In the field of biomimicry, we borrow and learn from principles in nature to create systems and structures that are healthy, balanced, resilient, and sustainable. In this way, we could see a school community as a living system, rather than a machine made up of parts. Perhaps this organism is like an aspen forest, with all of its roots connected underground. Or perhaps it is more like a garden, with a variety of plants that bloom at different times of year with different requirements for nourishment.
Our industrial model of education often reduces complex systems to its parts. In this way, when the system isn’t working, when it appears “broken” — we call in the mechanics to fix the parts. In this case, our “fix” might be a program, or a training, or a curriculum shift.
Let’s say we have a school with a large “achievement gap.” So, we find an “expert” to bring in a new curriculum. But we don’t look at the whole organism. We don’t look at the fact that students have a hard time focusing because of the trauma they have experienced as a result of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s). We don’t look at our own biases and worldview as teachers–and how that might be impacting the way we “discipline.” We don’t look at the high turnover rate of teachers and leaders — who are burning out from relentless cycles of stress and reform fatigue. And so we try the new curricular approach for a year or so — and when we don’t see significant changes, we throw it out and try something new. We have tried to fix the “part” without addressing the whole — and so we don’t see sustainable change. And by spinning in this cycle, we also create resistance to future initiatives.
In our work with schools and districts — we have seen the greatest shifts happening in communities that commit to living systems transformation — an approach that supports simultaneous change on individual, interpersonal, and institutional levels and engages students, families, teachers and administration. In this way, the community builds relationships and trust and enters a learning journey together. Rather than a top down approach, this is an “inside out” path.
In this approach, we do not bring in an SEL program for students before also doing SEL work with the adults in the building. We do not expect radical change in a year or less — but rather commit to changing practices, behaviors and culture over a 2-5 year period. Going back to the biomimicry example — if we have been growing gardens in depleted soil — it takes some time to rebuild healthy soil and develop a new balanced way to support the garden to thrive.
This month we offer a few foundational tips to support a living systems approaches to change.
Gather Input. Those who create, commit: In any new initiative, it is essential to continually gather the feedback and input of teachers, staff, administration, families, and students — so that there is a common sense of mission, vision, purpose. In this way, we benefit from the multiplicity of viewpoints and perspectives and are better able to see beyond the blind spots of our particular role and background.
Foster an Integrated Approach: So often schools suffer from a kind of “chronic reform fatigue” — a condition resulting from the continual flow of disconnected reforms, programs and change strategies — with little regard for existing workloads and insufficient support for implementation. An integrated approach finds ways to weave initiatives together and to create common language and understanding of the work across initiatives that link together into classroom and school-wide goals.
Create Learning Communities: Schools that make lasting change dedicate time to becoming a community of practice that builds personal, professional, and team capacity. This involves “practicing” together—whether this be in a faculty meeting, a professional development day, or in learning cohorts. When educators, students and families practice and learn together in an ongoing way, the initiatives we are introducing are more likely to become an integral part of the way we relate to our colleagues, teach our students, and attend to ourselves. Communities of practice also encourage us to share our learning and experience with one another, so the whole community can grow, develop and align.
See also the study from Tony Bryk on 100 elementary schools that provided a more systemic approach to change: