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)