How are pedagogies acting like species in the school ecosystem? #PedagogicalMasterPlanning

by Jennifer Parks as seen in Sean Gourley's talk:

by Jennifer Parks as seen in Sean Gourley’s talk:

Do you ever wonder about the various ways that schools are working to transform their teaching and learning practices? I wonder about this all the time. In fact, thinking about school transformation and working for school transformation define my educational career, especially the past decade and current next chapter of my career.

I’m convinced that schools are complex ecosystems. Within those ecosystems, in efforts to enhance education and forward schools, I wonder how our developing practices are acting like competing species in a natural ecosystem’s food or energy web.

In the screen grab above, we can see a diagram of an ecosystem energy web. I’ve seen this image used in a number of presentations and talks. The colored species are thriving and dominating, and the grayed species are declining and disappearing from the ecosystem.

I wonder how project-based learning, design thinking, inquiry-based instruction, formative assessment, standards-based grading, performance-based assessment, e-portfolios, etc. are interacting in transforming schools. I wonder how these Dewey-progressive and 21st-century-skills approaches are behaving like reinforcing and competing “species” in the school ecosystem. I wonder how they are interacting with more traditional practices and methodologies, and I wonder how they are interacting with each other. The interactions with each other really fascinate me.

For those who know me or read this blog, you understand that I am a strong believer in PBL (project-based learning, problem-based learning, passion-based learning, etc.). Yet, I often worry when I imagine a middle school student taking six or seven departmentalized courses, and her teachers somewhat or entirely adopting PBL… as independent practitioners. Even thinking about half of them adopting PBL as independent practitioners can cause me some concern.

I start to imagine that seventh grader trying to manage four large-scale projects that are not coordinated or integrated across the departmentalized subjects. I start to wonder if the PBL will be the “dominant species” in the ecosystem, or if the departmentalized subject species will devour and crowd out the PBL species. Will the 55-minute time slot for class be the predator or the prey? Or could they become symbiotic species, if the other system characteristics were thoughtfully re-examined and redesigned? How might “flipping the classroom” become a symbiotic or predatory species? (If folks aren’t careful, can you imagine those poor parents at home managing four independent projects with their over-stretched children? Yikes!)

I wonder how the teachers’ assessment practices (species) will complement or compete with the PBL species. I wonder about design thinking being integrated into a course whose teacher is moving intentionally toward PBL. Then, I start to wonder how the traditional content grading will fit with a species that depends on iterative prototyping and rapid failing to conceptualize enhancement and reach eventual success. I wonder about the report card or progress report species trying to capture the elements of this system – elements that are better understood disaggregated rather than smashed into a single number.

I wonder about students designing for perceived problems and struggling to interact with “real” community members because of the online policy species that was introduced to the school ecosystem. I wonder about the level of access of the students and teachers to the surrounding community, and then I think back to those departmentalized subjects and students trying to manage four sets of discovery-and-interview phases in their silo-ed project work.

Which species will prove dominant in the ecosystems of our schools? Are we thoughtfully designing these ecosystems with collaborative and integrated thinking, so that the parts of the system harmonize with instead of cannibalize each other?

Are we designing and nurturing and sustaining the ecosystem from a learner UX point of view? (“UX” is short for user experience.)


Thanks to @MarkCHale, head of Greensboro Day School, for putting me onto “Recombinant Education: Regenerating the Learning Ecosystem,” which is KnowledgeWorks’ Forecast 3.0 and the work of Andrea Saveri. Exploring this resource led me to “TEDxNewWallStreet – Sean Gourley – High frequency trading and the new algorithmic ecosystem,” all of which significantly helped me think more deeply about the interplay of the current and coming changes in schooling and education.

9 thoughts on “How are pedagogies acting like species in the school ecosystem? #PedagogicalMasterPlanning

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  3. i also saw her illustration in that same talk.. and tried to find her online, or find a better view of the illustration, or find more such by her in her style and mindstyle, or find what context she created it in. something very smart is coming through that diagram, it is strongly unique in several ways including her ‘design choices’, it is highly tuned.

    but i have only found your image of the exact same youtube presentation and that slide (and yes, go visit!).. — so i’m writing to see if you can help find more about that illustration..

    if i squint my mind, her diagram looks itself like a diagrammatic single fish-thing with two eyes, implying that an ecosystem is itself a larger organism with some parts specialized as different functions in a larger system (.. of systems etcetera), and though i doubt this is intended by the artist, i wondered if other works by her show this same (unconscious?) meta-organism sense..

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  6. Bo,
    First of all, thank you for your kind words. Secondly, thank you for engaging my senses and allowing me to make connections. You are the true spirit of “educare”. Nice work. It is my first year at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School and I have found my school soul mate. Have a great weekend!

  7. You pose very thoughtful concerns. After their initial thrill, innovative pedagogies become stale and frozen if they are compartmentalized and left to “rot” as the “MO” of a school, making the ecosystem without stimuli, and boring.
    My family and I acquired an aquarium this winter and it became evident how very fragile an ecosystem really is. There is a lot of planning and experimenting before you can actually put fish inside. Unfortunately, even then, many fish have to perish until the conditions are optimal, and even then, you must continually recycle the water, test the ph and make sure the environment is optimal for the fish to thrive in. Schools are really no different. If you neglect the balance, the ecosystem will perish.
    I don’t think you can introduce 21st century learning in a 20th century framework. Space is being altered, but we still haven’t looked at time as an ally for meaningful change. Moreover, we continue to overstimulate the brain and are neglecting the emotional layer, so important in effective learning. Nonetheless, evolution in all ecosystems is constant, coded and innovative at it’s core. Progressive education, in my opinion, lies in observing and listening to the children and using our experience and wisdom to create an ecosystem resulting in a synergetic relationship between all users; where everyone contributes to the balance and no one is left to perish. We haven’t “killed a fish” in 2 months, and they add wonderful energy to our home,

    • Lisa,

      What a beautiful and thoughtful comment. Thank you for putting some “yes and” to this post. I really appreciate your reading and writing here. And thanks for all you are doing at MVPS. I’m a big fan of your school!

      Take care,


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