A Web of Mutual Influences: Expanding constraints to reconsider learning opportunities

By Devin Vodicka

Is schooling synonymous with education? With learning? The mechanistic mindset takes a reductionist view and sees education as a closed system.  In a living systems view that focuses on interconnectedness and active agency, it is much more challenging to determine the boundary of any system.  As a result, while we may be conditioned to think about schools as the delivery method for learning, when we take a living systems view it implies that an expanded set of individuals and organizations all have an influence on the learning process.  

For example, consider this visual from one my favorite books, Schools That Learn by Peter Senge (2000).  While a mechanistic view might think of learning as a simple interaction between the teacher and student, we can see that there are in fact many influences that create a web of mutual influences.  Even the boxes, which are meant to represent boundaries of a classroom or school, do not constrain the connections between individuals and agencies that are outside of that setting.  

It is also important to note that Senge created this visual over two decades ago at the early stages of the information age.  In today’s environment, connections across geography are accelerated due to advancements in technology devices, infrastructure, and access.  A study in 2018 showed that 95% of teenagers in the United States had access to a smartphone, including 93% of teens whose family income was less than $30,000 per year.  In that same year, close to 90% of homes had high speed internet connections in their homes.  While there is still work to be done to ensure that all children have equitable access, these numbers indicate the pervasiveness of digital connectivity that enables even more widespread interaction and influence that has the potential to affect our individual and collective learning. 

While distance learning during the pandemic was generally perceived to be ineffective, the ability to shift modes of interaction to digital platforms was essential and has had dramatic impacts on the world of work.  A survey of employers in April 2021 showed that only six percent of respondents planned to return “fully in-office” after the pandemic which is one of many indications that our interactions throughout life will continue to be less constrained by geography. 

I share these examples not to suggest that digital should replace in-person, social experiences.  Instead, it is undeniable that we have been moving in the direction of an augmented, hybrid mode of being that combines the two modalities.  In fact, the combination of these two realities represents a new responsibility for learners who must be prepared to navigate multiple contexts, multiple relationships, and even multiple identities in these different environments.  

We should also recognize that learning has never been constrained to classrooms or schools.  We are constantly learning through our interactions with others and with the world around us.  We can learn through introspection, through conversation, through media interaction, through gaming, and even through our dreams while sleeping.  Instead of resisting this reality, we should instead embrace anytime, anywhere learning and extend our view of what is possible by supporting the openness and interconnectedness of a living systems view.  

The future of learning is not confined to K-12 schools.  An expanded set of organizations, including afterschool programs, early educational options, higher education, workforce development, libraries, recreation programs, and many others all provide the surface for meaningful engagement and development.  Physical and mental health providers play an important role in this process as well.  

Now is the time to expand our thinking about the varied and diverse influences all play a role in the learning process.  Let’s embrace the creative opportunities that living systems inherently offer and lean into collaboration and partnerships to strengthen relationships that will better support holistic learning and development for all.  

For more on the opportunities of educational ecosystems, I recommend Education Reimagined and their work on this topic.  Also a review of the distinction between mechanistic and living systems may be helpful. 

Check out the book Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in learning Communities for more insights, reflections, and suggestions.

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