Learning as a human ecologist

1. Competencies

As is explained elsewhere human ecology is not a content dependent discipline. Rather it is about developing the basic competencies of:

  • designing
  • researching
  • learning
  • communicating

These competencies are applied within a broader field of ‘ways of thinking’ which include critical thinking, scientific thinking, systemic (or holistic)thinking and ecological thinking.

Design ...

...is so relative to each to project that not a great deal can be offered beyond a general orientation. It is hard to find a better general approach than that offered by soft systems methodology, a systems design process developed by Peter Checkland. A paper by Stan Lester, which describes the 7 stage process of ssm may be downloaded in PDF form here.

Researching ...

... with people is also known as Action Research, Collaborative Inquiry and Cooperative Inquiry.

The primary requirement in action research is the ability to listen and observe with out judgment. The intellect will instantly understand that, however this is a behaviour governed by the unconscious. Therefore, it is important to ensure ongoing feedback (checking with others) as well as practicing reflection and seeking debrief when researching emotionally loaded situations.

There are 4 levels of awareness required in action research:

1. Awareness of your (the researcher's)own state.

Are you clear? are there any issues in your background which may distract? are you calm enough to given undivided, positive attention? And are you crystal clear about whether you are working 'with', 'on', 'for' or 'in' the community or group under research?

2. Awareness of atmosphere.

In meeting situations participants arrive over time and during that period there is an information float. An attuned researcher can be forewarned about every issue likely to arise because it will be present during that arriving and settling time when information is floating. So researchers need to be available to listen and hear these signals.

In non meeting situations the researcher needs to pay particular attention upon arrival. Whenever possible arrange for free time before interaction begins and during this period (which need not be more than 5-10 minutes) just be empty (use breathing to disengage from thinking) so the energy/atmosphere of the situation can be taken in. Here the researcher doesn't need to 'do anything', this skill is about 'noticing'. Use a pretext if that helps ... say you need a few minutes to check some notes, or to have a cup of tea ...

3. Awareness of the thinking and feeling of those being researched.

While a natural empathy is very helpful in stage 3 there is a way to prepare and develop this skill, however it requires practice and a willingness to continually ask (non intrusive) questions of those being researched. Strategic questioning provides a way to ensure you are in touch with the thinking and feeling of those being researched. You may download Fran Peavey's Strategic Questioning Manual here as a PDF file of 346kb.

Download Strategic Questioning Manual

At first it will be a matter of reading and understanding this method which Fran Peavey developed from experience in some very challenging situations. Then begin using it in some trial situations so that those helping you learn can also give you feedback about your level of humility. If you bring unconscious arrogance or condescension to this task you will meet with frequent reactivity and blockage.

4. Awareness of the number of issues.

When you are in conversation you may notice that over time the number of issues (variables) present at any one time expands and contracts. It is no exception when working with groups.

In scientific research variables are controlled but it is not always possible to have such contol when researching with people. So be prepared to expect this expansion and contraction. This fluctuation does not mean there is a design or implementation fault in your research method so do not let this phenomena disturb the research process.

When the number of issues/variables is increasing it may be useful to return to an earlier cycle of the research process. By feeding back the new elements it is possible that the group concerned may make adjustment, for example to what they view as the particular situation requiring change. This is why researching with people is often called a recursive process.

Finally it is helpful to remain aware that all learning is co-learning. While a researcher may be learning about a particular community/group those being researched are also learning about the researcher. Awareness of this helps prevent the development of an unconscious "us and them" attitude which can squash research accuracy or even prevent it from being undertaken.


Continue to Learning and Communicating