An Elegant Chaos: Ecology and Education

By Picnic25 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
A central tenet of viewing schools as ecosystems is the acknowledgement of the complexity of education, whether at the level of an individual classroom, a school, a district, a state, or beyond. This complexity relates well to the natural world, particularly ecology, hence the analogy of an ecosystem. Ecosystems are rich with interdependencies and relationships that are ever evolving, just as a school is teeming with social, emotional, and intellectual interconnections.

In an editorial on Nature,  the inherent complexity of ecology is analyzed, with the argument that due to its complexity, grand unifying theories are impossible. As the author puts it, “It is doubtful that the generalities that underlie the complex patterns of nature will ever be phrased succinctly enough to fit on a T-shirt.”

We’ve explored the concept that in the face of such complexity, prediction becomes a quixotic effort, and that we would do better to focus on what is more immediately and tangibly before us.

Similarly, Nature argues that ecological predictions based on disassociated “universal laws” must to be put aside in favor of field-based knowledge and understanding based on context.

Useful practical predictions need not stem from universal laws. They may come instead from a deep knowledge of the unique workings of each eco­system — knowledge gained from observation and analysis. Proposing sweeping theories is exciting, but if ecologists want to produce work useful to conservation, they might do better to spend their days sitting quietly in eco­systems with waterproof notebooks and hand lenses, writing everything down.

Indeed. And if you want to understand a school, you’ve got to go into that school and observe and listen. In the face of chaos and complexity, this time-honored method remains the best way to learn and understand.


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