Ecological Discourses




Attending to relationships among agents and across systems to understand and affect learning

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of systemic possibilities
  • Knowing is … individual- and system-maintaining functioning
  • Learner is … integral element of an ecosystem
  • Learning is … adapting to maintain relational integrity
  • Teaching is … designing experiences (orienting, juxtaposing)




Ecology is the domain of science focused on the relationships of living things to their environments. As is frequently noted, the word is derived from the Greek for “house, dwelling place,” highlighting a simultaneous attentiveness to both the individual elements and to the system that comprises and transcends those elements. In education, proponents drawing on Ecological Discourses typically foreground multiple forms of relationship (e.g., biological, social, epistemological) while frequently situating discussions in relation to environmental well-being. Subdiscourses with particular relevance to matters of learning include:
  • Agroecology – a field in which a blend of ecological and activist principles is brought to bear in the design and management of agricultural practices. Agroecology is oriented and governed by commitments to sustainability, equity, and choice.
  • Attention Restoration Theory (Rachel Kaplan, Stephen Kaplan, 1980s) – an assertion that spending time in natural settings can improve one’s capacities to focus and maintain attention. Proponents typically content that time in nature enables the recovery of depleted emotional and cognitive resources.
  • Behavioral Ecology – the study of adaptive phenomena among non-human animals with/in their environments
  • Cultural Ecology – the study of the human biological and cultural adaptations to social and physical environments
  • Ecological Anthropology – a branch of Anthropology that looks at the relationships between specific populations and their biophysical environments, oriented by the realizations that populations adapt to and alter their environments to different extents, for different reasons, and with different consequences
  • Ecological Footprint – the amount of productive land needed to generate all the resources consumed and to absorb all the wastes produced by an individual, a group, or an event (e.g., a airplane flight, or building a car battery). Associated constructs include:
    • Biocapacity (Earth’s Biocapacity) – the planet’s capacity to produce necessary resources for humans and to absorb human waste
  • Ecological Psychology (Roger Barker, James J. Gibson, 1960s) – Typically defined as a counterpoint to Cognitive Psychology, Ecological Psychology rejects such dichotomies as mind/body and internal/external as it focuses on one’s perception–action of/in/on the world
  • Ecopsychology – a fusion of ecology and psychology, focusing on the relational bond between human and more-than-human worlds and with a defining concern of sustainable and healthful activity
  • Ecospirituality (Ecological Spirituality) – an umbrella term used to refer to movements that share one key tenet: Humans, who are constitutionally entangled with all living forms, must be mindful of and act with respect toward all aspects of the cosmos. Subdiscourses include:
    • Spiritual Ecology – an emerging, religion-focused domain of discussion that is principally focused on incorporating ecological considerations (e.g., conservation, stewardship) into contemporary religion
  • Environmental Psychology (1960s) – a domain of inquiry that attends to the reciprocal relationship between human activity and the environment – that is how one changes and channels the other. While motivations within the field vary, Environmental Psychology is most often characterized as being oriented toward improving well-being across levels of organization, from the personal to the planetary. Subdiscourses include:
    • Architectural Psychology (Design and Behavior) – a domain focused on the influence of the human-made environment on people’s attitudes and engagements
  • Human Ecology – the study of the relationships between humans and their environments, including social, biophysical, and built-physical (Note: should be confused with Human Ecology Theory, a.k.a. Ecological Systems Theory.)
  • Information Ecology (Information Ecosystem) (Rafael Capurro, 1990s) – a loosely defined notion, used to refer both to a concept and an academic field, based the application of an ecological or ecosystemic metaphor to increasingly dense and complex information systems
  • Person-in-Environment Psychology (Seymour Wapner, Fack Demick, 2000s) – Contrasted with perspectives that assume or assert a person/environment distinction, Person-in-Environment Psychology offers a holistic, lifelong, developmental, complex-systems-informed perspective.
  • Political Ecology (Frank Thone, 1930s) – a branch of ecological studies that attends to how power relations that operate within social, economic, and political realms manifest in the coupled evolutions of the human world and the more-than-human world
  • Social Ecology (Social Ecological Model) – research into the relationship of organisms (including nonhumans animals and plants) to their social environment
  • Socioecology (Socio-Ecological Theory) (2020s) – a domain of study focusing on the mutual influences of social structures and environment, anchored to the convictions that all social concerns have ecological entailments and all ecological concerns have social entailments
  • Spaceship Earth (Spacecraft Earth; Spacecraft Planet Earth) (Henry George, 1870s; popularized by various commentators in the 1960s) – a metaphor invoked to promote awareness of finite resources and ecological interconnectivity
  • Urban Ecology – the application of principles of ecology to the dynamics, relationships, and structures of urban life


Ecological Discourses have experienced a surge in popularity over recent decades within education, likely due in large part to the way they address two pressing issues. Firstly, their focus on relationship arrives as a well-developed and thoroughly researched tonic in a field long obsessed with difference and differentiating. Secondly, on a grander scale, Ecological Discourses typically afford ways to incorporate into conventional schooling issues of environmental and planetary well-being – topics of increasing urgency that do not fit well among traditional educational foci and discourses.


  • Architectural Psychology (Design and Behavior)
  • Agroecology
  • Attention Restoration Theory
  • Behavioral Ecology
  • Biocapacity (Earth’s Biocapacity)
  • Cultural Ecology
  • Ecological Anthropology
  • Ecological Footprint
  • Ecological Psychology
  • Ecopsychology
  • Ecospirituality (Ecological Spirituality)
  • Environmental Psychology
  • Human Ecology
  • Information Ecology (Information Ecosystem)
  • Person-in-Environment Psychology
  • Political Ecology
  • Social Ecology (Social Ecological Model)
  • Socioecology (Socio-Ecological Theory)
  • Spaceship Earth (Spacecraft Earth; Spacecraft Planet Earth)
  • Spiritual Ecology
  • Urban Ecology

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Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Ecological Discourses” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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