PROCESS POST: Exploring Metaphors – Schools as Natural Habitats

Author’s note: I’ve thought on this blog post for about a month, but I have nervously avoided writing or publishing it. I think it runs a risk of really offending people. Of course, I do not mean to offend anyone. Rather, I find that exploring metaphors about school and education helps to stretch and enhance my knowledge and understanding of school and education. Comparisons reveal. Yet no metaphor is perfect – some traits translate, and others don’t. But many people seem to get hung up on an idea that a metaphor must translate each and every element of the comparison. In my opinion, to try to make a perfect 1:1 comparison is misusing a metaphor. If two things were perfectly alike, there would be no need for a metaphor or comparison. It is because two things are not perfectly alike that a metaphor and comparison proves interesting and helpful – to explore the similarities and differences. I’m sorry if this exploration offends. But… here it goes.

In 1907, the German entrepreneur Carl Hagenbeck founded the Tierpark Hagenbeck in Stellingen, now a quarter of Hamburg. It is known for being the first zoo to use open enclosures surrounded by moats, rather than barred cages, to better approximate animals’ natural environments.[14]


How might schools be like zoos? In particular, how might schools be like zoos transforming from cage-based systems to more natural-habitat systems? In other words, how might schools provide more natural habitats for learners?

For some time between seven and ten years, I have been researching a primary question: “If schools are to prepare students for real life, then why don’t schools look more like real life?” As a corollary to the question, I like to consider how we might make schools more like real life. For students and teachers, in fact, school IS real life.

Lately, I am getting more challenges from people about what I mean by real life. That’s a fair and good question, and I am learning so much from these challenges – from these requests to define what I mean by “real life.”

Most recently, I’ve begun my responses something like this –

Well, in watching my own children grow and learn, I am struck by what searchers, explorers, and discoverers they are. So are other people’s children. Children seem to learn best through experimentation, immersion, and play. I don’t see many pre-school (not preschool) kids choosing to sit in desks most of the day to be taught to.

As I think about my life since formal schooling, I am also struck by how much my own learning – after school – involves messy searching, exploring, and discovering. Most of our lives as learners seems to be more constructivist, more integrated, more project-based, more inquiry-driven, more self-initiated. As an adult, I rarely sit for 180 days studying silo-ed subject matter (and I know that is a gross generalization).

Structurally, though, in many ways, formal schooling – in its traditional form – seems to be an interruption from our more natural, human ways of learning. The habitat of “school” doesn’t seem terribly natural.

So, for me, making school more life like means making school learning environments more like our natural habitats as human learners. In many ways, the PBL (project-based learning, passion-based learning, problem-based learning, place-based learning, etc.) movement is working to make school more like our real lives. In our real lives … We mostly work in projects. We pursue our passions. We find and attempt to solve problems. So, making school more like real life has involved more PBL. When student choice and curation of projects is baked into the work, I believe the work is even more natural habitat-ish. When students have authentic audiences – community members beyond the teachers – I believe the work is even more natural habitat-ish. When failure is a more process-embedded waypoint on the path to success, instead of a product-defining finality that marks a cell in a grade book, I believe the work is even more natural habitat-ish.

The technology integration movement seems another attempt at natural-habitat learning. Instead of understanding that kids live tech-filled lives outside of school and expecting them to check their digital devices at the door, many schools have worked to make technology part of the schooling experience in the most recent years. In the real world, kids can be producers in a Web 2.0 environment, not just consumers. So, adaptations to school have followed suit – students have more opportunities it seems to be producers of content, not just consumers of content.

MOOCs, badge-ification, maker spaces, and DIYs also seem related to the transformation of schools to more natural-habitat-oriented environments. Service learning, STEM, STEAM, STREAM, independent study, apprenticeships and internships, research partnerships – these all seem great examples of efforts to make school more like our natural habitats for human learning.

But what “cages” remain? A few possibilities come to mind:

  • traditional grading systems, especially those that utilize mean averaging, zeros, and non-narrative feedback
  • standardized testing, as it is used in the systems-measurement sense
  • silo-ed, non-integrated subject areas and departments
  • homework in its typical, traditional uses
  • organization of classes by strict age-grouping
  • single, isolated teachers instead of co-teachers and partnered facilitators
  • 45-55 minutes as the typical blocks of time for math, English, history, etc.
  • rows and columns of desks that preserve order over involvement

With the zoo comparison, I do NOT mean to imply that students are animals or wild creatures being held against their will. And I do not view teachers as zoo keepers. I am simply questioning if the traditional structure of school approximates our natural habitats as human learners. When we filter school transformation through a lens of “Does this change make school more like the natural habitats of human learning?” then I think we stand a better chance of making school naturally motivating, relevant, exciting, and intriguing. Additionally, when school is modeled on natural habitats, the environments and experiences come closer to preparing learners for the ongoing, lifelong learning that they will encounter for the majority of their lives after formal schooling.

Does any of this make sense?

Postscript: Despite thinking about this idea for weeks, I decided to write the piece as a process post. So, I gave myself 15 minutes to capture a rough draft of my thinking. For me, the thoughts are significantly incomplete, and I have much more to explore and discover about this metaphor – in both its strengths and weaknesses. But, as writing is thinking, I decided it was time for me to get more serious about my thinking on this metaphor.

How will I know what I think until I see what I have written?

E.M. Forster (roughly quoted)

15 thoughts on “PROCESS POST: Exploring Metaphors – Schools as Natural Habitats

  1. Wes, your second comment and excellent questions have really stuck with me. I’ve been thinking about how I might best continue the discussion and offer my thoughts. Ideally, I would love to talk about this with you voice-to-voice. I think the writing exchange, in this case, limits our discussion. In short, though, I believe the degree and scale has a lot to do with the particular culture and purpose of a school. I think the degree and scale will vary from school to school based on what they are trying to achieve with their learning objectives. I don’t mean that as a weak answer with no backbone, but as an authentic response, knowing that there are not many, if any, “one-size-fits-all” approaches to schooling.

    As for my own boys, I would like for at least 50% of their day to be this type of expeditionary, context-based, community-engaged learning. I want them to interact with real issues and real people – and without the unnatural silos of subject departments. However, I also want them to be able to go to “recitations” or something like that, where they can dig into a math concept or an English idea — BUT because they have need for it and contextual application. Not just because that’s what the textbook seems to indicate “covering” today.

    Does that make sense?

    I think the balance is WAY too skewed in the sit-n-get direction. So sometimes I may seem to push hard because I am working against a lot of institutional inertia. But, in an ideal, I think I want balance. Not all of one and none of the other, but a healthy balance of both/and.

    • Thank you for returning to my comments, Bo. Once again, I appreciate your insights, and they resonate. I, too, push harder than my own convictions indicate because I know some change is necessary and good and there is lots of institutional inertia to overcome. I like your 50% metric, and I like your notion of recitations. I guess what inhibits my convictions at times is the idea that there may be things that students need but want to avoid or never realize their need for it. Hence the “other” 50% (or less) that may look more like what is happening today. Not motivated by a textbook per se, but by a teacher’s expertise on what constitutes well-rounded knowledge and skill toward which a particular student may not be inclined.

  2. Pingback: Learning as Nature Intended, Not as Engineers Designed « The Learning Pond

  3. I am usually right with you, Bo. However, reading this post, I had a (shockingly) non-progressive thought, so please allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment, even if I am not wholly convicted of what I will say. Is everything better in the wild? Isn’t some degree of domestication useful, productive, even humane? If human beings will learn for most of their lives (pre-school and post-school “real life”) in unstructured, low-efficiency, meandering types of ways, is it possibly a positive thing that there be a period of more formal, more efficient, more universal education that serves the later, majority-of-life, “real life” self? If formal education is converted to a fully self-driven, exploration-based experience, would that possibly have even greater negative effects on the efficiency of later contributions to society, to the welfare of self and others? Would we produce more one-trick ponies, motivated only by self-indulgent interests? What about the shared experiences and knowledge created by the structures of formal education? Does that have some value?

    • Wes,

      You start by saying, “I am usually right with you, Bo.” If that means that you are a regular reader here, then I want to start by thanking you. I appreciate every reader. When someone chooses to comment, I get downright giddy! Thanks for engaging and responding. I so appreciate the dialogue to delve deeper into the thinking.

      I hope you’ll forgive me a brief diversion. I recently heard Seth Godin proclaim, “The Devil is doing just fine. He doesn’t need you to be his advocate.” So, I thought I would throw that in, as you gave me opportunity.

      Seriously, though, I think I understand what you are saying. However, I strongly disagree. First, I am not advocating “wildness.” With the exploration and metaphor, I am advocating that school use a lens for transformation – namely, “Would this change help make the learning environment more like the natural habitat of human learning?” I believe in effective education over efficient education. That’s overly generalized and simplified, but, in general, it describes my bias – effective over efficient. Furthermore, the type of natural habitats that I am advocating for certainly do NOT produce “one-trick ponies, motivated only by self-indulgent interests.” For example, in the stories that Suzie Boss utilizes in her book Bringing Innovation to Schools, I think anyone would be hard pressed to say those students were one-trick ponies or self-indulgent. Much of the work in PBL is design-based, empathic, for-others work. It’s integrated and transdisciplinary. The “tricks” are even more universal because they demand the real-life complexity of… real life. They are functional in that the projects are most often geared toward making the community better, in some way shape or form. Linda Darling-Hammond writes about this type of learning and schooling in her book Powerful Learning. The Buck Institute for Education and Edutopia provide countless examples. I don’t think there is anything “wild” about it. There is structure and discipline and determined commitment to process. But the subject matter is not silo-ed, and the efforts are for more than just a teacher and a grade book.

      In my own experience, I have Synergy 8, too. Synergy 8 is the community-issues, problem-solving course that I co-created and co-facilitated for two years with 8th graders. As one example, four eighth grade boys became interested in food deserts in Atlanta – English Avenue, in particular. They hypothesized that the community needed more healthy food, and the boys wanted to help build urban gardens in the community. After doing some deeper ethnography and interviewing with the community, the boys better understood that unemployment was deemed a deeper root cause of the community issues. So, they adjusted their project to job fairs. The boys hosted a job fair and the first iteration failed. Bad (non-existent) marketing. They almost gave up. Then, they evaluated the lessons from the failure and tried again. In the second attempt, they partnered with an organization and hosted a job fair. Ten people attended and two secured jobs from the experience.

      Does that sound “wild” to you? It certainly was not “efficient” like sitting-n-getting content knowledge and testing on it. But it was very effective – on so many levels.

      Thanks for the exchange. I hope the dialogue helps shed more light on my position.

      • I cannot disagree with much that you say, Bo. I am familiar with your references, though I have not read that particular work by Suzie Boss. I have even distantly heard about your course, and am working with colleagues to transform an existing project structure at our school more toward the work of the four boys you describe. I guess my line of inquiry has more to do with how much than whether, more with scale (on the level of an individual student’s experience with school, rather than large school districts or state education departments), degree and implementation.

        How much of a student’s school day or school experience do you picture being self-directed, ambling, and surrounded only by teacher moats? I currently advocate in this direction because in my experience, we allow for very little of this more “natural” learning. Do you envision going full Rousseau? Or does Suzie Boss address this issue in her book? Do you dream a school where your four boys have exclusively the types of learning experiences you describe? If not exclusively, every day?

  4. Bo, there is no concern in my mind at all about offending! Your reflection is thought-provoking, and I am pleased to know that someone is out there putting pen to paper the exact thoughts that many of us are contemplating but perhaps are also anxious to voice. Thank you!!

    • Angel, what an absolute treat to hear from you! I miss seeing you, and I trust all is well at St. Paul’s. They are blessed to have you there. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. Thanks for the affirmative, warm feedback, too. Hope to see you at NAIS. All the best. Happy New Year!

  5. Love that you asked, “Does that make sense?” Such a teacher question.
    Is there some common ground between our current system and building in projects?
    What good is the content that the students produce? Like me responding to this post is content but who benefits besides you and me?
    Is the content of the students or this content a product that can used or consumed or extrapolated?
    There is always a balance between the old and the new as we transition from one to the other.
    Great thoughts because they got me thinking… Is that a product?

    • Aaron, you pose some great questions to discuss when we talk soon. I think a voice-to-voice dialogue and discussion will serve us better than a back and forth here. But I cannot resist on some quick thoughts…

      I always try to remember that everything worth measuring is not necessarily measurable. Yet, I think the pursuit of assessment and feedback is a noble pursuit. I think the content that “students” produce is incredible and worth sharing. You’ve proven that to me in just the few posts that you’ve shared of student reflection in your new blog. I think you responding to this post is a part of the content puzzle, and I think it has “potential energy” for turning some other thinking into “kinetic energy.” That might be one of us, or it could be another – precisely because we were willing to think aloud and share. I had no idea that this process post would generate such commentary from old and new acquaintances. I’m glad I finally took that risk. I’ve learned immeasurably from this post because I thought aloud rather than just to myself. That content is invaluable in addition to being somewhat immeasurable.

      I also think of students like Hannah who has written a book with her father called The Power of Half. That’s great content produced by a then high schooler. I think of another student Bill who converted his truck to burn cooking oil waste from fast food companies. I think of Brittany who has discovered and created and offered a cloud-based app for breast cancer detection that is more accurate than all other current practices in hospitals. I think of the students of Emily Pilloton at Studio H and the consulting youth at High Tech High. I think of the students at SLA who put on EduCon. I think… Their content creation is invaluable, and I am most thankful that they and their supporters saw their contribution power as greater than just posters and tests in the classroom walls. There are millions of such students and they could be the most powerful network we have ever seen for positive social change and innovation. And school could be that catalytic converter, if we worked more to make school like the natural habitats of human learning.

      Thanks for your product here. In real life, you’ve been invaluable to my learning in the last few days. I imagine others, too!

  6. Pingback: PROCESS POST: Exploring Metaphors – Schools as Natural Habitats | Rethinking the Way We Educate Our Children |

  7. Powerful and insightful thoughts that sing true to my experience as a middle school language arts and literature teacher. Too much time and effort spent creating hurdles and hoops that are supposed to prove comprehension of needed bits of knowledge that are preordained from the past tense. Schools tend to be only similar to offices that are meritocracies run by leaders who are very narcissistic and claim to be all-knowing. So little room for the give and take that moves the “real world” forward. I totally agree with the metaphor at the center of your post!

  8. Brilliant, love this post (process or not), it touches a nerve of truth for me as a classroom teacher at HS (which I think are very Zoo like). Many days it does seem like what is expected of me in my my role would be best described as trainer. But not in a positive sense but rather as a trainer of tricks, to WOW the audience, later at the circus.

    • Carolyn,

      Thank you so much for reading the post and commenting. I appreciate the warm feedback and love learning that the metaphor resonated with you and several others. I’m also glad that your comment has led me to your blog. I look forward to reading your work, too.

      You bring up the interesting word of “training.” It does contain some interesting connotations, and I wonder how we intend its use sometimes when we refer to professional training, teacher training, skills training, etc.

      Take care.


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