Returning ‘learning’ to education: Toward an ecological conception of learning and teaching

Cary Campbell


This article describes a notion of learning as adaptive semiotic-growth. In line with the theme of this special issue, learning will be approached on a broad ecological and evolutionary continuum – most generally expressed as a form of adaptation to the environment. Viewing learning through the criterion of signification (semiosis) means that learning is continuous across the entire biological realm. Both the life process and the learning process are expressed through forms of semiotic-engagement and involve continual adaptation and meaning-making. Thus, learning cannot be seen as unique to humans. Learning is more broadly ecological before it is “cultural”. From here we can imagine educational institutions as forms of exaptation, that evolved naturally to channel learning more effectively. Thinking of learning on an ecological continuum means that learning cannot be “located” or pinned down easily in educational research or practice. Rather, learning has a sporadic identity; it is emergent in the specificity of events and must be discerned within the practices that enact it. Realizing learning as something emergently enacted in the educative encounter, and not something that can be determined and implemented, allows us to resist turning learning into an accountability tool that can easily be used towards ideological ends.


learning; adaptation; edusemiotics; biosemiotics; modelling; teaching; pedagogy

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SIGN SYSTEMS STUDIES. ISSN 1406-4243 (print), 1736-7409 (online). E-mail: Postal address: Sign Systems Studies, Dept. of Semiotics, University of Tartu, Jakobi St. 2, 51014 Tartu, Estonia