Benefits of an Ecosystem Frame for Understanding the Future of Education

Using the adaptive cycle to imagine sustainable transformation of teaching and learning systems

The word ecosystem is used a lot in education today to talk about new ways of organizing teaching and learning. Often the term is used to refer to more network-styled relationships (rather than hierarchy) among a diversity of players and roles (rather than a single bureaucratic system) using various modes of organizing learning experiences (rather than one-size fits all approaches).

The concept of the adaptive cycle is at the root of an ecosystem frame and worth exploring to understand more deeply the possibilities for transformation in education. The ecosystem lens on change in education helps us examine disruption and breakdown of the traditional education system as part of an adaptive process to a newer system that is better aligned to its context and conditions.

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Source: Saveri Consulting, derived from Hollings, Radford, Weeks, Rodriguez, and Blakeslee.

Mature, tightly connected ecosystems can become rigid as they accumulate resources in their conservation phase.  And while they may be efficient in their exchange of resources, they are inflexible and susceptible to breakdown when confronted by threats and disruptions, such as fires, invasive pests, drought, and pollution. These shocks drive a release of energy and nutrients as trees and plants burn, wildlife scatters, soil erodes (or floods), and resources become disconnected from their traditional relationships.  Release leads to re-organization as gaps in the ecosystem invite new species and resources.  Loss of low growing, dense plants may allow more circulation and sunshine to penetrate a forest and sets the stage for new plant species.  New plants species may attract new kinds of wildlife—perhaps new insects and other creatures that create new relationships and resource connections.  Re-organization of existing ecosystem inhabitants and new entrants enables a period of exploitation—a time of rapid experimentation by ecosystem inhabitants to learn what relationships are most productive and sustainable.  Some new species fare better than others.  Some may get crowded out by invasive species (weeds) while others may benefit from the stabilizing effects they have on the soil.  As successful combinations form, they grow and accumulate more resources and reach and begin to define the transformation of the ecosystem over time. (see this for a detailed explanation of the adaptive cycle).

The ecosystem frame is particularly useful for orienting education system discussions around new opportunities, potential value, and relationships.   The frame highlights the generative dynamic of relationships and novel responses to threats and disruptions. Rather than resist disruptions (such as new technologies and innovative organizational models) or fall back on existing (ineffective) responses, the ecosystem frame points out adaptive responses by examining opportunities created by the release of resources, re-organization of relationships, and exploitation (leverage) of new niches in the ecosystem.

Shocks to the traditional bureaucratic education system in the past few decades include disruptive technologies, increasingly diverse learning populations, new workforce requirements, soaring costs, and economic crisis (declining budgets).

Traditional responses from existing players seem to have only driven greater breakdown and release in the system, as student and new teacher dropout rates have increased, schools apply for charter waivers and reduce connection to the public system, and neighborhood schools close.  This may not be a bad thing as breakdown and release have created openings for new ideas and players.  Ed tech innovators have entered the teaching and learning ecosystem, as have community organizations such as libraries and museums.  Venture capital firms, crowdsourced funding platforms, and employers are playing new roles as funders and partners.  New individuals are finding their way into the teaching and learning field as professionals or para-professionals in new kinds of spaces of learning like media labs, techshops, maker centers, and learning hives.  New school models are attracting new providers.

We’re currently in the early period of exploitation in which novel combinations of players are testing the ground and seeing what kind of sustainable value they can create.  Content and curriculum development is proliferating among open educational resource spaces that support new combinations of teachers, experts, and learning agents like librarians. Foundations are seeding more cross-boundary partnerships and novel pilot projects. New ideas like blended learning and competency-based assessment are attracting experimentation and pilots.  And schools themselves are beginning to open to more experimentation among its faculty and staff. The most damaging action to the education ecosystem now would be to stifle experimentation (the exploitation of opportunities presented by new ideas, technologies, and players) and the learning obtained from successful and failed initiatives.

The adaptive cycle is nature’s learning process that supports its resilience over time.  For this reason, the ecosystem frame is a useful one for challenging the rhetoric around experimentation and failure (as in “don’t experiment with my children”) and creating a more productive conversation focused on learning and system improvement.

Kids as Critical Futurists

When given the opportunity, kids can be wonderful futurists, creating artifacts that help us imagine possible futures.

Two summers ago at Kirk Cooper’s fabulous summer camp Sees the Day in Berkeley,

Finnish Field Phone, WWII era.

California, kids 6-9 years old prototyped devices they thought would be important in the future.  Using a forecasting rule of looking back two years for every forecast year, we looked at many historical devices and the kids had to guess their function.  A lantern specifically designed for milking cows in the mid 19th century; a wired, “mobile” field phone from the mid 20th century: a cassette player/boom box and an LP from recent past, etc.  The campers had to guess what the devices were, how and why were were used.

We then talked about what devices might be important for us in the future (time frame is a squishy concept to nail down with 6-9 year olds).  They prototyped and then presented their devices.  We talked about why these devices were important, who might use them, and what kinds of things were happening that would make them important in the future.

Two of my favorites:  spray on network (when signal gets weak) and backyard, garden grown battery packs!

Everyone had fun.  And it was a great way for kids to experience the threads that connect their present with their future.

Making the Future of Education Actionable Today

One of the challenges of foresight work is to make new insights about the future relevant to our own situations and actionable in meaningful ways.  Foresight needs to be matched with processes that help leaders move past “This is interesting, but what does it have to do with my organization?” towards something more like “This reframes our professional development needs (or choices for strategic partners, etc.) and here are 3 things I can do now!”

The KnowledgeWorks Foundation recently released a new toolkit that is intended to help education stakeholders do just this.  Creating a New World of Learning: A Toolkit for Change Makers is an action planning guide that helps leaders design and facilitate customized learning experiences that help them think long in order to take action now.  The toolkit supports the forecast content that KWF have been developing and sharing for the past several years, such as their 2020 Forecast: Creating the Future of Learning and Learning Agents of 2025.

I worked with KWF to develop the toolkit and one of my goals was to make sure that education stakeholders had an opportunity to engage creatively and play with ideas about the future of education.   Rather than look for proven answers, it seemed important to create opportunities for leaders and groups to ask “What if?” and explore possibilities, even if they seem a little crazy or silly. With this in mind we broke out the activities into four sections:Imagine, Learn, Apply, and Prioritize.


Imagine and Learn sections focus on expanding the visions of what is possible in the future of education and developing a shared language and set of concepts to talk about future possibilities.  The Apply and Prioritize sections focus on applying new concepts and possibilities to a group’s organization and identifying opportunities for action.

The toolkit works a bit like a Chinese menu. Each section has multiple activities that facilitators can pick from to structure their learning experience.  The document is web-enabled so viewers can jump around and check out each section, the resources in the back, end even sample agendas.

There is also a rich set of audio, video, and text based resources to support activities.  There are audio and video clip stories in which future learners and learning agents describe their teaching and learning experiences.  There are text-based scenarios about future learning systems that describe how stakeholders might interact and how resource might be allocated. And education artifacts from the future provide an opportunity for practicing a bit of future focused archeology.   Participants can explore new ideas through hands on activities such as card games, prototyping, storytelling, and news headline generation.  And ultimately, there are opportunities for participants to use their new insights to identify new goals and actions for change.

Since the activities are modular, sessions can be flexibly planned to last 2 hours or as longer half or full day sessions.  The hope is that this toolkit brings some fun and safe risk taking, and thoughtful play to the education transformation process.

From Pedagogy to Sociogogy

I recently watched the video of the  Independent Project and caught some of the commentary like this and this from the NYT .

I don’t know the back story of the project, but I have to say it made me very excited to see a collaborative and supportive model of learning in action.  It boiled down to responsibility and trust for me.

The discussion of the Independent Project’s significance brings me to the term pedagogy and how we have built a system of learning around a very old concept of learning that hasn’t changed much since the Greeks.  A few years ago my colleague Matt Chwierut and I forecast the need to develop social learning platforms and practices that enable “sociogogy” – leading one another.  (The forecast was for KnowledgeWorks Foundation).

The term pedagogy comes from the ancient Greek practice of assigning a slave—literally a leader (agagos in Greek) of children—to escort boys to school and generally supervise them as they prepared for life in Greek society. This paternal teacher-student relationship, of an adult leading a child through a course of study has persisted in basic form since then. The diffusion of Internet connectivity, mobile devices, and participatory media is disrupting this long tradition. The connected, open, and social media context is creating a new context for cultivating relationships among learners and teachers. Like the Internet itself, the structure of learning relationships is flattening, becoming more peer-based and networked than hierarchical, expert dependent, and “command and control” driven. Educator-learner relationships are becoming
more co-creative and self-initiated by individual learners. Many have referred to this learning relationship shift as a move from the “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side,” but in fact the transformation is more fundamental. Indeed the experimentation with networked, co-creative, peer-based relationships among learners suggests a shift from “pedagogy” to “sociogogy”—in which teachers and students are learning “companions” (from the Latin “socius”) leading one
another.

In the video, the principal remarks how the students moved themselves through learning experiences vs being on a conveyor belt of lessons.  I hope the video sparks new ideas, pilots, and more research so that we can move toward a more sociogogical (ugh, combersome word) system of learning.

The Future of Visual Practice

Yesterday I had a great morning at the annual meeting of the International Forum of Visual Practitioners.  These are the amazing practitioners who support our collective thinking, workshop experiences and processes, and pattern recognition through graphic recording, facilitation, process design, hands-on modeling, and other forms of visual practice.

Visual practitioners help make the invisible stuff in our minds visible and sharable in dynamic settings.  As we move into a new sensory world of portable social media, smart objects, and location based information, a literacy of visualizing information, ideas, people and relationships will be increasingly important.

The Center for Graphic Facilitation made a nice summary of my talk and have it on video here.

It was really fun to spend the morning talking about the emerging strategic problem space of our clients and think about the role of visual practice.  I think we will see some interesting stuff emerge at the intersection of  visual practice, new digital publics, and large scale collaborations.