The expanding ecology of relations in education

Presented at The EARLI conference SIG17 & SIG25 “Dialogue between ontology and epistemology: New perspectives on theory and methodology in research on learning and education”. August 27–28, 2018. Homerton College, Cambridge University, U.K.

To cite use: Pedersen, A. Y. (2018, August). The expanding ecology of relations in education. Presented at the Dialogue between ontology and epistemology: New perspectives on theory and methodology in research on learning and education, Cambridge University.

Glaciar Perito Moreno, El Calafate, Argentina. Photo by Agustín Lautaro on Unsplash

We tell our children that’s school is important. Attending school is compulsory in most modern societies. Yet our educational systems are awkwardly out of tune in addressing the most pressing global issues of today. The reason being, among others, that educational systems around the globe are fitted and equipped to address the needs of the nation-state. Also, educational institutions are traditionally compartmentalized into specific subjects that are not always conducive to finding solutions to problems that transgress these subjects. One such major problem is climate change. During my observations of classroom dialogues and participant observation in an upper secondary school in Denmark, I was struck by how the theme of climate change profoundly affected the students. This was not my primary research interest but I still consider it a finding. Let me give you an example.


In a social science class of my own, we were having a discussion about political prioritizations in welfare state economy. The discussion revolved around classical issues such as health care, taxation, education and so forth. During the discussion a student raised his voice and spoke out very audible “It all doesn’t matter if we don’t fix the climate first!” he proclaimed. He was clearly dissatisfied with the seriousness of the discussion that went on without addressing what to him were the most pressing issue. There was also a marked desperation to his utterance which somehow resonated with the rest of the students. They also voiced their fears, disappointments and even anger towards adults mainly politicians in not making combatting climate change their main priority. The rest of that lesson went with discussions and exchange of ideas as to what could be done both individually and collectively. Other such dialogues were less outspoken but still showed that climate change is fueling the imagination of the students producing a loss of meaning in education, anxiety, disillusion, and even despair.

In Sweden, Greta Thunberg – a 15th-year-old girl – refuses to attend school in an effort to attract attention to the climate change in the Swedish general election. In a similar tone as the students I observed, she wrote:

“We kids most often don’t do what you tell us to do. We do as you do. And since you grown-ups don’t give a shit about my future, I won’t either. My name is Greta and I’m in ninth grade. And I refuse school for the climate until the Swedish general election.”


When I talk about the expanding ecology of relations in education this is what I have in mind. The point of departure is Hannah Arendt’s (1954) definition of teacher authority. She distinguishes between teacher qualification and authority. Even though a measure of qualification is indispensable for authority, the highest possible qualification can never by itself beget authority. And as she argues:

“The teacher’s qualification consists in knowing the world and being able to instruct others about it, but his authority rests on his assumption of responsibility for that world.” (Arendt, 1954, p. 186).

Three main relations in education can be derived from this. These are a knowledge relation (knowledge of the world), a pedagogical didactic relation (the ability to instruct others), and an authoritative relation (assuming responsibility for the world).

To students like Greta, the teacher that represents the adult world seems to have lost authority or have never gained it. Wherever true authority exists it is joined with the responsibility for the world. Lack of authority can only mean one thing, as Arendt stated in 1954, that adults have refused to assume responsibility for the world. Or put less harshly: They have simply not adapted to the rapidly changing circumstances. It puts a strain on the aforementioned relations and it expands them: To know about the world it is not enough to know one subject, new competencies, and new curriculum are in high demand and are being implemented in educational policies, e.g. metacognitive, digital, global, innovative, socio-emotional and so forth. To be able to effectively teach, new methods are constantly being devised and tested. To take responsibility for the world is a comprehensive task that implies to cherish and to protect something – “the child against the world, the world against the child, the new against the old, the old against the new” (Arendt 1954, p. 192) and to make it possible for a new generation to renew our common world. To teach responsibility is to keep the possibility of ‘right-setting’ a world that’s is increasingly out of joint.


When using the concept of ecology, I’m inspired by Gregory Bateson for whom ecology is organized complexity – a structured system arranged in adaptive circuits. Bateson used ecology to refer both to the ecology of human ideas or human consciousness on the one side and the ecology of nature of biological life on the other side and the problems arising from that distinction. As Bateson put it: “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between nature and the way people think” (Bateson, 1972). It’s the exactly the difference between the two that to Bateson was troublesome. The Cartesian split between mind and nature is a false dichotomy that to Bateson necessitates moving the two closer and perceiving them as two parts of the same ecology (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Ecology of adaptive circuits combining ecology of ideas and ecology of nature into one ecology

Ecology is in itself an expanding concept of relations and the tensions and dynamics of these relationships. Bateson combines the ontological with the epistemological. It refers both to the whole ecology of which human consciousness is only capable of grasping bits and pieces unless aided by phenomena such as art, religion, dream and imagination and the like. Unaided rationality or merely purposive rationality is, as Bateson argued:

”necessarily pathogenic and destructive of life; and that its virulence springs specifically from the circumstance that life depends upon interlocking circuits of contingency, while consciousness can see only such short arcs of such circuits as human purpose may direct.” (Bateson, 1972, p. 146)

The expanding ecology refers to what Bateson called systemic wisdom which is a sense of recognition of the circuitry of life whereby the ecology of the mind is more balanced with the ecology of nature. Education should promote this systemic wisdom because not doing so will spell disaster as Bateson was well aware of.

”Lack of systemic wisdom is always punished. We may say that the biological systems: the individual, the culture, and the ecology are partly living sustainers of their component cells or organisms. But the systems are nonetheless punishing of any species unwise enough to quarrel with its ecology.” (Bateson, 1972, p. 434)

To be more specific it is not just the consciousness of planetary climate change that is expanding the ecology of relations in education that both teachers and researchers need to address. The affordances of the Internet, the global production system and the feedback mechanisms of the environment are main drivers fueling of the ontological and epistemological built up of relations in education.

We should be heading towards an expanding ecology of knowing that though aided rationality should be able to bring us closer to the kind of wisdom of the circuity of life and interdependencies that Bateson sought.


A tentative conclusion of this theorizing paper would be as follows. In the expanded sense of ecology, there is no such thing as individuality or monological. Even the most monological utterance are set in a relation to the environment surrounding the person making the utterance. They are bounded phenomena in relation to the ecology of the circuitry of life.

To Arendt even though she didn’t use the term ecology she was well aware of the unique duality of human beings corresponding to a double relationship: the relationship to the world (primarily through thinking and action) and the relationship to life (primarily understood as a living species inhabiting the earth together with other species). And that this ecology was expanding would come to no surprise for Arendt that stated that human society never remains the same but is constantly renewed through the arrival of new human beings. This renewal that is what Arendt termed natality.

To become aware and to teach about the relational ecology would be to reclaim authority by providing or opening up the possibility of children or students to create a new common world. And as Hannah Arendt so beautifully concluded her essay on The Crisis in Education:

“Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare, them in advance for the task of renewing a common world”. (Arendt, 1954, p. 196)


  • Arendt, H. (1954). Between Past and Future. Eight Exercises in Political Thought (Enlarged). Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Books.
  • Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind. New York, NY: Ballantine Books
  • Bateson, G. (1979). Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.