I’ve been plugging away at a book that I started in May, #EdJourney by Grant Lichtman. I will admit a reluctance to come back to this book. It was “heavily suggested” reading for a course that I was taking at the time. It was a busy time of the year and I’ve never been good with books that I’m told to read. The book comes from a trip that Lichtman took over the course of a few months to visit a large number of schools across the U.S. to find out what innovation meant in these schools. Much of the early parts of the book are stories of visits to various schools and explorations of what has been working in the more innovative of them.
While enjoyable, I didn’t find these stories to be the true benefit of the book. Yes, they lay an important backdrop for the conclusions drawn, but in and of themselves, readers of education discussion through social media will have heard many of these stories, or ones like them, before. For me, what has been resonating has been this idea of education as an ecosystem. This is an idea that Lichtman attributes to Thomas and Seeley Brown and maybe Bejan and Zane but explains with a clarity and simplicity within an educational context that has helped me to understand it in a much deeper way.
Lichtman talks a lot about the differences between human engineered systems, such as the traditional assembly-line model of schooling, and natural ecosystems that evolve to meet the ever-changing needs of those that live within them. The engineered system is designed and controlled from without in order to efficiently reach a specific goal. As we know in education, this necessitates a one-size-fits-all approach. We have seen the problems with this as students who don’t match the image of the “average kid” slip through the cracks and we prepare our students for the reality of the past, not the needs of the future. An ecosystem view of education makes some key realizations. First and foremost, the the engineers are part of the ecosystem. That means that those that impact changes in the ecosystem are part of that ecosystem. This idea puts students, teachers and administrations on more of an equal footing. The needs of one dictate the decisions of the others. There is a balance that needs to be maintained if all are to thrive. I particularly like the idea that a teacher’s role in this system isn’t one of control as much as it is to perform particular roles of providing experience and direction within a learning environment, but it is not to control that environment. To go back to analogy used a couple of years ago from Erica McWilliam, the teacher is not a “sage on the stage” dictating every move in the class, nor is it that of a “guide on the side” where the teacher exists outside the environment and watches what happens with the occasional intervention. The teacher in an ecosystem is a “meddler in the middle” being part of that environment. Yes, the teacher does provide some direction to the learning environment, but spends an equal amount of time responding to the ever-changing needs of that environment. And the only way the teacher is going to be able to recognize changing needs is through relationships within that environment. The better relationships that the teacher has with the students (and the admin), the more agile and responsive she will be to the needs of that environment.
I haven’t really done justice to Lichtman’s writing here. For a more protracted, and thus clearer exploration of school as ecosystem, I encourage you to pick up a copy of his book, and maybe the ones that he references too!