Public Schools as Ecosystems: Part V

Gambier River

Image via Wikipedia

In my last post, I sought to balance the concept of achievement with the necessity of equity in education. Before I dive into curriculum (I know, I keep saying I will get into it), I would like to expound further on an analogy I made at the beginning of this series between ecology and public schools, and which has given the title to this series.

I’ve begun with the premise of schools as ecosystems. In any healthy ecosystem, there is a dynamic and interactive balance between all of the components of that ecosystem, from the trees, to the low lying shrubs, to the soil, to the bugs, the birds, the berries, the squirrels, the bears, and what have you. All components function to create an interconnected, interdependent system that naturally self-regulates to create sustainable conditions for the most productive life possible within that given environment.

Now that’s a “natural” ecosystem I’m discussing. Let’s explore the concept of a man-made ecosystem in order to better adapt that idea to schools. In a man-made ecosystem, such as a garden, the gardener works to recreate natural environments, but with a focus on a purpose that suits the gardener, such as food growth, or flower cultivation. Sometimes that focus is so monolithic that the gardener ends up in constant battle with nature, and must maintain their garden on life support infusions of toxic herbicides and pesticides. Fortunately, there are methods of deliberately harnessing natural processes and dynamics to best serve our own selfish interests. When the gardener best recreates the conditions that will foster interconnectivity and diversity of life adapted to their environment, their garden will thrive.

Now let’s bring that idea back to schools. In education, instead of growing food or flowers, our work is to grow our kids’ minds. A lot of times, this effort of increasing achievement is presented as a type of competition, which is furthered through the use of punitive grading systems and high stakes testing. Sometimes the way we talk about it makes it seem like all we want to do is pump steroids into the minds of our youth. But we know that’s not what it’s about. Education is about nurturing, developing, instilling, guiding. And in terms of an ecosystem, the big idea is that ultimately, no one is really competing, even if it looks like that on the surface. Ultimately, we work to counterbalance each other and create an environment that best harnesses the resources available within that given community.

This all sounds relatively banal, even to me, but the reason I keep pushing this analogy between gardening and education is because I’m seeking to apply permacultural principles to the ecosystems of schools. Permaculture is a philosophy of cultivating land grounded in holistic and sustainable design practices. I believe the permacultural approach is not only necessary to counter current devastating ecological practices, but is in fact superior to traditional methods and approaches to land use.

I believe that one of the critical issues underlying education reform is that we are all too often seeking superficial means of enhancing student performance. In a garden, we might temporarily achieve enhanced production through an arduous turning of topsoils and expensive input of chemicals. In a school, we might temporarily raise student test scores through test prep and infusions of outside contractors. But ultimately in both scenarios, we are only doing battle against nature and economy. In order to enhance productivity sustainably, we have to build up the foundations of our communities, our ecosystems. This requires targeted investments in the communities that most require it. There is no other way.