Latest update: July 24, 2018

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 a period of five days (July 25 to 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 (afternoon) and July 26 (times to be agreed upon when we meet on the 25th) we run a six-to-seven-hour workshop/think-tank for invitees only, Following it, we attend, throughout the IBHA conference, a limited number of select sessions and use what we learn for further reflection on our theme. On July 28 we have a 60-minute panel session in which we interact with the IBHA conference audience at large, presenting our findings, concerns and suggestions for further discussion. Finally, on July 29 there will be a wrap-up/next steps session of approximately 30 minutes to conclude the work. This wrap-up is an integral part of the wrap-up of the IBHA conference at large. The different parts of the event are intimately related. Results of the workshop will inform the panel session on the 28th, the purpose of the panel session being to enlarge the workshop dialogue. The wrap-up session on July 29 will be informed by the results of the enlarged dialogue that took place throughout the conference. The opportunity of the wrap-up 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 (in alphabetical order)
  • David Christian - Professor, Macquarie University; Director Big History Institute
  • David Cole - Associate Professor in Education at Western Sydney University
  • Federico Mayor - President, Foundation for a Culture of Peace
  • Jerry Moles - Chair, Board of Directors at NeoSynthesis Research Centre, Sri Lanka
  • Sakhi Nitin Anita - Independent Action Researcher
  • Michael Spector - Professor in Learning Technologies, University of North Texas
  • Emily Vargas-Barón - Director RISE Institute
  • Jan Visser - President and Sr. Researcher, Learning Development Institute
  • Lya Visser - Part-time professor, George Washington University and sculptor
  • Yusra Laila Visser - Instructional Designer, Illinois State University
  • Martin de Wit - Professor, Environmental Governance, Stellenbosch University
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Biographical information and statements of interest
Jan Visser
(organizer, convener, editor, and participant in dialogue)
Goes through life walking, thereby developing good sense of how beautiful, yet fragile, our planet is. Thus experiences daily, in the flesh, the ever worsening anthropogenic impact on the environment.
Theoretical physicist; learning scientist; lifelong learner; musician; filmmaker; and educator. Passionate explorer of the unknown, driven by the desire to understand and do so deeply.
President & Senior Researcher, Learning Development Institute. Former director for Learning Without Frontiers at 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. Is cautiously suggesting that it should be enjoyable, compassionate, respectful, and responsible.
Contact: [email protected].
 David Cole
(co-organizer and contributor in absentia)
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: [email protected].
Ron Burnett
(contributor in absentia)
David Christian
(participant in dialogue)
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
(contributor in absentia)
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
(participant in dialogue)
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: [email protected].
Alfonso Montuori
(contributor in absentia)
Sakhi Nitin Anita
(contributor in absentia)
I am a school walk-out, self-designed learner, khoji (seeker), feminist activist, action researcher, and contributing to this discussion as a young woman from India. After 'walking out' of school at age twelve, I have created my own learning trajectory, enriched by diverse pedagogies, learning modalities, and systems of education. I see the world as my classroom and have learnt my biggest lessons from engaging critically and creatively with people and communities located differently than me. I have also received formal academic training in Gender Studies from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Currently, I work as a consultant researcher with an action-research project that recognises rural girls in India as knowledge-producers and agents of transformation. I believe that if humans are to survive and thrive in the Anthropocene, as well as enable the survival and flourishing of nature, we must drastically transform our learning paradigms - what we consider 'worth' learning, how we learn it, and the larger context that mediates this learning.
Premana Premadi
(contributor in absentia)
J. Michael Spector
(contributor in absentia)
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
(participant in dialogue)
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: [email protected].
Lya Visser
(rapporteur and co-editor)
I have spent many years of my professional life concentrating on exploring the role of motivational communication in distance learning environments using not only cognitive but also affective strategies to assist learners in reaching their learning goals. My focus was on the beauty of simplicity.
Lately I have begun to explore the use of affective communication strategies by expressing my hopes, thoughts and worries through sculpturing in stone. Sculptures do not just happen. They are brought into existence with compassion and determination. I think that the same holds for a civilization. In these dark times we have to offer something that is much richer than the present -the opportunity to live in service not of superficial expectations, but, just as the sculptor and the stone will do, follow the power of life itself with compassion and determination.
Yusra Laila Visser
(participant in dialogue)
Yusra designs learning and performance solutions for Illinois State University's College of Education and is entrepreneurial lead on an Illinois State University/National Science Foundation innovation initiative. She has served as Vice- President and member of the Board of Directors at the Learning Development Institute since the organization's inception in 1999. Her focus, while working across sectors and countries, is on the problem-oriented nature of learning and human development. She is passionate about finding creative and resourceful solutions to the vexing problems with learning systems in an increasingly fragile, complex and rapidly changing world. In 2015, she started confronting a series of life changing challenges in her personal life. She thus turned to the literature on resilience (a) for personal guidance and (b) to understand the relationship between resilience, learning, failure, and inquiry-oriented disposition. This led her to develop an acute appreciation for the challenges inherent in the study of resilience and its correlates to learning and human development.
Martin de Wit
(participant in dialogue)


Uses interdisciplinary approaches to inform a response to problems in economics, ecology and development. Critically reinterpreting modern economic order and planetary systems thinking from a philosophical-theological viewpoint. Recent work traced the shifting mind of economics and its implications of environmental governance and calls attention to the responsibility of human agents in their relationships to others and the natural environment. Holds position as Professor in Environmental Governance at Stellenbosch University where responsible for the School of Public Leadership's post-graduate and interdisciplinary programme on Environmental Management. Holds a Doctorate in Economics and a Masters of Arts in Theological Studies. Finds great inspiration working closely with people passionate about environmental conservation and who continue to radiate hope for the future in the face of seemingly insurmountable ecological problems. Great weakness for books and enjoys outdoor activities such as mountain hiking and camping with friends and family. Happily married for 21 years and blessed with three children. Loves the game of soccer, once as a player, but now with prime athletic age passing by, more as a coach.
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Thoughts about learning and thinking in the Anthropocene
(Written inputs into the dialogue by participants and collaborating researchers)
Ron Burnett & Jan Visser: Thoughts about the use of the term 'Anthropocene'
David Cole: Learning to think in the Anthropocene: What can Deleuze-Guattari teach us?
Federico Mayor: The Ethics of Time in the Face of Global Challenges
Jerry Moles: Standing in the Anthropocene: Where am I? How did I get here? Where am I going?
Alfonso Montuori: Creative Inquiry: Navigating the Order and Disorder of our Planetary Culture (work stil in progress, written for the Villanova Dialogue); Creating Social Creativity:Integrative Transdisciplinarity and the Epistemology of Complexity (earlier writing).
Sakhi Nitin-Anita: Transforming Learning for Transformation
Premana Premadi: The Universe and Us
Michael Spector: Thinking and Learning in the Anthropocene: The New Three Rs
Emily Vargas-Barón: The Child and the Anthropocene
Jan Visser: Wanderings through the 'terra incognita' of the Anthropocene
Lya Visser: How can we again become the Master of our Soul and the Captain of our Fate?
Martin de Wit: Environmental governance and the human person
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