What Kind of Ecosystem Is Your School?
A school is a microcosm of the larger ecosystem. The following is one definition of ecosystem: “a biological community of creatures that interact with one another and their physical surroundings.” If we assume that a school is an ecosystem, this has significant consequences for how we arrange schools and how we conduct ourselves inside those environments.
During a recent trip to Costa Rica’s jungles and biological preserves, my thoughts on this were crystallised. The interdependence of all organisms in an environment is a fundamental ecological notion. This means that whatever that occurs in one component of the system has an impact on the other sections of the system as a whole.
Another essential feature of ecosystems is that they are built to adapt and prosper in a changing environment. There can be serious negative repercussions when adjustments are made, for example, as a result of actions such as deforestation to gather wood for commercial purposes or conditions such as global warming, among others. Weather patterns, soil patterns, and access to food and other resources are all altered, as are the patterns of relationships between them. These have the potential to endanger particular species or cause them to alter their behaviour over time in unforeseen and frequently detrimental ways.
Every Element in a School Affects Other Parts
Every component of a school has an impact on the others.
If you have not yet made the connection between our high-stakes testing regime, the coupling of teacher evaluations to salary, and other efforts to script education in order to make it “teacher proof,” you should do so immediately.
As Adam Grant demonstrates in his article published in the New York Times (“Week in Review,” January 31, 2016), regimens of practise geared to generate prodigies, together with associated drill-repeat-test types of routines that we see in urban schooling, lead to counterproductive outcomes. To give an example, “Top concert pianists did not have elite teachers from the time they were able to walk; their initial lessons came from instructors who happened to live nearby and made learning enjoyable” (p. 12).
It is possible to change our perspective if we believe that a school is an ecosystem and operate in that manner. We understand that every aspect of a school has an impact on the other aspects. The way our most vulnerable and at-risk pupils are treated has an impact on the overall success of the school as a whole. It matters how teachers interact with one another and with pupils. It does important how lunch aides treat students and how they are handled by other school officials.
If we consider that a school is an ecosystem, we become more sensitive to the subtleties of the rules that we impose on schools and their students. We examine their consequences in a proximal rather than a distal manner. We expand the definition of high stakes to include minor interactions as well as the minds, hearts, hands, and souls of everyone who is impacted by our policies.
Considering that we believe a school is an ecosystem, it becomes clear that we must be concerned about every component of the school. All of the interactions and interdependencies that occur between its various components, regardless of their visibility, result in the creation of the school itself. A school district, on the other hand, is a far larger ecosystem that is defined as much by its most troublesome schools as it is by its greatest. To be sure, just as corporate disparities are constructed on the backs of the most poorly treated employees, educational injustices are created on the backs of students and faculty who are the least well treated.
In Costa Rica, while walking through the jungle and other habitats, I noticed that we lack the intelligence to discern which aspects of the ecosystem are expendable, worthy of neglect, or of lesser importance than others: As a result, we have an ethical and moral commitment to nourish the school’s ecosystem by providing equitable support to all of its components, in order to allow every student to develop his or her potential to thrive in ways that will make a positive contribution to the overall community of learners.
How Many Turtles? How Many Raccoons?
Please take the time to read the descriptions of each of the rainforest residents listed below and choose who, within your school — or team, group, or committee — represents that resident’s interests. (I’d like to thank my trip companions in Costa Rica for their suggestions on this.) The score system is ecological in and of itself; you can use it to determine whether you have too many of one thing and not enough of another:
The macaw is a bird of prey that is well-known for its fidelity. Even though it is not afraid to deviate from the path, it always returns to the path of least resistance.
Crocodile: The crocodile is an ancient and formidable creature with a muscular jaw that can close quickly and with many sharp teeth. It is extremely adaptable to a wide range of situations and should not be trifled with.
Turtles: Despite their status as a symbol of thoughtful wisdom, turtles are known to be abrasive and may retreat inside their shells when threatened. They adhere to extremely regimented routines and are averse to changes in their environment.
What to Know About the Howler Monkey: The howler monkey is extremely noisy and may be heard from great distances. When attacked, it uses its scream to disconcert and menace, but when not confronted, it retreats.
Three-toed Sloth: The three-toed sloth is a slow-moving creature that isn’t particularly concerned with its surroundings. While it does not intend to damage others in its path, it does harm to those who get in its way. It saves negative things for a week and then spews them out without thinking about it.
The Capuchin Monkey: The capuchin monkey is an extremely social creature who is engaged in everyone’s affairs and is always up to no good. It acts in cliques and is not averse to appropriating property that is not its own.
Frog: Frogs are extremely nurturing creatures, especially towards newcomers. They are willing to put their personal well-being aside in order to assist the future generation in emerging in a healthy manner.
In the Manuel Antonio Park, raccoons are highly motivated by external factors; their activities are based on incentives, rewards, and contingencies, even to the disadvantage of the animals themselves.
Spider Monkey: The spider monkey swings from branch to branch, seemingly unconcerned about where he is going. It enjoys putting on a show and being noticed.
School Turnaround Means Improving School Climate
Bats: Bats are an important component of the rainforest ecosystem and are quite diverse. Some help pollinate, transporting seeds to other parts of the rainforest; others prey on small, helpless creatures, including infants; and still others help regulate the mosquito population, reducing the number of these bothersome ecosystem occupants in their territory.
Schools cannot be “turned around” without first addressing them as ecosystems, which means that they must be improved in order to be “turned around.” Schools cannot achieve proficiency, much alone excellence, unless they pay attention to the climate of the school as well as the social-emotional competence and character of all students and staff.
This presents a significant challenge to the educational system and educators. Our policies and programs tend to be fragmented, not holistic. Too often, they focus on subject areas and content, rather than on the people in the schools and their relationships to one another and the material being taught.