Latest update: May 9, 2018

Program segment


A transdisciplinary exploratory dialogue

organized by the
Learning Development Institute
in collaboration with the
Institute for Interdisciplinary Research into the Anthropocene

to be held at the

2018 Conference of the
International Big History Association
Villanova, PA, USA
July 25-29, 2018

Pristine Earth (1) (Photo credit: Jan Visser)
Dates, times and, setting
The formal part of this event will be spread over three separate days (July 25, 27, and 29) integrated with the 2018 Conference of the International Big History Association (IBHA), the official program of which runs from July 26 to 29, 2018. On July 25 we run an approximately six-hour workshop/think-tank for invitees only, This is followed on July 27 by a 90-minute panel session (for the conference audience at large). On July 29 there will be a wrap-up/next steps session of 90 minutes to conclude the work. The three parts of the event are intimately related. Results of the workshop will inform the panel session, the purpose of the panel session being to enlarge the workshop dialogue. The session on July 29 will be informed by the results of the enlarged dialogue that took place two days earlier. The opportunity will be used for reflection on the results and consideration of what to do next.
The event will be hosted by the International Big History Association (IBHA), a professional association with worldwide membership of representatives of multiple disciplines interested in developing our understanding of the integrated history of the Cosmos, Earth, Life, and Humanity, using the best available empirical evidence and scholarly methods.
The conference takes place on the premises of Villanova University in Villanova, PA, USA.
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Human Learning in the Anthropocene (HLA), the program in whose context the above event is being organized, is a new focus area of exploration, research, reflection, and development of the Learning Development Institute. It comes in the wake of the Institute's prior major focus on Building the Scientific Mind (BtSM). HLA is not unrelated to BtSM, but it represents a wider and more acute focus.
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Brief rationale

The people who can change the course of history

are those who can change the courses of their daily lives,

people on the ground in communities everywhere.

(Jerry A. Moles (2017) in an unpublished paper on

Creating learning cultures and the Society for Applied Anthropology.)


The gentle forces will doubtless win

in the end--it's like a warm whisper I can hear

in me: if not, all light would disappear

all warmth would fossilize within.

Henriëtte Roland Holst (Dutch poet, 1869-1952)

(translation: Jan Visser)

Ours is an epoch—the Anthropocene—in which human activity has begun to have significant impact on the environment of our planet. We are becoming painfully aware, and increasingly so, that there is something terribly wrong in the relationship between humans and their planetary environment. In fact, there is mounting scientific evidence, reported in such journals of repute as Nature and Science, that should compel us to radically change our way of life and stop doing ‘business as usual.’ The problems we are currently facing are fundamentally different from those of the past. They are wicked, complex, and often of planetary import and impact. They require humans to think differently and to take control of their behavior at a different level of responsibility.
Current thought about human learning is still largely inspired by perceptions of the world as an environment in which cause and effect are linearly related. There is therefore an acute need to build awareness among our planetary citizens regarding the complex nature of their habitat and the need to conceive of their interactions with it in a complex transdisciplinary manner.
The problems with which humanity interacts in the Anthropocene are complex in nature. Such problems require of humans to be capable of complex thinking (see Morin, 1999) and to populate learning spaces that accommodate complex learning (see Visser, 2015, for a complex definition of learning).
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Sources of interest
Click here to access a list (permanently under construction) of relevant sources of interest: Books, papers, video and audio documents, etc.
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Contributing authors and collaborators
  • To be announced
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Biographical information and statements of interest
Jan Visser
Theoretical physicist; learning scientist; lifelong learner; musician; filmmaker; educator; and walker. Passionate explorer of the unknown, driven by the desire to understand and do so deeply.
Currently: President & Senior Researcher, Learning Development Institute and a couple of other things. Prior responsibility: Director, Learning Without Frontiers, UNESCO.
Works around the world. Has lived in four different continents; feels at home in a multicultural world; enjoys conversing in multiple languages. Straddles diverse disciplinary areas of scientific pursuit. Views art and science as intimately interconnected and integrated in a single culture. Works on transdisciplinary approaches to addressing complex problems.
Believes the Anthropocene challenge is a serious one and thus worth meeting. Is convinced that, however difficult this may be, we first and foremost need to envision how human existence in the Anthropocene will be different from life as we know it now and is cautiously suggesting that it should be enjoyable, compassionate, respectful, and responsible.
Relevant paper: Human learning and the development of mind in the Anthropocene: Reflections against the backdrop of Big History. Contact:
 David Cole David R. Cole is the founder of the Institute of Interdisciplinary Research into the Anthropocene (IIRA): David is a philosopher of education and prolific author in this field, having produced more than one hundred significant publications and sixteen books. He believes that the problematics of the Anthropocene can only be approached through collective action and thought. Firstly, the complex dynamics that are at play in the current situation needs to be understood and rethought beyond any limiting assumptions. Secondly, this profound exploration has to be translated into practical action on the ground that can be readily followed by communities. David currently works as an Associate Professor in Education at Western Sydney University, Australia. Contact:
David Christian Historian of Russia and the Soviet Union, but focused since the 1980's on describing human history from a multidisciplinary perspective and in the context of very large time scales, covering almost fourteen billion years since the Big Bang. Coined the term 'Big History' a novel approach that deals with summary findings from biology, cosmology, astronomy, geology, and anthropology, showing what happened before homo sapiens became prevalent on planet earth. Taught since 1975 at Macquarie University; moved to San Diego State in 2001; returned to Macquarie in 2009. Taught and published books in diverse areas of history, including Big History, paving the way for a return of the ancient tradition of 'universal history' in a new form that is global in its practice and scientific in its spirit and methods. If taught in high schools, it will provide a powerful new way of integrating knowledge from the humanities and the sciences. Co-founded with Bill Gates the Big History Project. Is currently director of Macquarie University's Big History Institute which is building 'Big History School,' a suite of online courses on big history for junior, high school and senior students.
 Federico Mayor Molecular biologist with specific interest in the early diagnosis and treatment of genetic neonatal diseases. Co-founder of the Severo Ochoa Center for Molecular Biology. Formerly Director-General of UNESCO (1987-1999), Rector of the University of Granada (1968-1973), Minister of Education and Science in Spain (1981-1982), and President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty (2010-2017). Currently President of the Foundation for a Culture of Peace. The conditions of the Anthropocene call for urgent reinvention of the future, requiring a new agenda, new lifestyles, renewed thinking about security and the world of work, commitment to complete gender equality and zero tolerance for any kind of supremacism. Education should be free and responsible. Scientific rigor will be essential, there being no applied science if there is no science to apply. Invention of the future we want, requires a new ethics of time: communication on progress regarding global sustainable development must be applied timely to prevent the occurrence of points of no return. The Earth Charter provides an important ethical framework in this regard.
Jerry Moles Recognizing that humankind exists as parts of complex systems maintained through nonlinear dynamics with different scales in time and space and the possibilities of multiple causalities; sustainable and resilient lifestyles must be discovered in each and every community on Earth. Creating partnerships among people to live in healthy surroundings while enjoying rewarding livelihoods, life becomes a continual inquiry into the consequences of human existence. Combining results from scientific explorations with the practicalities of daily life, values are discovered as guides into futures beyond our knowing. In this pursuit, I have founded, co-founded, or served as a founding board member of the NeoSynthesis Research Centre and Landcare Lanka in Sri Lanka; the Watershed Research & Training Center in California, USA; and the New River Land Trust, Grayson LandCare, SustainFloyd, and the Blue Ridge Plateau Initiative in the Central Appalachians in SW Virginia, USA. Learning to live in the Anthropocene is the challenge. Contact:
Alfonso Montuori
To follow.
Michael Spector My career has been interdisciplinary. I received my formal training in philosophy and epistemology. However, there are few jobs for those interested in 'truth.' I thus soon reverted to my prior training as a system analyst and found a job working with real-time simulations of air combat. I then migrated back to academia as a computer scientist and developed an interest in expert systems and artificial intelligence. This led to project work on designing expert systems for instructional design. Such systems help instructional designers do a better job, while learning by doing. This work then led me to become interested in experiential learning, which in turn got me involved in leading a research group at the University of Bergen, Norway. I currently work on game-based applications to help children develop inquiry and critical thinking skills. I believe that for humans to survive and thrive under the conditions of the Anthropocene it is essential to have inquiring minds and to be capable of observing carefully and considering and thinking critically about observed evidence. Technology, if appropriately chosen and properly used may aid the development of learning in this area.
Emily Vargas-Barón To my astonishment the words "child" and "parent" appear to be missing from literature on the Anthropocene. But how can we talk about the past and the future without addressing child development, brain formation, human and cultural behaviors, attitudes, values, and the spirit that will enable people individually and collectively, present and future, to improve our environment and social interactions? How will we preserve our planet, maintain our species, indeed our very languages and cultures without addressing our children and parenting practices? I am an international policy planner and researcher in the fields of early childhood development, early intervention, and educational development, coupled seamlessly (in my mind) with ensuring good health, nutrition and social protection. In addition to directing the RISE Institute with 35 Senior Fellows and Fellows working around the world, I consult for organizations and nations in all world regions, author publications, and am an insatiable learner. Contact:
Yusra Laila Visser To follow
To be completed
To be completed
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