by Steve Saville
Comparing a school to an ecosystem is not exactly a new concept. It has been used as an effective comparison with increasing frequency over the last decade.
It makes sense though.
An ecosystem is a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment and, to quote Ken Robinson from page 39 of his posthumous book
“Education is an organized system of learning… a school is a community of learners; a group that comes together to learn with and from each other.”
For most of us the process of education is associated with school, but it is important to remember that schools have to constantly reflect and review their individual effectiveness in providing the environment where learning and learners can flourish, this is not something that we can take for granted that for many of us always takes place in a school.
Both schools and ecosystems rely on numerous systems that are interdependent and both require certain conditions for the organisms to flourish (I love referring to students as organisms). To reference Ken Robinson (page 3 from “Imagine if…”) again,
“we survive and flourish in certain conditions and wither and fade in others.”
What I want to do in this blog is to use this image of school as ecosystem and unpack it to help teachers and leaders see how they can use our Te Kākano model, that we introduced in a blog a couple of weeks ago, to navigate their way through the implementation of Ministry mandated initiatives like Te Matāiaho and the Common Practice Model, and to do so in a way that accepts the koha from the Ministry and protects its fidelity, yet also protects the fidelity and Mana of the school.
I lean heavily throughout this blog on Russell Bishop's book, “Leading to the North East” and the above mentioned inspirational posthumous work from Ken Robinson. To state the obvious first, the initiatives from the Ministry are objects only, they are rich in potential, backed by research and aspiration but they lack life; they are like dormant seeds (the first part of the Te Kākano visual below).
As we bring them into our schools it is the vibrant ecosystem within a school that will plant, nourish, protect, grow and harvest these seeds. We grow the seed - and in doing so we take what is essentially dead and give it life. Our simple navigational model is an attempt to capture this transformation (for some reason I feel I am channeling Kafka now, as in “Metamorphosis” not “The Castle”, or “The Trial”).
An ecosystem has three interdependent phases or stages:
This directly links to what a school will need to do to successfully implement the initiatives with fidelity. They will need to prepare the soil, the conditions in the school that will allow the seeds to grow. Some of these are outlined in the Te Kākano diagram.
The whenua has to be fertile and nourished as this is what gives life, it is the same for a school as it is for a natural ecosystem. Part of this is knowing yourself as a school, knowing your community and your people; seeing the school culture as part of this soil is also vital. No seeds grow well in a drought, or in barren soil, so time during the Induction phase must be given to ensure that the soil is rich and fertile. A big part of this is maintaining and checking the health of the various interdependent systems that operate within the school ecosystem. To paraphrase Robinson, you can have the best curriculum in the world but it will struggle if the buildings are crumbling. You can have the best physical environment imaginable, but it will flounder in being able to provide a learning environment if there are no effective administrative systems to support it - this requires organisation, alongside the tikanga principles of whanaungatanga and whakapapa as mentioned in an earlier blog here.
If the soil is rich the seeds will grow strong and resilient, as they are protected and nourished. In turn they provide nourishment and protection for insects, other plants and small animals - you get the idea of embracing diversity here. All of these features are interdependent and need to be strong for the trialing and application stages to be successful. All of these interdependent parts of the system have to connect if the system is to flourish, and if the fidelity of the initiatives and the school are to be equally honoured. Resilience in the school requires focusing on wellbeing and the health of the community, it depends on having robust effective systems that support learning and it means doing this, and more, in a consistent and coherent way. A school is an ecosystem - in that it consists of numerous small, simpler systems, its effectiveness depends on how they interconnect.
Part of this resilience phase (to paraphrase Robinson again) is to be totally aware of the conditions within the ecosystem. For example, when it comes to change, in any staff there are three groups: the immovable, the moveable and the movers. It is about utilising the energy of the movers, those who can drive, take risks and trial to help convince and reassure the immoveable. Not every plant grows at the same rate after all, and some plants need a different type of nourishment at different times. An ecosystem is a complex world and so is the staff room.
Currently, there is considerable anxiety surrounding where education is going in the near future (partly as a result of a certain general election) and where the initiatives that have been introduced sit. This anxiety can be dealt with by providing reassurance and information, but it can easily turn to cynicism and that is altogether harder to neutralize - and it is in the cynical arena that the immovable start to occupy a stronger space than the movers. Ecosystems are vibrant and cyclical, not stagnant, and so should schools be.
If this awareness of the school as a living, interdependent ecosystem is understood and protected then productivity will result, be it harvesting or learning, and the seeds from this harvest can be replanted to ensure sustainability and continuation.
Success does require the dual fidelity of school and initiative though, they have to work together.
To finish with a quote from page 37 Robinsons book (a book bristling with inspirational quotes by the way),
“Education must enable students to understand the world around them and the talents within them, so that they can become fulfilled individuals and active, compassionate citizens.”
I would argue that the goal of Te Matāiaho is identical. After all Matāitipu is at the centre of the interconnected, interdependent Whakapapa visual for a reason. To bring this across to the concept of school as an ecosystem, see a student as a flower - beautiful and complete as an individual, but also able to nourish and provide through pollen, to a community. In other words, a fulfilled individual and a compassionate citizen is part of a system that develops it as a flower, but in turn this system also depends on the flower as a producer of future growth.