What’s the point of school? Ask a School Ecologist.

What’s the point of school? Kids are socialites at 7, adults at 12 and doubting everything the teacher and the school stands for. Behaviour is questionable, deference is a quaint notion of a rose tinted past when teachers were head of the classroom and everyone knew and welcomed their places. Curriculum is irrelevant and has been superseded by the Internet where children work out of their own curriculum and syllabus, perhaps blindly, perhaps intuitively, perhaps guided by who knows what – certainly things we parents and teachers know nothing or little about.

These are desperate times when all our educational purposes, reasons and rationales have been thrown up into the air and scrutinised like never before. So what place the curriculum? The school? The teacher even?

These existential questions are common to teachers across the world; from urban comprehensives in inner city Liverpool, to rural schools across India to schools in the outback in furthest Australia. No matter where you look, the central questions are the same: how should schools respond to the rapidly changing nature of the world we live in? How can they prepare children for an uncertain today and an unknown tomorrow?

How should we envisage school change?

Changing schools is a problematic concept – some might say conceit – not least because of the hugely complex contexts that schools are part of. Changing a particular element of pedagogy, school management or children’s behaviour is not like changing a set of variables in a laboratory experiment. Schools are not slabs of complex industrial machinery which operate on the basis of ‘x’ inputs producing ‘y’ outputs in a methodological and predictable fashion. The problem, from a managerial perspective which likes control, predictability and accountability, is that people aren’t rationale, schools are not like factories and students frequently don’t necessarily behave the way the planners would like.

“There’ll no shouting in the new school!”

In the UK we saw a huge programme of building modernisation upto the most recent election in 2010. Entitled Building Schools for the Future, the programme was the largest capital investment programme for 50 years in England. Whilst there were undoubted improvements to many English schools, the changes the programme introduced had a number of startling unexpected consequences.

At the opening of a local new centre for learning near Liverpool (note how the language has changed from ‘school’ to ‘centre for learning’) the principal chastised her rowdy new pupils with the quaint notion that the new building they were about to enter would magically reduce the amount of bawdy behaviour in the corridors.

Her desire to ignore some uncomfortable realities about what it is to be a young person, teacher or indeed even human being meant that whatever the rhetoric of modernisation, there would always be “shouting down corridors” Whatever the architectural vision of the shiny new learning spaces, there will still be a desire of young women and young men to occupy different spaces when it comes to their ablutions, picking off of acne scabs and throwing cigarettes down the latrines. Whatever the politics of corridor decoration, posters will become magnets for other posters and there will always a school wag who has to make their mark on the pristine wall hanging.

Schools just don’t function like well oiled machines in factories but behave like organisms in cultural ecologies. They don’t exist in isolation from the wider world they inhabit, they are fundamentally uncontrollable and trying to change their ecological properties can often be a frustrating and challenging process.

Schools are ecological systems: not industrial plant

Teachers, parents and children tend their patch in their own specific and unique way. They may be more or less successful at this tending, but whether they identify themselves as Centres for Learning, Big Picture Schools, Round Square schools, Faith Schools or plain old fashioned chalk and talk classrooms, schools’ different pedagogical models can coexist within the same social or geographical context. Schools demonstrate a form of ecological diversity which mirrors the biological diversity of the lands they inhabit.

Seeing schools as complex ecologies allows us to assess school improvement agendas ina completely different light.

Complexity theory would suggest for example that the emergence of school league table winners causes the emergence of school league table losers. When schools are engaged in competitions for pupil numbers, or for positions on a league table, it is not as if they are running on an Olympic race track with competing athletes to see who can run 100m the fastest: this competition means that the ‘front runners’ are partially responsible for disrupting the state of the race track of those lagging ‘behind’. They may have started at the same starting gate (which is unlikely) – but the high achieving schools then manage to dig up the race track for those who are slightly behind them; leading to the winners winning by an even bigger margin than they demonstrated at the start of ‘the race’.

On the horizon…. Global School Ecologists

We think the time is right to develop models of change which acknowledge the ecological nature of schools and the education contexts they are part of: particularly in countries who have been looking to the West to provide models of school improvement and who may be seduced by the attraction of the schools as industrial plant metaphor.

We are developing training programmes which develop ‘school ecologists’: members of the school community who can describe and explain the myriad of different pedagogical characteristics which their schools demonstrate – and then help construct a future which is of benefit to the whole school community. ‘School Ecologists’ would learn to understand the signature ecological pedagogy of their school and the consequences of interactions between children, teachers, parents and culture. This may well provide us with new insights of what the point of school is in rapidly changing international times.

If you would like to be part of our Global School Ecology programme, please contact us at nick@aspire-trust.org

Poetry on the Hoof: Feeding frenzy (How Schools Devour Each Other)

The feeder primary school feeds
the secondary school which feeds
the universities or the workforce.

The feeder primary school is fed by nursery schools
who, in turn, are fed by child minders, nannies or parents and finally
the cradle or the grave.

Such is the feeding chain:
Each school is fed by or feeds another.
Each school is but a source, or consumer, of food, of pupils.

The feeding frenzy of schools upon other schools and upon each other
is the ecology of winners and losers,
victors and collateral damage.

Whilst no-one wants to be fed upon,
we’re happy to muscle into the feeding trough:
slake our appetite on lesser mortals.

3 Principles of Artistic Partnership: Liberté, Egalité,Fraternité

There’s been an increase recently of large arts organisations who, in an effort to demonstrate their badge of social conscience, like to present themselves as ‘partners’ to smaller arts organisations. But the notion of what they mean by partnership varies wildly, even sometimes on a day to day basis within the same organisation too.

Whilst they might declare that they have noble intentions in supporting their local cultural ecology, in practice when artistic push turns into economic shove and the smaller partner starts punching above its ecological status, then the larger partner can start forgetting the basics of real partnership working such as:

1. Liberté. The partnership works best when both partners enter that partnership voluntarily and are not coerced into or into an arrangement that suits one partner better than the other.

2. Egalité. Respect language differences. Appreciate your way of knowing the world and acting upon it is not the only way of living the good life. Other partners might speak differently, use different metaphors and may not be hide-bound by your language – the value of your partnership is in appreciating those differences in language and not just railroading over them.

3. Fraternité. Realise that your organisational weight is not the be all and end-all. It’s not just your history that makes you a partner – you have to bring ongoing skills, knowledge and wisdom to this process not just a superior histori-cultural capital. A decent partnership isn’t a forced marriage where you bring your ugly self and explain it away with the large inheritance you’re bringing to justify your place at the table.

All partnerships need the benefit of joint wisdoms and a commitment to talking and respecting each other.  The partner who manages to ignore these guidelines is nothing more than a control freak who can’t tolerate the notion that perhaps some-one somewhere out there might just have something more important to say than the repetition of the tired old canon that many find themselves having to repeat to themselves year after year.

The potential of potential

Creativity is often referred to as means of ‘unlocking potential’. There’s a sense that it’s something of the future, a store of source of energy in reserve. It’s a always a lot – we don’t refer to unlocking someone’s low level of potential – but we think too that once unlocked, it will have significant, positive consequences for the individual and wider society. It is by definition, unexpressed, a ‘good thing’ and unlockable.

Frustration with children may come from adults who sense a child has ‘potential’ which is not being made visible, or expressed despite their best efforts to release it. Teachers, parents and the wider family all stare at the unfortunate kid, frustrated in their attempts to ‘unlock her potential’.. If we only could unlock it, she would perform better and we’d all be happy.

On a larger scale, we’re faced with hoards of young people across the country whose potential is locked up – and so the argument goes, if we develop their creativity and enhance their cultural education then their potential will be unlocked released and possibly fulfilled. So, just what is this magical elixir, ‘potential?’

An acorn might have the potential to become an oak tree with the right conditions: but do we have our morphology lying in wait for us, planned out from the blueprint of the embryo? If so, this ‘potential’ is of quite a limited kind – the acorn has no potential for becoming an elm tree. So is potential a kind of destiny / fate – and if so, is the educators job to help us accept our fate? By providing the conditions for us to develop along a genetically preordained route? Or is there role for educators to identify and provide other routes for development? Despite providing the right conditions, the acorn may not grow – or it may start and stop at 60’ or 160’ – it’s still an oak tree – and where its stopped, has it reached its potential? And is that the time for us to walk away and leave it alone?

Is there something about the self here and how we use and view our bodies and minds? On the one hand our bodies and minds are being encouraged, our potentials exhorted and our feeble bodies being pushed to excel. Once we’re able to merge our flesh and bone with the silicon and software of computers we’ll really be able to live our potentials out and exert all our powers – and become like supermen to deal with the voracious capitalist economic appetite (Oh come on, Jones, do keep up can’t you!). In one sense the 100 Languages of Creativity are the means to becoming supermen and superwomen – enhanced versions of our feeble bodies and feeble minds (which are facets of a culture of feebleness).

Potential is also synonymous with ‘unique capacities ‘ and is also used to suggest internal reserves which are untapped / neglected – much like oil wells or gold mines. So tapping potential, in this sense, means exploiting the resources of human – cf exploiting the resources of the planet- and so here, the self has become the site for capitalist economic endeavour. Given that the education of the 19th century was useful for the industries of that time – now, in a new economic context, new skills and approaches are needed for the new industries – so instead of exploiting the planet since the onset of the industrial revolution, we’re now being urged to exploit the self for the purposes of economic deliverance of the 21st Century’s economic revolution.

So, in exhorting us to stop being feeble, and unleash our capacity to become superhuman, the calls for creativity aim to exploit the feeble self for its untapped power, energy and resources. Simultaneously despising the self, we secretly covet what it could yield up to us. We become both Jim Carrey and his observers in our very own Truman Show.