Deeply rooted in the community


“Ultimately, Haskell contends that guys like Bethea—not academics like himself, or Sierra Club activists, or Washington bureaucrats—are best positioned to make good judgments about landscapes and ecosystems. Bethea is a deeply rooted member of this ecological community, as are the neighborhood folks caring for Manhattan’s street trees. They have a mature sense of ecological aesthetics based on belonging, and their ethic will stem from what they view as beautiful and whole.”

David Haskell Speaks for the Trees,” Outside

How a Lack of Natural Resources Can Affect a Child’s Education

By Matthew Hoelscher (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
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.

Possible lessons we can derive from the article:

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:

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.

Socially Resilient Heirloom Schools

A couple posts I want to direct our readers to that connect to the perspective of schools as ecosystems:

1) This post, which I discovered thanks to a tweet from Rachel Levy, is entitled Franchises, farmers markets, schools, on Cooperative Catalyst and written by humanities educator Chad Sansing. Sansing notes the unsustainable funding structures of schools and how money is funneled out of local school ecosystems and towards behemoth publishing companies. He then delineates a conceptual dichotomy between “franchise” schools and “farmers market” schools.

At farmers market schools, the academic and behavior standards exist to promote teaching and learning in safe, customizable, and meaningful ways. They are tantamount to a set of ingredients bought fresh and prepared or packaged safely in myriad ways according to the talents of the producer and the wants and needs of the customer. And sometimes the cook isn’t a cook, but a soap-maker or florist or print-artist setting up a stall at the market because people want more than food and want to support a broader economy that includes more than just food.

I like this idea of “farmers market schools”. I also like how Sansing references the ecological concept of niche when he notes the multiple roles that vendors can fill.

It made me think of the difference between heirloom (or heritage if you’re in the UK) produce and agri-business produce. Heirloom plants are non-hybridized varietals grown largely because seeds from diverse species can be retained and passed down through generations. They are also grown because they tend to taste much better than typical store bought produce. Many farmers are also concerned about the loss of biodiversity and local variants of species and thus propagate the continuation of heirloom varieties by sharing them with others via seedbanks.

It also reminded me of the concept of abriculture, or cultivating and valuing traditional local knowledge and ways of living.

How about some heirloom schools? Schools that value the local community and the expertise of those that work within that community?

2) Over on Shanker Blog, Esther Quintero posted a great piece entitled Staff Matters: Social Resilience in Schools that dovetails well with our advocacy for recognizing schools as ecosystems. Quintero first ponders the notion of “social resiliency” in the army:

Cacioppo and associates identify nine key resources that can foster social resilience, and describe a computer-based program designed to improve social resilience among troops in the U.S. Army. The training consists of a total of four short modules designed to stimulate an awareness of and an appreciation for the nine resources identified as important by the research.

For instance, one of the modules emphasizes that soldiers will fight more effectively and adapt to hardships and challenges when they are more inclusive about those around them. Another module addresses a common obstacle to social resilience: Viewing others as different from oneself thus, as a threat rather than a resource. The training illustrates how differences among group members can be assets and make the group superior (e.g., more adaptable), and how “team chemistry” can be more important than “the strength and talent of the individual warriors.” 

Might this framework help design training for nurturing social resilience among teachers in U.S. schools? I think so. In fact teachers demand this sort of approach and empirical evidence strongly suggests that when teachers work well together everybody benefits.

 She then goes on to list studies that support this idea. And all I can say is YES! Relationships matter! And from an ecological standpoint, it stands to reason that the greater the quality of relationships (redundancy and interconnectedness), the more resilient the ecosystem.

The problem is we don’t seem to be paving the way for any of this thinking but rather, quite the opposite. The dominant view is that schools can be improved by attracting and retaining excellent individual teachers. In the world of education, many still believe that “the strength and talent of the individual warriors” is more important than “team chemistry.” . . .  

Fields and research traditions as diverse as social capital theory, social network analysis, and organizational studies are increasingly coalescing around the powerful finding that no human problem can be neither properly understood nor fixed without attention to the social relationships in which individuals are embedded. As Cacioppo and colleagues put it: “We may aspire to be self-sufficient and celebrate our individual achievements, but our remarkable accomplishments as a species are attributable to our collective action, not our individual might.”

Reading this post made me extremely happy, because it validates and substantiates the very same point I made recently on GothamSchools: a school is so much more than the sum of its parts.

Now we need to just convince the rest of the education reform community.

How Can We Cultivate Abriculture in Our Communities?

Thanks to a link from @NatGeoGreen, I discovered an article entitled ‘Abriculture’ Using Forests to Feed Indigenous Peoples and Fight Climate Change that bears some relation to the perspective of schools as ecosystems:

“Our goal is to make bush foods more accessible to local people,” said Jenny Lynch, the Abriculture Development Officer here in Cairns. The term “abriculture” is an amalgam of the words aboriginal and agriculture. 

Easier access to bush foods will improve the health of local people. It is also a key component of transferring traditional knowledge from elders to younger generations, Lynch said at a Climate Change in Australia workshop.

The Western or conventional form of agriculture and food production is amongst the largest sources of climate-altering greenhouse gases – more than 20% globally according the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Agriculture is Australia’s second largest source of emissions behind the energy sector.

Abriculture is like permaculture where nature does all the work of growing food as long as people understand and respect nature’s complex interconnections. If you take a yam from the forest then you plant one in the same place, said Fourmile.

Bush foods have become difficult to obtain but they contain high levels of vitamins and other nutrients, said Lynch  By looking after the forest, local people also maintain its ability to take carbon from the atmosphere and preserve or even enhance forest biodiversity. [Bold added]

I love this concept of valuing local community knowledge and seeking to invest in local capacity in order to utilize that expertise to build healthier, more sustainable communities.  A major problem with current education reform approaches is that the knowledge of those who work and live within the communities that are most disadvantaged tends to be devalued. Schools are razed, even in the face of community outrage and protest.

It also makes me think more about the idea of the Global Learning Village (introduced in my last post), and about how we can expand our vision of what a school can be, and how it might become more inclusive of adult learners. How can we recognize, value, and leverage the knowledge and expertise already embedded within a community?