Social Relationships, Ecology, and Schools

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You may have noticed that I changed the subtitle of this site to “Socio-ecological perspectives on education.” I’d like to explain what that means and why I changed it.

It used to read something like “holistic, ecological, and student-centered perspectives on education reform,” but I’ve noticed that words and phrases like “holistic,” “student-centered,” or “reform” can carry a lot of baggage, dependent on the reader’s frame. Furthermore, when I do get around to posting, I’ve been straying from those themes at times and needed to find another way to capture what this blog is really about. Socio-ecological perspectives sounds perhaps more academic and clinical, but it succinctly states what threads consistently through most posts here.

Socio” stands for “social” or “society.” When we talk about a school as an ecosystem, we’re pointing to the fundamental importance of relationships. And when we extend that social, societal dimension to include “ecological,” we’re grounding those relationships in a physical space, time, and place. Relationships are shaped by their environments; when we discuss a school as an ecosystem, we’re acknowledging the importance of contexts and content, physical infrastructure and curriculum.

But if you really wanted to geek out and get technical on the definition of “socio-ecological,” here’s a wonderful articulation from

A socio-ecological system can be defined as:

  • A coherent system of biophysical and social factors that regularly interact in a resilient, sustained manner;
  • A system that is defined at several spatial, temporal, and organisational scales, which may be hierarchically linked;
  • A set of critical resources (natural, socioeconomic, and cultural) whose flow and use is regulated by a combination of ecological and social systems; and
  • A perpetually dynamic, and complex system with continuous adaptation.

Yes, all of that.

I’d like to focus this post on the “socio” part of things, drawing from a great post by Kara Finnegan and Alan Daly on Shanker Blog put up just today that very neatly makes the case for the importance of relationships in education.

Let me begin by stating the obvious, in case you don’t work in a school yourself. Relationships are everything in a classroom and school. I work in a middle school, and if there’s something happening with one of my student’s relationships with each other, or with their family, you bet it shows up in my classroom. Middle school kids, especially, are notorious for their focus on the social realm. But it’s just as important to the adults in a school. If there’s something happening between teachers, or a teacher’s relationship with the administration has shifted, you bet it shows up in the hallways, classrooms, and team meetings. It pervades.

Relationships determine the culture of a school.

But they determine much more than that, as Finnegan and Daly point out in their post—they also determine whether policies, instructional practices, and other forms of practice and knowledge are transmitted successfully or left withering at the door. You may think the problem of a failed reform is the information, “but relationships will trump even the best information.”

We wonder whether the current [reform] movement, based upon many of the same premises of standards and accountability that drove off prior reforms, has now created a thousand and one ways for schools to fail rather than changing the course of action and leading to the difficult work of changing the informal structure, norms, and culture described above – i.e., to build the capacity of these systems to bring about change.  Given the limited success of these efforts in most settings, particularly in large urban districts, it is time to shift the policy and reform attention from the school site as the unit of change to zooming out and exploring the systemwide context of reform: the horizontal and vertical social ‘ties’ between and among central offices and site leaders in a district enacting reform. In other words, it’s time to focus at the relational level.

Focus on the contexts and relationships. This is what I mean when I talk about the socio-ecological perspective of a school. If we simply view “fixing” schools as a technical problem, we’re bound to encounter the very same obstacles encountered by any prior reform. Without a shift in the culture and relationships in which any elegant technical fixes and knowledge are proffered, little will change. It’s about how things work together as a system.

Finnegan and Daly then use social network analysis to examine district relationships and sharing of knowledge. They discovered that central office administrators, unsurprisingly, had the most sharing of expertise. Then, interestingly, they found “district and site leaders” over on the other side of the map, which they termed “isolates”:

This means that no one seeks them for expertise, nor do they seek anyone. We see this as lost social capital in the organization, which in the current climate no district can afford. [bold added]

In other words, waste. I’ve written about this sort of waste in education before, when I wrote about why I left my last school on Chalkbeat NY. I said, “I want to be clear about one aspect of that struggling school: It is not struggling because teachers were ineffective or incompetent. In fact, in that school there lies dormant a vast human, social, and even physical capital entirely untapped, and that is what is the greatest of crimes” [bold added].

There’s a wealth of knowledge and expertise that lies untapped and wasted in schools across our nation. The good news is that by focusing on collaboration and building relationships, this network of social and human capital can expand. The social network analysis Finnegan and Daly conducted over time demonstrated that ties increased “when administrators realized information was not being promulgated effectively, [and] they decided to address that problem . . . they succeeded.” However, Finnegan and Daly point to a caveat:

Perhaps most critically, and unfortunately, during the same time period when these educational leaders increased work related ties, they also had a reduction in more affective relationships (e.g. trust).  These more “emotionally” laden relationships are important as they indicate something about the “quality” of the ties. Our own work as well as others suggests that these types of relationships are critical in supporting change. Absent these ties, in which individuals can engage in risk taking and exposing vulnerabilities, deeper work and the changes in practice may be inhibited.

We’ve discussed the importance of connections on this blog before, and we uncovered a relevant ecological principle from Bill Mollison: it is not simply the quantity of connections that matters, it’s the quality of those connections.

Wrapping up, Finnegan and Daly conclude that while talking about quality relationships sounds simple enough, it’s much more difficult to put into practice:

. . . in the current climate of pressure and distrust, educational leaders and practitioners at all levels of the system have formidable challenges ahead if complex and authentic reform – and not just political rhetoric – is really desired in our educational system.



One thought on “Social Relationships, Ecology, and Schools

  1. phishlips

    I feel as though you may find asset mapping a successful practice and tool for you/your guardians&parents/your students/maybe your school’s community. there are many resources on facilitating asset mapping meetings/exercises.. hopefully helpful and not too late!


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