“We like our black-and-white narratives, with clear heroes and villains. The very term symbiosis has been twisted so that its original, neutral meaning – ‘living together’ – has been infused with positive spin, and almost flaky connotations of cooperation and blissful harmony. But evolution doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t necessarily favour cooperation, even if that’s in everyone’s interests. And it saddles even the most harmonious relationships with conflict.”
In an article in Harvard Business Review, “The Biology of Corporate Survival*” the authors lay out some principles for managing complex adaptive systems. While framed for a business audience, these principles could be applicable to the complex adaptive system (or, perhaps more aptly, the “complexicated” system) of a school.
The authors delineate a set of principles for robustness into structural features, and managerial levers:
Expect surprise, but reduce uncertainty
Create feedback loops and adaptive mechanisms
Foster trust and reciprocity
How might these principles apply in a school?
I’ll leave that to you to contemplate, but for the record, I’ll note that most public school managers typically do quite poorly in reducing uncertainty and in fostering trust.
“The plant life of Australia’s outback may have “given up”, according to satellite-based maps tracking the impact of changing climatic conditions, such as rainfall and temperature, on the world’s ecosystems.
“The study suggests the vegetation of our interior does not respond to sudden increases in rainfall because it has “learned” that drought will soon follow. . . .
“‘Sometimes when you subject an ecosystem to some kind of disturbance, such as a drought or fire, they behave differently depending on their past,’ he explained. . . .
“‘They don’t care if it is good favourable conditions now, because they know it is temporary and it is not worth investing in growing more at this time because they become bigger and it is a lot more to care of when the drought returns,’ he said.”
“If you frequently trigger small cascades, you never get really massive events, but you [sacrifice] all that short-term profit,” D’Souza explained. “If you prevent cascades at all costs, you might make a lot of profit, but eventually a cascade is going to happen, and it will be so massive it [could] wipe out your entire profit.”
This quote, referring to a concept termed “explosive percolation,” runs parallel to best practice in fire prevention.
After decades of overzealous fire prevention (think: Smokey the Bear), we’ve ended up with a situation wherein apocalyptic wildfires have become a norm. Fire prevention, experts have come to recognize, now requires smaller burns—or, in the absence of controlled burns due to the risk involved, actively thinning underbrush and trees through human labor.
The concept of “explosive percolation” also relates to a concept we’ve explored here before, termed a “self-organized criticality,” in which complex systems maintain stability via “small avalanches” that spontaneously transition between states of chaos and order.
In schools, this confirms the notion that to maintain stability and order within a school community (or classroom) requires “frequently triggering small cascades” of new learning and activities interspersed within stable norms, rituals, and traditions that any school or teacher maintains.
“It’s not just that money can buy more sea walls, drought-tolerant agriculture equipment, private water supplies, and other material aids to adaptation. It’s that money also tends to come along with social capital, and one of the most important findings in research on resilience is that social cohesion is just as important as technology. It is the places with strong social networks that tend to have plans, civic institutions, early warning systems, and systems of aid and support that help communities through crisis.
It is socially cohesive communities, in which people are “in it together,” that survive disaster and rebuild afterward. Places without those social networks fragment; their suffering becomes a self-reinforcing cycle.
Unfortunately, economic inequality also tends to reduce social cohesion, leading to lack of trust and fewer shared resources. So if the people who support adaptation were being honest, they would acknowledge that perhaps the first and most effective form of adaptation is to reduce economic inequality, to create more cohesive communities defined by fellow-feeling rather than mutual suspicion and resentment. That’s true on the local level and also on the national and international level, as resource transfers between and within countries will need to rise markedly to prepare the most vulnerable places for what’s to come.”
This post is a continuation from my last post on poverty. I made the case that poverty can be viewed as not simply a lack of money or resources, but as a lack of options, and that the development of better options for children and their families is a potential strategy for mediating against the toxic effects of poverty.
And when it comes to teaching our children knowledge in a coherent and systematic manner, we’ve been failing pretty miserably on that front, in my opinion. It’s fuzzy math, or it’s Singapore math. It’s phonics or it’s whole language. It’s Common Core standards vs. don’t-tell-me-what-to-do-even-if-it’s-good-for-me. It’s political and ideological squabbling between adults, in other words, rather than a focus on systems design and iterative processes and products with students at the center.
But as I discussed before, we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can completely ameliorate the devastation of poverty in the classroom.
To scale and sustain the development of more and better options for a community ultimately requires playing the long game.
The short game is the game most politicians play. It’s the game most business folks play. It’s the game prison inmates play. It’s aggressive, it’s territorial. It’s also the game ideologues play. Hey kids, can anyone think of any ideologues in education?
It’s a necessary game, and it’s perhaps a glamorous one, but it’s not the only game in town, and it’s not the most important one.
Playing the long game means thinking at a systems level and across sectors. It means being willing to fight political or ideological battles when necessary, but also willing to develop and implement and sustain pragmatic policies and initiatives. It means being willing to work quietly in the shadows, because the long-term effectiveness of processes and policy outcomes are not something easily seen, nor something captivating to a public enraptured by the next new thing.
Playing the long game is akin to cultivating a tree.
A tree takes decades to mature. And like a child, the long-term outcome of a tree is heavily dependent on the initial conditions of it’s sowing. For a tree, the initial conditions are the soil and surrounding ecosystem. The wind, the light, the geographical placement. For a child, the initial conditions refers to his or her given family and surrounding environment.
For a tree to grow, it requires healthy, rich, nutritious soil, full with microbial life and enough water to get it started. It then benefits from layerings of mulch as it begins to develop.
How can you tell the difference between a poor neighborhood and a wealthier neighborhood from outer space? It’s easy—you look for trees.
Something that simple, yet that powerful. But trees don’t magically appear and come to fruition. And while we can accelerate and aid the growing of a tree in unnatural conditions, we don’t yet have instant test tube trees we can transplant anywhere. Planting and growing trees takes a community effort. The MillionTrees NYC effort—one of many such efforts in an urban setting—for example, requires the sustained collaboration of government, private and public funds and outreach, and volunteers.
To nurture our children requires a similar sort of effort. It takes a willingness to work with people from different walks and roles, to build an interdependent network of care, to see beyond one’s own front yard. It takes a focus on what will matter in the future, not just right now right now right now.
And it takes a willingness to acknowledge and invest in enriching the initial conditions and circumstances in which a child is born. That’s pre-K, child care, pre-natal services, education and outreach by health providers. A willingness to acknowledge the toxic impact that infrastructural decay and lack of access to parks, diverse food sources, strong local schools within walking distance, and libraries can have on a community.
Providing options in the form of school choice is great—but it’s not much of a choice when it takes a child 2 hours to get there.
And it’s not the much of a choice when there’s a failing economy and few job opportunities in your community upon your graduation.
Let’s play the long game and invest in providing our children with opportunities and options within the communities they are raised within.
An interesting article in the New Yorker, “Spare the Rod, School the Child” by Michelle Nijhuis, gives us urgent lessons with implications not only to our swiftly changing ecological environments, but also may bear lessons for our educational environments as well.
Natural and environmental resources can be intimately tied to social outcomes
In Ghana, it was discovered that a decline in fish populations could be directly correlated to a rise in children kept at home from school. Why? Because baboons were causing so much damage that “many Ghanaians were keeping their young children out of school to help guard family farms.” Why were baboons destroying farms? Because their populations had grown since their competitors were becoming bushmeat. Why were people increasingly eating bushmeat? Because fish populations were declining.
The native Ghanians knew that fish were the cause of this. The researcher who ended up verifying their knowledge with his research at first dismissed their perceptions. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, but these uninformed people aren’t aware of some bigger dynamic.’”
In the world of education, it’s very easy to get caught up in big idea debates at the level of policy, politics, and research. An important lesson from this article is the reminder that we always need to find a way to ground and center our discussions around those whose lives are impacted the most. In the case of education: students and their parents. How can we do that? By asking them!
As Melinda D. Anderson so very neatly put it on Twitter:
. @mandercorn Indeed! The lesson: talk to the people most affected! They have wisdom that vastly surpasses any of your preconceived notions.
Scarcity of fish can be traced to other causes of social ills across the globe: “indentured servitude and child slavery” and “fishing militias” in Thailand, HIV positive women in Kenya exchanging sex for fish, and in West Africa, “child labor and child slavery are increasing.”
Yet “these linkages are rarely discussed in academic circles, or even in the popular press. ” Why is that?
“The science side is very focused on natural-resource trends and not really thinking about social consequences, while the policy side is looking at Somali pirates or elephant ivory, and totally disconnected from the root causes.“
Again, there are obvious parallels to the world of education policy and research here. As biologist Justin Brashares puts it in the article, “Our whole research and policy response system is really poorly equipped for the future.”
Why are our institutions of education failing? Ask the students. Ask their parents. Take a walk in their communities. It might be something as starkly simple as a scarcity of a natural resource.
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 Wikipedia.org:
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.
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.
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.
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.