Throw a stone into a pond, and you will create ripples. The ripples will undulate outwards from the source of the disturbance towards the edges of the pond. There is a cause and effect relationship. These particular ripples will not happen without the stimulus of your stone-throwing action. You can choose the size of the stone, the force of the throw, the direction of the throw. These choices will have a flow-on effect to the size, magnitude and force of the ripples. But there will be other forces at play too. Sometimes the size of the ripples may appear to be disproportionate to the size of the stone, or the strength with which it was thrown. While we do know that there will be ripples when we throw the stone, we cannot completely accurately predict exactly how those ripples will evolve.
So it is in education.
We plan learning experiences – they will have some impact, but not the same impact on every learner, and we can’t be certain about what kind of impact they will have. Further, we can’t know of the unintended, but still potentially beneficial, learning that may occur for some learners.
We conduct inquiries into our teaching. After careful thought and deliberation, we select a particular strategy or concept to experiment with, and gently lob it into the pond of our learning environment. We notice and observe the ripples the stone creates. We reflect on whether these ripples are desirable, as well as noting the unintended ripples. We might then wait for another opportune moment to select another strategy, another stone, and to toss that into the pond.
The analogy works in other ways too.
The pond, like a learning environment, is a complex ecosystem. It is made up of many different parts: the water, the flora and fauna, bacteria, microbes, etc. Every part has its own role to play, and interacts and intersects with some or all of the other parts in both predictable and unpredictable ways. This ecosystem appears generally stable, but can easily be affected by other influences: the weather, a person throwing a rock into it, the introduction or decline of a constituent part: the dynamics of the ecosystem shift in response to changes.
Our classrooms are the same. They are made up of many different parts, not the least of which is a range of individual and distinct personalities and their learning interests, preferences and needs. Most days the learning environment ecosystem appears generally stable, but can be easily affected by other influences: the weather, the actions of an individual, a new person coming into the environment, or a familiar person leaving. The dynamics of the environment shift in response.
So how is thinking about education in this way helpful?
It supports us to consider the idea that everything we do as educators creates ripples – both intended and unintended. Being mindful of the stones we choose, and paying careful attention to the ripples that result, is part of being an effective educator. Additionally, the analogy honours the agency we have as educators: we are inherently part of our learning environment, our learning ecosystem. What we do creates ripples. The stone can be a pebble or a mighty rock: everything we do nudges the ecosystem, which dynamically shifts in response. The system is not external to ourselves. What we do matters.
Like to think about this some more?
- Garvey Berger, J. and Johnston, K. (2015). Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
- Gilbert, J. (2015). Leading in collaborative, complex education systems (Commissioned paper for the NZ Education Council).
- Johnston, K. (2018). Jamming on complexity (YouTube video, 5:39 minutes).
- Johnston, K. (2017). Seeing systems (YouTube video, 4:24 minutes).
- Omari, T. (2016). How to practice systems thinking in the classroom (blog post).