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.


Open Source as it Applies to Public Education

I will begin examining how the governance systems utilized in the process of open source software engineering can be applied to public education. This quote from Steven Weber’s book, The Success of Open Source, is my opening salvo in that exploration.

. . .simple models fail because the complexities at the core of the task cannot be abstracted away. A physicist dealing with complexity has the advantage of being able to assume that models can be built around unifying physical principles. The software engineer cannot make that assumption. Einstein said that there must be simplifiable explanations of nature because God is not arbitrary. But there is no such structure for software engineering because the complexity at play is “arbitrary complexity, forced without rhyme or reason by the many human institutions and systems to which the programmer’s interfaces must conform”.

–from The Success of Open Source, by Steven Weber

I think there are many fruitful parallels that can be drawn between the process utilized in open source software engineering and the process that educators should utilize in designing units and lessons. This quote discusses the inherent complexity involved in the creative and technical process of software engineering, and I believe this could apply just as accurately to teachers. The process of designing and implementing an effective lesson is incredibly complex in the same manner, and teachers could benefit from utilizing the processes employed by the open source collaborative design model. I will continue to explore this idea through more quotations as I read this book, and through continuing my analysis of the concept of public education as an ecosytem.

Growing Healthy Food and Children

A grandiose post on education. Sometimes it’s just gotta be done.

Now that I have a rare moment wherein time is somewhat suspended (the woman is sick and passed out and I’ve finished grad school work due tomorrow), and I’m imbibing some Dominican ambrosia and just relaxing and feeling reflective, I think I’d like to verbalize some thoughts on public education, as right now it’s surprisingly caught the drift of a lot of national attention, due in no small part to Waiting for Superman (which I pledged to go see but never did, because  . . . you guessed it, didn’t have the time (but that’s what Netflix is for, in any case (plus, I’m opposed to seeing movies in movie theaters any more))), as well as concurrent talking points like Race to the Top, Common Core State Standards, Michelle Rhee, Cathie Black, reformed systems of teacher evaluation, bullying and deaths in school, etc.

The strange thing about education is just how damned political the whole undertaking is. The field of education is a messy conflux of policy and politics, with many stakeholders taking often quite adversarial positions even when they ostensibly have common goals. Education is a hugely dynamic and complex field, and it doesn’t really make sense to view it through the lens of only one stakeholder.

Therein, perhaps, lies the crux of the issue. No one can really quite agree on what public education is supposed to do, exactly. We certainly agree that we should be teaching our children, but often in actual application, it would appear that us adults (whether parents, teachers, administrators or policymakers) are quite confused about what is worth teaching and might need some further schooling ourselves. Often we end up simply capitalizing off of children, in the same manner that giant corporations capitalize off of war, and industries capitalize off of prisons.

An Analogy

Coinciding with the rise of public education was the rise of agribusiness. Both of these services to society, I would argue, were crucial and entirely necessary. The drive to efficiency and scalability of agribusiness has resulted in some unforeseen issues, however, such as rampant dependency on pesticides and herbicides, and the ravaging of topsoils. Awareness of these detrimental side-effects has grown, and the organic and whole foods movement has caught on at a mainstream level in order to address some of these imbalances, though the jury is still out on whether we’re even capable of rectifying them. At the very least, society is beginning to recognize that short-term gain is not always worth long-term detrimental effects, including impacts on global and personal health.

There are links between food growth and education that I think should be elucidated. When you grow food, you are not simply growing a product, you are sustaining soil life. The more vibrant and diverse that soil life is, the more abundant, sustainable, and healthy your final product is. In education, you are not simply building student dendrites and promoting academic development, you are cultivating a community. The more inclusive, diverse, and vibrant that community is, the better the academic and other outcomes will be for students. We don’t need research to tell us this.

The Big Idea

The big idea here is that post-modern farming and education, as in the permaculture approach, is all about fostering foundational systems of interconnectivity. When you are dealing with complex systems of life, you need to promote those interconnections at all cost, or else you will end up weakening those systems at an incalculably large cost to greater society.

It’s this idea that I think can promote a unified vision for where education needs to go today. It’s not just about technology or knowledge work or global competitiveness or what have you–it’s about societal health and a sustainable future for our nation. If we can’t cultivate self-sustaining communities that are vibrant, interconnected, and teeming with diversity, then we will be able to do little else than continue infusing unhealthy doses of industrial era, one-size-fits-all reforms into school systems, propped up on federal money and compliance based policies.