Envisioning School as an Ecosystem

The working metaphor for schools still remains in the realm of the factory model in which students enter, get fixed up, and then they are sent into society to be used as citizens and workers. Schools have played a role in perpetuating this model as c

urriculum, instruction and assessment have lacked a new vision for close to a half of century. Many grandparents and parents would feel comfortable walking into many of today’s classrooms because the changes have been on the “paint and decorations” of the classroom as opposed to the heart of the design. This isn’t true in all classrooms, there are many outlier examples that exist in communities, but on the whole, the factory model is alive in many schools and classrooms through the country. There are many reasons that it remains quite difficult to break from this model including that there is a common language around this model, a nostalgic comfort with the product, and most importantly, there has never been a new model, metaphor, or design that has leeched deep enough into the system to supplant the current mental model.


While reading Sustainable Leadership by Andy Hargreaves, an intriguing idea about not viewing schools not as factories, but as ecosystems emerged. The idea sees schools as ecosystems that support, nourish and are dependent on parallel and adjacent ecosystems. There is much for schools to learn from the natural world about systems. Nature supports new ideas and fledgling growth. Nature blends cooperation and competition in a healthy way. Nature teaches nature about how the system functions as to benefit the needs of the commons. Nature works to marginalize destructive forces, and nature shows perseverance and rallies time and time again. Ecosystems are the foundational web upon which the elements of nature make order out of chaos.


As schools and communities look for new ways to define a successful school that extends beyond the bonds of testing and standardization captivity, it seems that returning to the ecosystem metaphor could breath new life into the energy needed to rally our education system into a place where students can use skills to foster incredible levels of creativity, innovation, and solution-making. As we have watched society swallow up factories because their mental model wasn’t nimble enough to react to the changing forces in our global society, we are on the same cusp with the factory model for education. There is a need to move swiftly to reimage our society as a whole away from the factory notion and into a model that accurately describes the ecosystem that is called today’s schools.


Making this shift has been a part of the success at our school for the past decade. A growing number of supporters from students to teachers to parents to community members to outside educators are seeing some of the ways that schools can shed their prior mental models and replace them with healthy, vibrant, and progressive mental models that capture the energy that all champions of education want in a school system. The three areas that have helped us to create a school that exist more like a healthy ecosystem while minimalizing our factory model are: unleashing the innovation of our teaching staff so they could again love their work and feel as though they were making a difference, cataloguing and documenting the excellent work emerging from this model through images and video that are shared with social media around the globe, and providing a healthy amount of the conversation in our school surrounding the topics of urban sustainability or more specifically how can we best do water, food, and energy over the next decades.


  1. Guess I better hurry up and publish on this or everyone will think I am just stealing ideas from you! 🙂

    October 1, 2012

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