Words matter. The first time I saw the word “ecosystem” used to describe a process of learning more attuned to the future needs of our students was by Thomas and Seeley-Brown in “A New Culture of Learning”. It resonated with me; they described the teacher as a farmer who sets out the boundary fences of inquiry for her students and allows them to evolve as learners within those fences.
I see the word “ecosystem” used freely now, perhaps too freely to describe maker spaces, incubators, design labs, digital collaborations, professional learning networks, and more. Just because one uses the term, does it mean that the system has any “eco” in it at all?
I used to be a geologist and studied one of the largest, most complex ecosystems on the planet: the oceans. As I have studied learning systems I have found profound similarities between the major characteristics of natural ecosystems and much of what educators see as a transformed vision of learning. These characteristics are very different from those that define the currently dominant education system that was designed by human social engineers over the last 150 years. In my upcoming book I offer what I believe is the first rigorous definition of the difference between these two systems. Here are a few highlights.
All engineered systems, of which the dominant assembly line model of education is one, are designed to be controlled, predictable, scalable, repeatable, measurable and contained within relatively rigid boundaries. For the most part we measure the success of our schools by how well they achieve these design parameters.
Natural ecosystems are characterized by a very different set of factors that determine their success or failure. These include adaptability, permeability, diversity, connectedness, resilience, and the distribution and recycling of resources, all within generally elastic boundaries, and all without design or external control (except, perhaps, God).
Good systems borrow from each other, and well-designed social systems are not bereft of elements of a well-functioning natural ecosystem. But there is an enormously important difference…and I think this is where the loose use of “ecosystem” in education goes awry.
Humans do not design ecosystems; they exist within them. In my view, great learning does not “act like an ecosystem”. It “is” an ecosystem. There is a big difference. Good maker spaces, incubators, design labs, digital collaborations, and professional learning networks…pretty much all that we think of as “education”… are designed by people. They may borrow elements of process from naturally occurring ecosystems, which is good. But they are not the ecosystem itself.
Why split this hair?
Because the most important element of a natural ecosystem, the function that no engineered system yet developed has been able to copy, is also the outcome we most want for our students. Ecosystems are self-evolving; they don’t need designers to make them better; they get better, more well adapted to changing external conditions all on their own. We, the people in the ecosystem can help or hinder that process, but we are in the process, not the determiners of the process.
Of all the things we say we want for our students in order for them to be successful and happy living in a rapidly changing world, the one that is most important is that they become self-evolving learners. They will only learn how to do that if they spend time in a self-evolving learning ecosystem. And that is why the word, and what it really means, is important. If what we call an ecosystem is not capable of evolving without “us” as external designers, we are just using a cool term in ways that mislead.