Guilds and Diversity in Schools & Ecosystems

By Nhobgood Nick Hobgood (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons
I did a small interview a while back that I’d randomly discovered was posted when I did a search for schools and ecosystems. The interviewer had been especially interested in an idea I’d brought up a while back, based on an idea from Permaculture: guilds.

To review, a guild can be explained as “a group of animals and plants that co-evolve in a mutually beneficial (or “symbiotic“) manner. Such examples of guilds can be found in nature, but also can be developed intentionally by humans. A traditional example is the Three Sisters, squash, maize, and beans, cultivated successfully in Mesoamerica for thousands of years.”

In the interview, I give an example of how this could apply to a school:

“I think this applies to schools, because we magnify differences too much,” Anderson said. That fact keeps students from learning about the real communities they will live and work in, where people have authentic differences from one another.

“Traditionally, we are looking [sic] at special education as excluding, but it is also denying,” Anderson said. “We should be trying to seek to include these students in average classes.”

“It’s not about being stupid or not being able to do things,” he said. “Kids have a good understanding of these things: That we all have strengths and weaknesses.”

Human beings, of course, don’t fall into such easily definable categories as squash, maize, and beans, but when you have students on the spectrum of autism, students with a language processing delay, and so on . . . well, you have students that act and learn just a tad bit differently. But like I said, I think we magnify these differences overmuch. At the end of the day, some of us are good at some things, and others not so good, but we all get better by working together with one another.

How Can We Cultivate Abriculture in Our Communities?

Thanks to a link from @NatGeoGreen, I discovered an article entitled ‘Abriculture’ Using Forests to Feed Indigenous Peoples and Fight Climate Change that bears some relation to the perspective of schools as ecosystems:

“Our goal is to make bush foods more accessible to local people,” said Jenny Lynch, the Abriculture Development Officer here in Cairns. The term “abriculture” is an amalgam of the words aboriginal and agriculture. 

Easier access to bush foods will improve the health of local people. It is also a key component of transferring traditional knowledge from elders to younger generations, Lynch said at a Climate Change in Australia workshop.

The Western or conventional form of agriculture and food production is amongst the largest sources of climate-altering greenhouse gases – more than 20% globally according the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Agriculture is Australia’s second largest source of emissions behind the energy sector.

Abriculture is like permaculture where nature does all the work of growing food as long as people understand and respect nature’s complex interconnections. If you take a yam from the forest then you plant one in the same place, said Fourmile.

Bush foods have become difficult to obtain but they contain high levels of vitamins and other nutrients, said Lynch  By looking after the forest, local people also maintain its ability to take carbon from the atmosphere and preserve or even enhance forest biodiversity. [Bold added]

I love this concept of valuing local community knowledge and seeking to invest in local capacity in order to utilize that expertise to build healthier, more sustainable communities.  A major problem with current education reform approaches is that the knowledge of those who work and live within the communities that are most disadvantaged tends to be devalued. Schools are razed, even in the face of community outrage and protest.

It also makes me think more about the idea of the Global Learning Village (introduced in my last post), and about how we can expand our vision of what a school can be, and how it might become more inclusive of adult learners. How can we recognize, value, and leverage the knowledge and expertise already embedded within a community?

Schools as Ecosystems as an International Model

Thanks to a heads up on a link from @VIVATeachers, I found an idea relevant to the ecological principle of succession in this article summing up some lessons from the recent International Summit on the Teaching Profession.

The article, Preparing Teachers and School Leaders for the 21st Century — Ministers and Union  Leaders Meet on How to Turn Visions into Reality (somebody get this guy an editor, stat!), is posted on the OECD: EducationToday Blog.

That nations are gathering together to share ideas and strategies in education is in and of itself promising. Collaboration is a practice I believe deeply in and have advocated consistently for, such as in the policy recommendations I made with The VIVA Project and in my recent blog post on Education Gadfly. The author of the article, Andreas Scheicher, agrees with this essential need for professional collaboration and sharing:

It was amazing to see how much education, traditionally inward-looking, siloed and at times provincial, has become an international arena, with success no longer measured by national standards alone but by what the best performing education systems show can be achieved. . . .Though one can always question whether policies that are successful in some place will succeed in another place – and surely no country can simply adopt another nation’s system or policies – comparative data and analysis seem to rapidly expand the scope for learning from the successes and failures of education policies and practices around the world.

As the saying goes, “Think globally, act locally.” That we have crafted a set of mostly agreed upon state standards, the Common Core, is promising, but we need to go yet further and consider how our instruction measures up internationally. And though there remains a deeply (and disturbing, to my mind) provincial mindset in the United States, we can only benefit from drawing on knowledge and models from countries such as Finland, Singapore, and others. Again, here is Scheicher on this:

The success reported by high-performing countries as different as Canada, Finland or Singapore in leveraging the knowledge and skills of talented leaders for system-wide improvement and developing effective leaders at scale seemed truly remarkable. These countries don’t wait until teachers have reached the level of seniority to apply for leadership positions but are assessing young teachers continuously for their leadership potential and give them ample opportunity to develop their leadership capacity. They put in place far-sighted succession planning and show that leaders are not just born but can be developed and supported at scale with policy levers that can be acted upon. It was widely agreed that success will much depend on school leaders owning their professional practice or, as the Dutch Minister put it, [“]Governments will need to listen to the voices of principals and teachers to articulate what the standards of their professional practice should be.[“] [Bold added]

Embedded in this paragraph is a reference to “succession planning” in the context of developing and training leaders in public education. This parallels quite closely how Bill Mollison–a founder of Permaculture–describes the idea of ecological succession in Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual as a “sequence of processes . . . in the establishment of ‘new’ systems.” This process occurs naturally over the course of many years, but in cultivated ecosystems, we can accelerate and harness this process through deliberate planning.

Mollison’s advice in planning for this accelerated sequence is to view “every design . . . as an assembly of components. The first priority is to locate and cost those components. Where our resources are few, we look closely at the site itself, thinking of everything as a potential resource.”

This advice on close local observation in the absence of resources is an important one which I will return to in the coming months on this blog. For now, it suffices to mention that England has begun an inspectorate program that shows promise in fostering greater transparency and communication between classrooms and policymakers.

We can see here how the idea of ecological succession can be applied at a systems level in terms of design and planning for maximizing human capital. Other areas for further consideration would be how this idea would apply at a more concrete school and classroom level, or how it might apply to curriculum development.

Finally, the article on the International Summit provides some further correlations to our schools as ecosystems model in terms of ideas on the importance of contexts and relationships within schools:

Delegates also pointed out that matching teacher demand and supply critically relies on an environment that facilitates success and that encourages effective teachers to continue in teaching. Teacher leaders, in particular, emphasised[sic] that they place a premium on self-efficacy, wanting to be in a context and instructional environment in which they are successful, on genuine career perspectives, on the quality of their relations with students and colleagues, on feeling supported by their school leaders, and on adequate working conditions.  

Last but not least, it became clear that education needs to become a social project. Partnerships and coalitions are necessary and possible to strengthen and build the profession. Such coalitions require trust and respect and demand from all actors that they move beyond their comfort zone. As several speakers noted, seeking short-term political gains by shaming teachers will not strengthen the profession but tear it apart. [Bold added]

We can only build effective school environments if we build trust and respect between all involved. Glad that folks are recognizing this internationally. Now we just need to recognize this here in the old US of A.

Education Reform as a Schizophrenic Regime

I’d like to discuss an ecological principle this week I introduced a while back that has potential application in school design: succession. Succession refers to the natural evolution of a landscape from barren earth, to weeds (known to permaculturists as “pioneer plants“), towards an eventual stable and mature ecosystem.

In gardening, many folks have a strange obsession with immature ecosystems and create endless hours of labor through the maintenance of vast expanses of lawns. Toby Hemenway puts it thus:

An immature ecosystem like a lawn demands that we expend time, energy, and materials to wrench back the hands of the ecological clock, holding the land at prairie phase with mowing and weeding. Yet nature–and our irrigation and fertilizers–will inexorably advance the clock another tick, sprouting seedlings and saplings, inundating us with her fecundity. With sprinkler and fertilizer we’re tromping on the accelerator, yet with tiller and pruning we’re slamming on the brake. No system runs well under that kind of schizophrenic regime.

This “schizophrenic regime” of “tromping on the accelerator” and “slamming on the brake” also aptly describes our current constrained focus for education reform. We’re desperately focusing on achievement at all costs, applying the fertilizer of test prep and other short bursts of whatever contracted program the district or state has hastily invested in, while at the same time militantly cutting budgets and weeding out “bad teachers.”

What we require is a balanced focus that looks not simply at short-term indicators like standardized test scores, but at a set of multiple indicators that is oriented towards long-term growth, well-being, and sustainability of the system as a whole.

How do you think the ecological principle of succession applies in school systems? I would love to hear your ideas!