Teaching at the Ecotones

I recently heard an interview with a musician on the radio where he described what he referred to as “playing music at the ecotones.” An ecotone, as defined in ecology, is a region of transition between two biological communities. It is a space of intersection and overlap. For this musician, he felt as though his musicianship and his craft improved the more time he spent in metaphorical ecotones– with musicians and music at the edges or in the overlaps between genres.

In ecology, ecotones are often more diverse and species rich than the individual habitats viewed separately. This makes some intuitive sense. Whether it’s biological habitats, music, language, or food, things get interesting when elements clash, combine, and intermingle.

It made me think that the same might be said for teaching. There are at least 3 of ways we might, in education, think about teaching more at the ecotones.

1. Disciplines.

Interdisciplinary teaching and learning is a classic example of an educational ecotone. When we, as faculty, consciously move into this space we can find a richness and depth of material and investigative potential that energizes us outside our traditional disciplines. The same can be true for students. I once team-taught an environmental studies course with someone from a very different discipline than my own. Every class period was a metaphorical ecotone as we collided, combined, and reconfigured our way of thinking about the issue from another disciplinary perspective. Our students remarked on this as one of the best features of the course in the evaluations.

Themes are another way of thinking about the ecotones of disciplines. Conceptual frames like “food,” “sexuality,” “justice,” or “water” all provide interesting fodder for multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary engagement at the ecotones. Indeed, in some cases, these overlapping and transition-spaces are developing into disciplines in their own right.

At my institution, we recently started a Medical Humanities program and we have been pleasantly surprised at the level of interest. Students from all majors and disciplines have elected to take part in the program– not just traditional pre-med’s or humanities majors. There is something interesting and new in the spaces in between medicine and the humanities that students find both intellectually compelling and relevant.

It makes me think that there are lots more opportunities to offer programs and offerings at the ecotones of disciplines. Anthrozoology, recently described as the “best major you’ve never heard of,” is another example of an area of study that has emerged at the ecotone of human-animal studies.

2. Methods.

We can also consider the ecotones of educational methods. The false binary between “lecture” and “active learning” has always been a bugaboo for me. Most teachers do not view these instructional methods as mutually exclusive– either in general or in a specific educational moment. But the words “lecture” and “active” conjure up specific mental models for us that can often ignore the ecotones in between. Eric Mazur’s work at Harvard demonstrates that lecturing need not be seen as passive or disengaging for students. Likewise, anyone who is a proponent of active learning readily admits that “direct instruction” (aka lecture) is a necessary and effective component of most classroom practices if used judiciously.

The point is that, when it comes to methods, the ecotones represent perhaps the most interesting places and spaces. Research on the neuroscience of learning is clear that combining methods and modes of delivery is often most effective in reaching a diversity of learners. It is not a question of either choosing to lecture or choosing to do team-based learning, for example. Teaching at the ecotones means combining methods together– using active lecturing techniques, for example. Or, individual work and group work together in the same assignment. Or, using an exam wrapper to combine assessment with metacognition.

How else might we think of teaching methods in terms of ecotones? You could purposefully observe another faculty member who teaches in a very different discipline than your own. I once observed a colleague teach a painting class and it gave me so many new and novel ways to think about how I engage with my students. Check out a colleague who is running a lab, agree to shadow (or lead) an off-campus program, consider sitting in while your student life colleagues teach a workshop in the co-curriculum– all of these experiences can expand your thinking and your teaching.

3. Communities.

One final overlooked ecotone in teaching is the ecotone between classroom and community. All around the traditional campus boundaries is a “place.” It is often ignored or overlooked as a context for learning. Place-based education purposefully incorporates geographic location into learning and can be done in nearly every discipline. When we bring students, the content, and the larger community into connection with each other, transformational learning can occur.

An excellent example of the potential of this teaching at the ecotone is the Sustainable Cities Initiative at the University of Oregon. Each year, one city is chosen in the state of Oregon to be the city of focus and 60 different courses across the university are coordinated and aligned with projects in concert with the needs and requests of the city around the theme of sustainability. Here, we see multiple examples of teaching at the ecotones– between a city and a university, between and within disciplines, and, in incorporating project-based learning into the traditional 15-week semester.

Teaching at the ecotones means being willing to move, to risk, and to enter into new spaces and places. Sometimes that movement may initially feel uncomfortable or even foreign– like being introduced to a new instrument or style of music. But, the benefits of the overlaps, of the edgework, can be profound for our own professional energies and the outcomes of our students.

What other examples and ideas of teaching at the ecotones can we imagine?

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