Sunday meanderings and the necessary reductionism of descriptive systems...
Sunday, March 25, 2012 at 08:55AM
Hugh Graham-Marr

Maybe it's because of my earlier career (as short as it was) as a biologist, or perhaps it's due to something else. I don't know… the point (well, starting point at least) is, I like and tend to migrate to ecological descriptions of systems—ecological descriptions of history, the city as an ecological system… And of course language learning too can be seen as an ecology of sorts. That is, learning happens within an ecology formed of interactions between individuals and other individuals, their physical and mental states and their environments.

In his paper "Learning Ecologies of Contagion" first published in Languaging (2006) and recently republished as part of his collection, Teaching in Pursuit of Wow! (ABAX, 2012 but not in our online catalogue yet) Tim Murphey refers to learning ecologies. Here his focus is on the emotional interactive part of the ecology. But I'd like to wander off in another direction. What I want to meander towards is the richness of an ecology. Because that's what an ecology is, rich. Rich beyond rich with interaction. Indescribably rich. Indescribably… Which means of course that we do try to describe ecologies. In all sorts of fields. The ecologies of biosystems, Bateson's ecologies of understanding, economics, which tries to describe the ecology of human exchange. But any such descriptions are necessarily reductionist and hugely so. We try to describe a rich sea of interaction in terms of patterns we can discern. And this reductionism has been a huge intellectual boon. In terms of developing a descriptive science, it has worked extremely well—providing insight after insight into our understanding of interaction-rich systems. But they are descriptions to help us to understand a process, not descriptions to apply to the making or directing of a process. And herein lies the folly. In looking at the descriptive models developed we always need the humility of accepting that our descriptions are not complete. When we try to use our reductionist understanding to build a system, we inevitably fail. This in essence was the Austrian economist, Hayek's critique of Soviet-style command economies. And on this point at least he was right.

Top-down attempts to create or recreate biological ecosystems have been equally unsuccessful. The best we can do is tilt a system in a certain direction and stand back and let the interaction take place.

So too with learning ecologies…

Any learning system is rich with interactions. We can try to reduce and describe these. We can look at social interactions in the learning process, we can look at interactive elements in language development, we can look at the neuroscience of learning, and develop descriptions based on all these approaches. What we cannot do is create a successful approach predicated entirely on our inevitably partial understanding of any of these. We can be informed by our descriptive understandings but ultimately what works, works. And it may work because of elements our models don't yet include. A little humility is never a bad thing.


Photo courtesy of Evgeni Dinev at

Article originally appeared on ABAX America - From classroom research to classroom practice (
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