Schools as Ecosystems as an International Model

Thanks to a heads up on a link from @VIVATeachers, I found an idea relevant to the ecological principle of succession in this article summing up some lessons from the recent International Summit on the Teaching Profession.

The article, Preparing Teachers and School Leaders for the 21st Century — Ministers and Union  Leaders Meet on How to Turn Visions into Reality (somebody get this guy an editor, stat!), is posted on the OECD: EducationToday Blog.

That nations are gathering together to share ideas and strategies in education is in and of itself promising. Collaboration is a practice I believe deeply in and have advocated consistently for, such as in the policy recommendations I made with The VIVA Project and in my recent blog post on Education Gadfly. The author of the article, Andreas Scheicher, agrees with this essential need for professional collaboration and sharing:

It was amazing to see how much education, traditionally inward-looking, siloed and at times provincial, has become an international arena, with success no longer measured by national standards alone but by what the best performing education systems show can be achieved. . . .Though one can always question whether policies that are successful in some place will succeed in another place – and surely no country can simply adopt another nation’s system or policies – comparative data and analysis seem to rapidly expand the scope for learning from the successes and failures of education policies and practices around the world.

As the saying goes, “Think globally, act locally.” That we have crafted a set of mostly agreed upon state standards, the Common Core, is promising, but we need to go yet further and consider how our instruction measures up internationally. And though there remains a deeply (and disturbing, to my mind) provincial mindset in the United States, we can only benefit from drawing on knowledge and models from countries such as Finland, Singapore, and others. Again, here is Scheicher on this:

The success reported by high-performing countries as different as Canada, Finland or Singapore in leveraging the knowledge and skills of talented leaders for system-wide improvement and developing effective leaders at scale seemed truly remarkable. These countries don’t wait until teachers have reached the level of seniority to apply for leadership positions but are assessing young teachers continuously for their leadership potential and give them ample opportunity to develop their leadership capacity. They put in place far-sighted succession planning and show that leaders are not just born but can be developed and supported at scale with policy levers that can be acted upon. It was widely agreed that success will much depend on school leaders owning their professional practice or, as the Dutch Minister put it, [“]Governments will need to listen to the voices of principals and teachers to articulate what the standards of their professional practice should be.[“] [Bold added]

Embedded in this paragraph is a reference to “succession planning” in the context of developing and training leaders in public education. This parallels quite closely how Bill Mollison–a founder of Permaculture–describes the idea of ecological succession in Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual as a “sequence of processes . . . in the establishment of ‘new’ systems.” This process occurs naturally over the course of many years, but in cultivated ecosystems, we can accelerate and harness this process through deliberate planning.

Mollison’s advice in planning for this accelerated sequence is to view “every design . . . as an assembly of components. The first priority is to locate and cost those components. Where our resources are few, we look closely at the site itself, thinking of everything as a potential resource.”

This advice on close local observation in the absence of resources is an important one which I will return to in the coming months on this blog. For now, it suffices to mention that England has begun an inspectorate program that shows promise in fostering greater transparency and communication between classrooms and policymakers.

We can see here how the idea of ecological succession can be applied at a systems level in terms of design and planning for maximizing human capital. Other areas for further consideration would be how this idea would apply at a more concrete school and classroom level, or how it might apply to curriculum development.

Finally, the article on the International Summit provides some further correlations to our schools as ecosystems model in terms of ideas on the importance of contexts and relationships within schools:

Delegates also pointed out that matching teacher demand and supply critically relies on an environment that facilitates success and that encourages effective teachers to continue in teaching. Teacher leaders, in particular, emphasised[sic] that they place a premium on self-efficacy, wanting to be in a context and instructional environment in which they are successful, on genuine career perspectives, on the quality of their relations with students and colleagues, on feeling supported by their school leaders, and on adequate working conditions.  

Last but not least, it became clear that education needs to become a social project. Partnerships and coalitions are necessary and possible to strengthen and build the profession. Such coalitions require trust and respect and demand from all actors that they move beyond their comfort zone. As several speakers noted, seeking short-term political gains by shaming teachers will not strengthen the profession but tear it apart. [Bold added]

We can only build effective school environments if we build trust and respect between all involved. Glad that folks are recognizing this internationally. Now we just need to recognize this here in the old US of A.

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