Cultural learning ecology: a significant shift in thinking

7 October 2016

Information Manager, Annie Thorpe, feeds back on the interesting discussions to come out of our cultural learning ecology roundtable.

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Building on our ongoing interest in how the cultural and creative needs of places are best supported and, specifically, the concept of the cultural learning ecology in a place, on September 8th 2016 A New Direction hosted a roundtable - bringing together colleagues from across the arts, culture and education to discuss what an ecological approach to cultural learning might involve as well as its potential strengths and limitations.

To kick off the discussion, AND’s Partnerships Director, Holly Donagh, asked attendees to reflect on what ignited their own interest and engagement in arts, culture and creativity as a child. What emerged through the varied responses was an emphasis on specific people - those inspirational figures who inspired or facilitated links to cultural engagement - and specific places, be it schools, or other safe environments in which attendees were both able to access and create culture for themselves. This acted as a timely reminder that whilst the application of ecological terminology may offer an interesting way into thinking about issues of need and engagement, addressing questions about how this conceptual intervention might translate to practical action in real places is key.

A helpful metaphor?

As a starting point, we asked attendees to consider whether they see a value in thinking about children and young people’s cultural learning in terms of an ecology and how it differs from what is already being done.

For many attendees, there was a genuine enthusiasm for what was seen as the ecological approach’s shift away from a focus on supply, to an exploration of the importance of those people, places and assets that act as links and levers to cultural learning. Also, as one attendee pointed out, in encouraging us to make visible existing connections between things, people, and places, the ecology metaphor offers a useful means of helping us to avoid interventions which might threaten creative activity already happening in a place.

The emphasis on thinking about cultural learning from the standpoint of the child - as proposed in this thought-piece written for AND by John Holden - was also welcomed by attendees. It was agreed that such an approach would allow those of us who plan for and support cultural learning to ensure that we are really listening to children and young people, enabling us to both acknowledge and value the varied ways in which children and young people express creativity, how they define art and culture, and, potentially, challenge our own assumptions around low engagement.

Limitations in AND’s current thinking around what an ecological approach to cultural learning may involve were also raised. One attendee questioned the ways in which an ecological approach might account for the fact that many micro-ecosystems often exist in a place – i.e. a school in itself could be considered an ecosystem – whilst also providing a useful overview of a child and young person’s experience of cultural learning in a place. For another attendee, AND’s current attempt to apply ecological concepts to understanding the cultural learning landscape does not go far enough in thinking through and applying the ecology metaphor.

Moving towards practical action

Discussion then moved on to consider the challenges of moving beyond theoretical discussion to practical action. What might an ecological approach mean for how those working across cultural provision, policy, youth and education collaborate to support young people’s cultural learning?

One concept which came up again and again throughout the afternoon’s discussion was the importance of the ‘inspirational figure’ – the individuals who inspire a love of art and culture in the young people they encounter, or who are instrumental in facilitating young people’s access to opportunities. Should we be thinking about the various ways in which we can work together to support such individuals, rather than places and organisations?

Similarly, if we are really interested in an ecological approach which centres the child or young person, should we as a sector be looking to give more agency and more investment (both time and money) to children and to young people to develop and have ownership over the cultural learning landscape in which they exist. If so, how do we balance this with supporting the valuable work carried out by those playing a mediating role, navigating and challenging young people to take up opportunities that they may not seek out for themselves?

It is evident from the afternoon’s discussion that applying the ecology metaphor to cultural learning throws up interesting yet complex questions. AND will draw on the issues raised and the challenges posed by the afternoon’s attendees as we look to develop fieldwork exploring the cultural learning ecology in London.

Click here to read detailed notes from the roundtable.

If you would like to contribute to the discussion, please contact Annie Thorpe.