.”

Our 2nd #relearn event was held in Marlow, Buckinghamshire last week and provides the stimulus for this post.

(If you want a recap of the event, the ever-thoughtful @imsporticus has shared his reflections)

One of my post-event reflections was I could’ve done a better job facilitating the emergent group conversation. Whilst we are far from advocates of directing and controlling what is covered and how, I felt the discussion became overly constrained in seeing the learner/learning, in this case a player/athlete, and coach as inextricably linked. Some chatter the next morning on twitter went further down this route, ending up talking about the coaching process, rather than the learner and the learning process. Clearly a coach/facilitator/mentor etc can have a significant influence on learning, but it is so much broader than that. Later in the evening an example was given of a far-away country where high quality sports facilities are left open and accessible for young people to use without the need for adult permission and supervision. Considering what I have seen in England in the last two years, that sort of unstructured play opportunity could have a huge impact on learning and player/athlete development, but has nothing to do with a coach. This is just one example.

In the midst of ruing the missed opportunity to explore the breadth of the “learning landscape”, I was reminded of an article I have read a number of times by Diana Stirling, Associate Researcher at the Learning Development Institute - “Learning and Complex Adaptive Systems”. Diana mentions in the opening to the article that she is not a scientist but hopes to bring ideas from complexity science to a discussion around designing effective learning environments, with some particular challenges for formal education as we know it.

In my opinion the article does a brilliant job at doing just that, painting a more complete picture of learning and its dynamics than is often portrayed. As the article is written in a relatively relaxed style compared to academic papers, I have extracted a number of segments and inserted them in this post. They make for accessible reading and fit together quite well. Without going into great detail, some of the themes are:

  • humans (individually and collectively) are complex adaptive systems - they are dynamic, interactional, and changing, not static (that would be a complicated system and we have spoken many times about the limitations of treating people as complicated rather than complex)
  • conscious learning, whilst important, is only part of the learning landscape. Learning is adapting to best “fit” the environment/context
  • some clarifications on how the brain works, how much it really “controls” and debunking the view of “knowledge” as a static entity residing in a fixed location in the brain
  • bringing these ideas to bear in some critical thinking about current learning environments and future directions (whilst Diana has the formal education system in mind these ideas are extremely relevant to the learning of people involved in a range of roles in sport)

Whilst appreciating you will interpret the below in your own unique way, my hope is it becomes clear how broad the learning landscape really is and how embracing, rather than rejecting, this can help people be their best.

Warning: There are no “answers” provided here - just a stimulus for deeper thinking!

Diana Stirling - Learning & Complex Adaptive Systems

“When the human individual is viewed as a complex adaptive system and learning is seen as an essential dynamic on which the system depends for survival, conscious learning is recognized as the tip of the learning iceberg.”

“In having achieved survival up to the present moment, the agent as a system and the larger system(s) of which the agent is a part have engaged in a particular kind of learning that is inherent in adaptation. This learning involves maximizing the system’s fitness with regard to the larger environment.”

“To define learning as primarily a conscious human activity and judge other systems based on this view does not make good scientific sense. It makes a great deal more sense to take the longer and wider view that is supported by biology and evolutionary studies. From this perspective, a complex adaptive system must learn in order to survive. To learn in this sense means to successfully adapt to change. Seen in this light, the conscious human experience of learning is only a tiny fraction of all the learning taking place in an individual human at any moment. Learning does not necessarily involve understanding or meaning. All complex adaptive systems can be said to learn in this fundamental sense of the term.”

“In classic experiments as well as in experiences with victims of brain damage it has been shown repeatedly that within certain parameters, the brain can reorganize to adapt to its changed condition. This plasticity of the brain argues against its having a rigid structure. The familiar illustration of the brain divided into sections, each one labeled with a particular function, turns out to be misleading, at best.”

“Recent research on the brain has revealed that many of our former notions of brain organization were off the mark. The idea that there exists somewhere in the brain representations of objects or ideas seems highly unlikely in the light of results from researchers like Kelso, Fingelkurts and Fingelkurts, Varela, and many others.”

“The basic problem with the question: If the brain is not in control, what is? is that it assumes that some discrete entity must be in control. As the discussion of complex adaptive systems demonstrates, the problem lies in this assumption. To really grasp the implications of what complexity science asserts requires one to relinquish the assumption.”

“To view learning as a dynamic of the complex adaptive systems which comprise an individual human requires a shift of perspective. One has to relinquish the notion of the outside agent that controls the system in favor of an understanding of the immensely intricate dynamics of interrelations between and within systems from which no agent can be extricated.”

“The metaphor of the mind as a computer that controls the machine of the body does not hold up to scientific scrutiny. This is a crucial point when it comes to understanding the relationship of the nervous system to individual identity and a discussion of human learning. If Kelso is right, this challenges some of our assumptions about who we are as humans, how we learn, and how best to educate ourselves and our children.”

“The previous discussion of complex adaptive systems and brain functioning lends itself to a view of learning as an active, evolving process rather than as a product. In addition, it suggests that the learning process is a nonlinear one. Simple ideas of cause and effect cannot adequately describe the learning process. The ever-changing nature of the learning process makes a definition of learning in terms of products unworkable. The very best one can hope for by naming products is a snapshot of a moment, recognizing that, like all snapshots, the moment it describes is irretrievably transformed by time. Thus, the snapshot can never provide a definitive description.”

“It requires a recognition of each human as a unique entity within whom there is an irreducible and irreproducible context in which learning is taking place. The context is irreproducible in any other human, as well as in that same human at a different moment in time. Learning is not the process of capturing a moment, but a process integral to creating the moment. This is an important distinction, and one which merits consideration in any discussion of the design of formal learning environments.”

“While learning as a process may be fairly easy for the reader to go along with, learning as a nonlinear process may be a bit more difficult. Learning as a linear activity is deeply embedded in our language and philosophies.”

“Here the view is of knowledge as a noun, a static representation in the mind, and the process of learning is seen as an attempt to move discrete units of knowledge back and forth between the learner and…what? or whom? To use the word knowledge in reference to learning is to conjure an image that belies the intricate dynamics of which current brain research suggests knowledge is comprised.”

“Visser, whose work is steeped in an understanding of complex dynamics, defines human learning as ‘the disposition of human beings, and of the social entities to which they pertain, to engage in continuous dialogue with the human, social, biological and physical environment, so as to generate intelligent behavior to interact constructively with change.’”

“The value lies in approaching an educational environment with the assumption that every participant is naturally predisposed toward learning and in fact, is learning all the time. To design with this assumption in mind is to see the designer’s (and the teacher’s) role as more of a facilitator than as one who is to impart knowledge packets that must somehow be “gotten into” the learner. When we encourage an innate disposition to learn, we are activating a biological imperative. Even if one can accept that every participant is learning, there may be a discrepancy between the learning taking place and the learning intended by the teacher, curriculum designer, parents, facilitator or society. The focus in the educational system is often on what is not being learned, rather than what is being learned. The situation is further complicated by the fact that even learners themselves often cannot identify, are often not even aware of, vast tracts of their own learning landscapes.”

“The main point of this discussion of learning and different degrees of consciousness is to illustrate the fact that, while schooling focuses almost entirely on conscious learning, conscious learning constitutes only a small fraction of all the learning taking place in an individual at any particular moment. At the same time, the learning going on at all levels, conscious, potentially conscious, and nonconscious, comprises the entire individual context in which new learning is taking place. This raises the question of whether one can take into account a learning landscape the totality of which is unknowable. This paper argues that the impossibility of knowing the totality of the learning landscape is not as important as understanding that such a vast, ever-changing landscape exists.”

“A complex adaptive system does not exist in a state of total disorder; such a system is a chaotic one. Instead, there is always a certain degree of order present - some order, but not enough to lock the system into stasis. If the existing, dynamic order of thinking in an individual is an integral part of the context within which thinking takes place, then it stands to reason that the disequilibrium of each individual’s thinking within each one’s unique, dynamic learning landscape may be the most vital component to consider when designing formal learning environments. As we have seen previously, just before phase synchronization occurs in the brain, disequilibrium becomes pronounced. In the experiments we have discussed, there was a slowing of response time just before phase synchrony of the new skill took place. This might mean that a genuine change in the learning landscape of an individual may be preceded by some sort of confusion, awkwardness, or uncertainty. In learning a simple motor skill, this period is quite brief. Does this same process occur over a longer period for more complex tasks or skill acquisition? Do we allow for this in our classrooms? Is there time available for this kind of transition to take place?”

“Contrary to this view of the possibility of many excellent solutions for a presenting problem, often formal learning environments are organized around the assumption that there are single best solutions to well-known problems, and that these best solutions, in most cases, have already been discovered. Building on this assumption, the role of the teacher is often seen as to provide students with this best solution information, referred to in this system as “knowledge.” In turn, students are evaluated on their ability to demonstrate understanding of such knowledge in the form of “right” answers.”

“Generating ideas and pursuing possible avenues of thought is time-consuming. The thinker makes false starts and wrong turns, encounters blind alleys, collapses in a heap, reconsiders, and starts again. It is all part of the search. This may seem to be a waste of time, particularly when the teacher or textbook is perfectly capable of providing a “right” answer without all the bother. However, there may be no quicker way to stymie student interest and motivation than to present material as if all the answers have already been found and the student’s job is simply to memorize them. It is crucial to allow students to take the time they need to make their own discoveries. Providing the opportunity for students to discover answers for themselves also encourages them to develop invaluable thinking skills, which can make learning more interesting and effective.”

“A common expression in English cautions one against ‘reinventing the wheel’ - the implication being that rediscovering what has already been discovered by someone else is a waste of time. This may be one of the underlying beliefs of our current educational system. Seen from that perspective, the logic of encouraging students to achieve right answers makes sense. Such an approach theoretically avoids wasting time by giving students the knowledge of what has gone before. Presented in this way, knowledge is static, unchanging, correct. However, if a human being is a complex adaptive system, and if learning is a dynamic of that system through which transformation occurs as a result of the experience of co-creating the world, then such an approach is, in fact, an utter waste of time. Seen from this point of view, the wheel must be invented again and again, by each one in his or her own way. In this contradiction is the essence of a major struggle in educational practice. In an effort not to waste time and to demonstrate the “results” on which funding and public support depend, formal educational practice is designed to fill students’ minds with data that can be measured and graded. This practice depersonalizes the educational experience, creates an environment in which students compete with one another for their places on the bell curve and values getting “the right answer” over personal vision and the co-creation of meaning. Simultaneously, educators, parents and students themselves bemoan the lack of student engagement, low levels of critical thinking ability and high disillusionment with a system in which students are often seen as unable or unwilling to learn.”

We as a learning society can’t have it both ways. We can choose either to set up flexible learning environments in which learners can take the time they need to create personal understanding or we can continue with the present system, thereby giving up the benefits of such an approach.


Stirling, Diana. “Learning and Complex Adaptive Systems.” Aichi Universities English Education Research Journal. 30 (2013): 183–226. Trans. Mitsuo Kondo (pdf)