Public Schools As Ecosystems

In this series of posts, I advocate for viewing public schools as ecosystems, thus adopting a more holistic and sustainable vision for education reform that is based upon local needs.

Post 1: An Analogy: Growing Healthy Food and Children

Post 2: Public Schools as Ecosystems, Part I

Post 3: Public Schools as Ecosystems, Part II

Post 4: Public Schools as Ecosystems, Part III: Open Source Curriculum

Post 5: Public Schools as Ecosystems, Part IV

Post 6: Public Schools as Ecosystems, Part V

Post 7: (Collaboratively written w/ Will Johnson on GothamSchools) A New Model: Schools as Ecosystems

All Posts On This Topic Hereafter: Will and I began a separate blog to continue to advance and develop our model of schools as ecosystems. Check it out!


8 thoughts on “Public Schools As Ecosystems”

  1. I agree with your distaste of the “superficial means of enhancing student performance. . .(to) temporarily achieve enhanced production through an arduous turning of topsoils and expensive input of chemicals. . .(or) temporarily raising student test scores through test prep and infusions of outside contractors.” Those objectives may meet some academic’s idea of good schooling, and they are easily measured, but they do a disservice to the kids involved. Therein lies the problem with focusing on student achievement, which customarily means just memorization, regurgitation, and gives prime recognition to students with the kinds of brains that are good at such mundane things, while discouraging those with different, but equally valuable, competencies.

    I found John Wooden’s book, “The Essential Wooden, A Lifetime of. . .,” to be a good outline of what teachers ought to do; and it offers an alternative to today’s narrow and excessively single-minded school programs. He taught the “pyramid of success” which he designed to foster the motivational and character-building techniques of the best coaches– to help students develop into the best they can be. From what I have read of the KIPP programs in charter schools, they follow a somewhat similar plan, and their first rule to each new student is to “be nice.” And, it sounds like the KIPP environment is much like a well groomed garden with a community atmosphere of cooperation and team spirit.

    From what I have seen, a good first step is to give each principal a free hand to structure his school according to his own vision, and his communities needs, get rid of top-down mandates, record keeping, and burdensome reporting. Many schools try to force children into molds, rather than finding a way to fire their imagination and motivation. There are some good new ideas on Motivating students–such as Dan Coyle’s “The Talent Code,” and Geoff Colvin’s “Talent is Overrated.” And of course, maintaining order and respectful behavior is an essential ingredient in any healthy ecosystem!

    1. Thanks for reading through my thoughts on schools as ecosystems.

      You are right to home in on the problem of focusing solely on student achievement, and this is something I’ve been thinking a lot about. Achievement is important — we do want to see our kids get better, after all — but it means little as a singular measure, if we don’t account for where a child began. We tend to measure achievement based on proficiency and standards, as opposed to based on an individual child’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as on their background and social history. We need to not only focus on achievement, but on equity.

      Thanks for referring me to John Wooden’s book. I’ll take a look at it. I think effective coaching research and best practices should be transferred to education and vice versa. I don’t know much about KIPP, but I agree with you that it does sound like they are making solid steps in the right direction by focusing on the culture of their schools and on character development. I know that they are actively sponsoring research into methods of teaching self-control, and to me, self-control is the key to success in any academic or life skill.

      In terms of giving a principal a free hand, I both agree with your point and disagree. I agree because we do have too many top down policies based on compliance that detracts from a principal’s ability to focus on what is most important to their local needs. I disagree because some principals require more oversight to run their schools effectively.

      My potential solution to this dilemma would be to remove some of those mandates that tie their hands, but increase accountability for their performance by having real people from the district or city coming into the building on a frequent basis to check on their work, just the way effective retail stores have regional managers that come into the store frequently to make sure the store looks and runs the way it should be.

  2. “Achievement” is difficult to measure because it is hard to even define. For example, I believe that Coach Wooden and the KIPP programs would be more delighted to see a child’s improvement in self-control than in his memorization or physical skills. In my book I cite the “Marshmallow Test” as an example of this paradox:

    A child psychologist, Dr. Walter Mischel, entered a pre-school classroom with a bowl of marshmallows to give the kids. Just as he was about to hand them out he had, by prior arrangment, a colleague ask him to leave the room to tend to something. So. he told the kids that he would be right back to give them out– but if they really wanted a marshmallow they could have one, BUT if they waited till he came back, he would give them two. Roughly half the kids grabbed one and the others waited to get two. Checking back twelve years later when they were in high school, those who had waited “for two marshmallows” were achieving far better evaluations on academics, behavior, and personal growth. The good doctor concluded that self-restraint was a more accurate predictor of future success than test scores, IQ, or school grades. See Daniel Goleman (“Emotional Control, Why It Can Matter More Than IQ”) who calls such deferment of gratification a “meta-ability”– that determines how well or how poorly people are able to use their other mental capacities.

    So a question for educators becomes: In the real adult world, is such self-control and discipline a more valuable thing to have learned than algebra or Roman historical dates?

    1. Bill, funny you should mention the marshmallow test! I talk to my students about that research all the time! I did my grad research on self-control, which you can view here (if you’re really bored/or as much of a nerd as I am about this stuff, which I suspect is the case given that you wrote a book about it! :) ):

      I don’t think self-control has to be an either/or prospect in terms of academics. I think they go hand-in-hand. But teaching of self-control definitely has to be made explicit, which it is not currently. In fact — at least from the little research I did — there doesn’t appear to really be any agreed upon, research-based methods of teaching self-control effectively.

  3. I agree that there is no “either-or” choices needed in encouraging a child’s varied abilities. The current mistake in today’s schools is the over-emphasis on academic skills to the detrimernt of other equally vital abilities. After getting into this subject, I coined the term “Total Competency Quotient” in order to emphasize the wide variety of competencies that make up every individual. What is needed is a reasonable balance of as many of these charcateristics as possible. Self-control or emotional restraint that you wrote about is one of many such important competencies that make up a mature and capable adult.

    Recent neurological findings have discovered that these varied human competencies are all controlled and directed by the brain along with related hormonal and glandular reactions. Personal resilience, the ability to get up from failure and persist in a goal, is one such attribute that is partly genetic, partly biological, and partly learned. So is creativity, initiative, prudence, patience, etc. Such capabilities are thus just as brain based as IQ, and are even more adaptive to good training. And many studies show that it is those valuable attributes that make most of our entrepreneurs successful–the Dave Thomases of America were frequently school drop outs of average IQ who had all the other more valuable competencies. (See Stanley, “The Millionaire Mind”)

    The important point for educators and parents is to recognize that all these competencies, whatever the individual’s inherent genetic and biological base may be, can be improved and developed by training and personal effort. A good school eco-system should foster the respect of such virtues and promote their cultivation. So should parents–In my day we were encouraged to read Ben Franklin’s aphorisms, Aesop’s Fables, and comprehend the magic of compound interest. In that way we gained enough common sense to overcome any lack of “mere brains.”

    1. Bill, at the very end of your comment, what you refer to as “common sense” can in fact be argued to be strong academic content. E.D. Hirsch, Jr. has been arguing for a long time about the importance of a coherent curriculum that acknowledges the core understanding students require to enable democracy to occur. This requires common knowledge of facts and domain specific language. If you haven’t read any Hirsch, I would urge you to check him out. I think you would find his arguments compelling.

  4. Wow! I just skimmed through your graduate paper on self-control!! It is really up on all the latest work in this field–brain plasticity, the relation between emptional control and other capabilities, and the growing understanding that these valuable traits or capabilities can be learned.

    I must confess that if I was in a classroom, I would not know how to inculcate such learning into the student’s heads. I don’t think these things can be taught directly by lecture. I am a creature of the case method, classroom discussion of real world problems, and such an approach might help. If a case placed an actor in a situation where he had to make a choice that involved applying patience or boldness, prudence or action, trying again vs. giving up, humility or bravado, it is possible that a roomful of students debating the decision to be made would learn the virtue of these alternative approaches.

    For me, as a child, the idea that I could get rich from just saving and compounding interest was compelling. Then, when I learned about inflation and leverage through modest debt, I deferred a lot of gratification for future reward.
    “Inherent inself-control, therefore, is the concept of “delayed gratification . . . delayed gratification can lead to achievement of future goals and increased rewards.”

    1. Some strategies can be taught via direct instruction, but then they must be role-played and practiced in order to be understood, such as in the “case method” you suggested. For example, one basic strategy I teach students who often get into conflicts is to simply “count to ten.” Then I teach them to step away from the situation to cool off. Or depending on the child, I might teach them to take deep breaths, or use a self-talk method, such as “stop and think.” Or some combination of all such strategies. It’s these kind of explicit strategies that students who have difficulty controlling their emotions require. It has to be tangible and concrete for them, because when someone is angry, it is pretty hard to remember to calm yourself down. But if the strategy is broken down for them into steps and they can begin the process independently, it can help them as they become more self-aware and can begin to prevent them getting upset in the first place.

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