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Schools are Living Systems: A Thesis Project

What do you mean when you say that our school is a living system? For some time now science has been looking for the “thing” at the center of matter and what this search has shown is that we may be better served not in looking for isolated things but for patterns of relationships. When we seek to isolate the parts we inevitably become blind to that which is most important about something alive, it’s connectedness and relationship to the whole.

Ecology is the study of the relationships between populations of plant and animal species and human ecology involves the study of the relationship between humans and their environment. Deep ecology looks at the inherent connections between the natural world and the human world. What I am attempting to do in my study is to first reframe the question about what is important in schools. If our frame of vision is shaped by test scores and industrial standards of efficiency then we have made the active choice to see only a small piece of the whole. Take those test scores away and how do we envision what is taking place in a school community. I am attempting to help our society to look with the capacity to see the broader patterns, the forces which influence those patterns and ultimately to look for solutions that are not an exercise of greater control but oriented toward a greater sense of ecological health.

How do we escape the paralysis of looking at the whole and not knowing where to begin because we can’t look at everything all the time? How do we continually balance decisions between that which is good for the whole and that which is good for the individual? These answers come from wisdom, from a commitment to complexity and locality, these answers are not found within the context of hegemony, homogeny and broad ideologies. These answers are found in a deep understanding of one another and of systems that support that understanding. As we reorient toward one another and away from ignorance and greed we begin to identify the symptoms flaring everywhere that result from the perspective that controlling living systems is possible. We orient to the perspective that valuable insight is found in fostering the vitality of an ecological whole, we begin to perceive with new eyes.

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About jsteele1979

Hello, I'm a grad student at Goddard College in Vermont though I live in Madison Wisconsin. I'm working toward a masters degree in Education and this site is part of my studies.

Discussion

3 thoughts on “Schools are Living Systems: A Thesis Project

  1. Just for openers while I am no fan of NCLB I do appreciate the attempt to measure. My question is this: are there measure of ecological health in learning systems and if so are they valid? Can we find better ones that tap into the larger health of the system? Can we aggegrate different measures of learning health into larger measures?

    Posted by Terry C Elliott | August 19, 2010, 3:05 pm
    • Ecological health in learning systems?
      It’s an interesting twist of phrase. I think there are measures of health in living systems which are in inherently learning systems, by nature of their life. It’a an incredibly complicated question, just to understand the total systemic effects on a pond of 30 feet in diameter would take a long time to organize in a meaningful way. See Howard Odum’s work “Ecology” and James Lovelock’s work “Healing Gaia.”

      I am not a fan of NCLB either and am looking around for meaningful measures of the health of ecological systems and finding that mostly reductionist evaluations that compare ecological services to economic metrics. I’m reading Aldo Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac” right now and his perspective which comes from that of a natural historian with an ecological view is very enlightening. He’s simply trying to see everything, examine his own biases and perspectives and describe his emotional response to the land to which he feels connected.

      You ask about aggregating different measures of learning health into larger measures? It’s interesting, tempting to be able to look at a community and be able to say with a degree of scientific validity that this system has a learning health measure that “exceeds expectations.” Can we do it, do we have the language and the analytical capacity to measure such a thing in a meaningful way? I’m skeptical of analytical tools that could ever bear the label, “universal”.

      I do think we need living systems aka people, to asses living systems aka schools and communities and that there needs to be guidance in that assessment. I don’t think that “guidance” looks anything like an audit or can be “objective” in any meaningful way. So, where does this lead me?

      How on earth can these ideas function within larger bodies that need to make decisions about funding without being a meaningful part of everything? I think it’s worth looking in the direction of Game Theory because in many ways the public education system is facing a “tragedy of the commons” game, where there is not incentive to care for the commons. In this case the commons is the ecological health of the living system. The prevailing metric is the test score and people are rewarded or punished based on that score. The game theory would ask you to create an incentive system strong enough to compete with test scores based on the health of a system.

      I’m moving my way through the beginning of an interesting book that, I think, addresses the core question you ask. I’ve linked the google book below. The essential question that is asked in the book is about the relationship between our notions of learning and what it means to be alive, to be a living system. What Francisco & Varela argue in their work from 1980 is that to be alive, is to be a learning system. In Fritjof Capra’s book “The Web of Life.” he gives an interesting presentation of what their work means to our concept of learning and consciousness. Both relevant concepts when it comes to schools.

      http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=nVmcN9Ja68kC&lpg=PP1&dq=Maturana%20%20Varela%20Autopoiesis%20Cognition&pg=PR12#v=onepage&q&f=false

      Posted by jsteele1979 | August 20, 2010, 1:36 pm
  2. There’s a great tension highlighted in this post. Complexity and locality do go together, though pop thinking assumes that something bigger always means better – more awesome, more complex – as if a “working” national system of education could be successful and complex at the same time. In countries with central standards that allow for local nuance in teaching, the standards are simple, but complex emergent behavior comes out of local teachers and students’ learning. In America, we have it backwards. We want a complex national system of interwoven standards, assessment, teacher evaluation, and boxed curriculum to produce simple results: test scores.

    Nothing good will come of it, neither innovation nor what we really mean by college-ready: content to learn in 1 modality, willing to behave according to Puritanical norms around adults, and able to pay.

    I would love to read an ecological study – or even some cartoon diagrams – of schools and classrooms that compared unhealthy systems with healthy ones, taking into account the interdependent impact of students’ lives inside and outside schools.

    Provocative post – thanks muchly –
    C

    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 20, 2010, 3:47 pm

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