Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

School as Living Organism


he importance of metaphors in shaping our understanding and perceptions can't be overestimated. The human mind automatically selects metaphors to help it conceptualize new and/or unfamiliar concepts. But it's important to recognize that categories compared through metaphor don't have a perfect one-to-one correspondence. The trick is to select metaphors that give us the most useful and dynamic insights, as well as to recognize when we need a new or an additional metaphor to extend those insights and safeguard us against the limitations in thinking that every metaphor contains.

As we've seen, the factory metaphor directs our thinking toward product rather than process; toward parts rather than the intricacies of the whole; toward simple cause-and-effect rather than complex interactions; and toward efficiency and productivity rather than ongoing growth, development, creativity, and adaptation.

The standards and benchmarks that reign supreme over the curriculum are much more closely related to the tolerances used to assess the quality of a factory's products than they are to the development of human capabilities. At one time, when the historical purpose of education was to provide workers for factories, that was quite intentional. But why does it persist today? The focus on what students must "know and be able to do" continues to blind educators to other critical types of knowledge that are not "out there," but within the mind of the learner.

Beyond "Know and Be Able to Do"


s you may have read in this article, Dr. Carl Bereiter(1) from the Centre for Applied Cognitive Science and the Department of Applied Psychology at the University of Toronto has identified several of types of "inner knowing." In addition to "statable" knowledge (knowing that) and skills (knowing how), effective thinking requires:

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There's no way to "standardize" these types of knowledge. In fact, they are often beyond one's ability to express in words. Neither do they act in isolation. Breaking knowledge into separate "types" or thought into separate "thinking skills" for ease of assessment doesn't change the fact that these types of knowing work in parallel. They are inseparable parts of a system that encompasses the knower and the known. We may examine drops of water from a river, but they tell us little about how the river flows.

The factory metaphor has no correlate for these types of knowing. Therefore, they remain largely unnoticed and unattended. Why are we surprised that even some students who ace their high-stakes tests are found lacking in other, more intangible but critical, areas when they enter the world of work? What the present curriculum does is similar to focusing all attention on building one muscle in the body while allowing the others to atrophy! How might the school as living organism metaphor permit us to broaden our perception of learning and knowing?

Parts and Wholes


iving organisms are complex and interactive collections of parts and wholes. The term "holon" is sometimes used to describe something that is complete in itself, yet part of something else. Holons can be combined in different ways to produce more complex holons. For example, atoms > molecules > cells > organs > organisms > species > biomes.

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Similarly, individuals are holons who combine in various ways to form groups, organizations, communities, or cultures. In the case of groups, the "group mind" reflects the myriad individual minds of its members. The individuals in a group are themselves complex organisms with a variety of wants, needs, and goals. Some of these personal needs—physiological, social, and psychological—will override any conscious or reasoned decision when push comes to shove. For example, one reason why so many teachers continue to do what they know in their hearts is not in the best interest of students is because their personal survival (income) is threatened?

When we perceive the school as a complex living organism composed of other complex and fully functioning organisms, we begin to recognize that the "personal" types of knowledge mentioned earlier must be addressed in order for the larger organism to function effectively. This is true of everyone in the school environment—students, teachers, administrators, support staff, parents—anyone who contributes to environment and therefore, the functioning of the organism.

You don't "motivate" a seed or a baby chick to grow by creating standards for how they must grow or what they must become. You don't motivate them by measuring them every other week. You don't motivate them by offering a reward if they grow faster—or by threatening the gardener or farmer if they don't! You "motivate" living things by creating an environment that provides what they need to grow and develop into fully functional organisms. These organisms, in turn, are fulfilled and can contribute effectively to their environment. What other insights does the school as organism metaphor offer?

Complex Interactions

iving organisms rely on complex interactions among their holons for their growth and development. The school as living organism metaphor gives educators a framework for recognizing those interactions. We know, for example, that if the body is under-nourished, the mind doesn't work efficiently. If one system of the body is overworked or stressed, it affects the ability of the rest of the body.

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The same is true in schools. Within the school as living organism, numerous human, economic, sociological, and technical processes take place simultaneously. Changes in one element or aspect of the system necessarily produce a ripple effect throughout the larger organism. Piecemeal reforms that focus on parts often cause greater problems while "fixing" smaller ones.(3)

Open vs. Closed Systems


 living organism is an open system. Matter and energy flow between the organism and external environment (e.g. animals inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide). Organisms exist in a constant cycle of feedback resulting in ongoing modifications—self-regulation. Organisms don't perceive this as a threat to their stability, but as a natural process of growth and development.

Just as organisms interact with other organisms in their environment in predator/prey, symbiotic, or parasitic relationships, school as organism doesn't act in isolation. The community, local, state, and national government, the economy, and world events profoundly influence the flow into and out of the school. School is just one factor in the "real lives" of students. Ignoring the effects of these external factors on the holons within an organism fails to address the complex cause-and-effect relationships affecting every member of the school organism.

Requisite Variety


n biology, the law of "requisite variety" states that "the internal regulatory mechanisms of a system must be as diverse as its environment in order to deal with the variety and challenge posed by the environment."(4) In simpler terms, flexibility in behavior favors survival! Keep in mind that our school organism is dependent on the health and well-being of its holons. The greater the variety of opportunities the school can offer for its holons (students, teachers, etc.) to obtain their needs and attain their goals, the more likely the organism is to thrive. The school as organism metaphor allows us to see why "one-size-fits-all" may work on the inanimate raw material of a factory, but can never work when dealing with human beings.

The importance of diversity and flexibility also suggests that there is no one right way to thrive. Living systems can achieve the same results starting at different points and using different resources in different ways. Conversely, closed mechanistic systems are designed to have consistent processes that produce specific patterns of cause-and-effect—and thus, a predictable product. Sound familiar?

There is no one right way to organize a school any more than there is one right kind of organism. The survival of an organism depends on its ability to adapt to its environment. That ability may fail when the environment is largely inconsistent with the needs of the organism. Because of differences in their culture and environments, children in rural, suburban, and urban schools may have very different needs and goals.

There's also no such thing as a 'standard' organism. Organisms may share certain biological functions, but the better adapted they are to the particular micro-environment in which they live, the more successful they are.

Successful organisms engage in ongoing subtle shifts—self-regulation—in response to feedback from their environment. Other than "fight or flight" situations, the sub-systems in an organism rarely respond in ways that jolt the entire organism, producing a cascade of other, potentially damaging responses. One need only consider how the imposition of standards and high-stakes testing has impacted every facet of education to understand this principle.

Organisms Are "Real Life"


tudents, teachers, administrators, parents, support staff…everyone involved in the school enters the school environment already fully engaged in real life. Yet there's a clear perception that the purpose of schools is to prepare students for real life rather than being a potentially rich environment in which to experience aspects of real life in ways that other environments don't permit. Does anyone really believe that, when students step through the schoolhouse door, they will suspend their personal needs and goals and turn themselves over to be shaped into "future members of society" by others?

Some years ago, a middle school teacher gave his students cameras and asked them to photograph various aspects of their lives. In the majority of cases, the photos they took did not include any at school. When the teacher asked them why, they looked surprised. "You said this was supposed to be about our lives. School isn't part of our lives." That pretty much describes how many students feel, yet educators continue to perceive education in terms of "readiness" or as "preparing students for…" Clearly, the separation of school from what will happen in the future is alive and well in the "educational mind."

The students aren't the only ones whose 'real lives' are ignored. Teachers and administrators are expected to suspend their personal needs and goals—and even their work-related values—at the schoolhouse door in order to implement the mandates of others.

In his book, Images of Organizations,(5) Gareth Morgan says, "Individuals and groups, like biological organisms, operate most effectively only when their needs are satisfied." Many businesses have grown to understand that. They have taken the necessary steps to humanize their operations. Schools, in general, have not.

School as Biome


n another organic metaphor, we might also conceptualize school as an artificially constructed biome. Earth's biomes exist in a particular climate, but each one is rich with various ecological niches. Those niches support organisms with widely differing characteristics.

In the present school biome, students with widely differing characteristics, interests, and needs are forced into a limited number of niches. While it's true that humans can adapt, that does not mean that they will thrive as they would have in a more appropriate environment. Simple survival should not be a measure of a school's effectiveness.

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Ecological niches within a more natural school biome might include a wide variety of programs and a wide variety of approaches and choices within a given program. Rather than expecting students to adapt to what the school decides they need, niches would be developed—enriched environments could be curated—to provide for the diverse needs of students. Previously ignored or neglected talents and abilities that weren't addressed in "one-size-fits-all" could then thrive. In nature, the environment shapes the organism and, in turn, the organism changes the environment—a co-evolution. This is very different from a preconceived and rigid assembly line process that strives to "turn out" carbon copy products.

How School as Organism Reshapes Assessment


hat insights does an organic metaphor offer in terms of assessment? To demonstrate that any metaphor can be used in service to one's own beliefs, let's say that I really love standards. I could point out that judges at dog shows and county fairs use "breed standards" to judge animals. I might bring up breeding programs to produce the "best of breed."

Clearly, that use of organic metaphors doesn't move far from the present group-think. It shifts the focus back to similarity and consistency rather than variety. Thinking of students as various breeds is no more helpful or insightful than labeling or grouping them in other ways.

What school as organism offers to those who wish to transform education is the opportunity to perceive students as individuals with innately unique characteristics, rather than as raw material on an assembly line aimed at producing uniformity. It allows us to perceive how an environment might provide the needs of organisms as widely different as euglena, evergreens, and elephants.

Assessment of the health and well-being of an organism must include the nature of the environment. There is accountability because, if the environment is lacking, the organism fails to achieve its potential. One does not "blame" the organism for its lack of growth. Just as we don't judge the health of a euglena in the same way we judge the health of an elephant, it is inappropriate to judge students with a wide range of talents, abilities, and interests against a single set of standards!

Ideally, we must assess the growth and development of any student by comparing the student's present state with previous states of that same student. I know! Some of you are thinking that is a utopian concept. There isn't enough time to deal with students individually.

And you would be right if the beliefs about the role of teachers and the structure of schools remain unchanged. It is not impossible in other incarnations, any more than it is impossible for the earth's biomes to provide what is necessary for the growth and development of millions of vastly different forms of life. In fact, the assessment of the growth and development of individual students is, and been, going on for decades in learner-centered schools where each learner is seen, heard, and respected as a unique human being.

The "reality" of schools is what educators choose to make it. They can choose to focus on the mechanics—the externals—consistent with the obsession with greater productivity and efficiency. But they do so at the cost of the students they claim to serve. Keep in mind that productivity and efficiency also exist in nature, not through externally imposed mandate, but through self-regulation, feedback, communication, and flexibility.

We've gone far beyond the industrial age in our technical capabilities. We have mimicked nature(6) in the development of new foods, the creation of fibers and drugs, and the harnessing of energy. Isn't it time we looked to the way nature supports the growth and development of life as a model for how we might nurture the growth and development of our young people?

Howard Gardner(7) points out that there is growing consensus among researchers and educators about the validity of constructivism. They have come to understand that, while humans may adapt to even the most hostile environments, the "instructivism" now practiced in many classrooms is the antithesis of the way people learn in their natural environment. So why have schools not made the necessary changes?

Gardner points out that there is little or no knowledge of, nor appreciation for, constructivism among policy makers, parents, and the public. With little effort toward understanding extensive advances in learning theory, government policy makers continue to focus on what, rather than how, students learn. In attempting to keep schools "like what it was when we were there,"(8) those with control of the purse strings have used their power to maintain and strengthen the factory, assembly line school. 

Given the many new perceptions and insights gained from the school as organism metaphor, as well as the many correlations with the education of human beings, I can't help but suggest that failing to replace the one-size-fits-all school as factory metaphor in public education is, at the very least, educational malpractice.

  1. Bereiter, C. (2002). Education and Mind in the Knowledge Age. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
  2. cf. Edelman, G. (1992). Bright Air, Brilliant Fire. New York: Basic Books, and Damasio, A. R. (1995). Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Avon Books, 43-45.
  3. For an example of how this plays out in schools, see Senge, P. et al (2000) Schools That Learn. New York: Doubleday. pp. 80-83
  4. Morgan, Gareth (1998) Images of Organizations: The Executive Edition. San Francisco. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., p 41.
  5. Ibid.
  6. https://www.ted.com/talks/janine_benyus_biomimicry_in_action?language=en
  7. Cited by Peter Senge in "Peter Senge on Organizational Learning"-an interview by Amelia Newcomb. The School Administrator Web Edition, May 2003. http://www.aasa.org/SchoolAdministratorArticle.aspx?id=9192
  8. Ibid.

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