by Don Berg, Founder
School reform biomimicry is a new idea that suggests we can learn from nature how to organize schools more effectively.
In this video I propose that we approach school reform by taking lessons from our own cells and the alternatives of home and democratic schools.
Hello, I've been trying for over a decade to puzzle out what public schools should be learning from the alternative education movement.
I think I have finally found two key lessons that can provide practical approaches to change for mainstream schools, but I am only going to explain one in this video.
The one I am NOT going to explain is about how autonomy is a fundamental psychological human need and therefore autonomy support is a crucial, yet neglected, duty of school leadership.
But I'll explain that another time.
What I want to focus on now is a way that we can take a design principle from nature to create a strategy for improving mainstream schools that happens to be used in certain kinds of alternatives.
There is a basic design principle that our cells use to create the amazing creativity and coordination of our bodies, and we should be using the same principle in schools to cultivate creativity and coordination for our society.
But first, a quick review of cell biology, so that I can explain what nature has to offer.
There are only two kinds of cells in the world.
Prokaryotes, which do not have a nucleus thus the DNA is just clumped together somewhere in the guts of the cell.
What you need to know about prokaryotes is that because the DNA is just another part of the cell's guts means that it can very easily exchange DNA with other prokaryotic cells.
This gives these kinds of cells an ability to change very quickly in response to pressures from their environment.
This rapid adaptability is the reason that we humans have lots of problems when we use drugs to try to control diseases caused by these kinds of cells.
The little buggers quickly figure out what genes they need to get around the action of our latest drug and pass it directly on to their neighbors.
But the cost of this kind of willy-nilly information transfer is that they can't get too specialized or differentiated.
The open architecture of their DNA means that all prokaryotic cells are mostly doing variations on the same basic things and they cannot develop much more complexity than they already have.
The other kind of cells in the world are eukaryotes, which have a nucleus that protects the DNA.
So, while they do not change as rapidly, the changes they do make can become very specialized and differentiated both within and between organisms.
Eukaryotic cells traded the ability to change quickly for the ability to become multicellular and more complex.
And this trade-off lead to the mechanisms of creative adaptation and complex coordination that is at the heart of human society.
For instance, it was through creativity and complex coordination that we, humans, achieved a spectacular victory over the disease smallpox by eliminating the organism entirely, which is a feat recently repeated with an animal disease called rinderpest, or the cattle plague.
So, cell biology has taught us that protecting the information transfer process is what enables us to be creative and highly coordinated and when threats can be eliminated that is the best protection we can achieve.
Now let's consider a speculation:
What if our cells could judge the relative value of different parts of it's systems and then decided that since that genetic information in DNA is SO important it must therefore deserve to take over more of the cell?
I imagine that the cell would minimize the rest of the cell's parts and expand the nucleus. But, what kind of trade-off might that entail?
Seems to me it would be a step backwards from the design principle of protecting the information transfer process.
Now, let's turn our attention to schools.
I'm going to represent them schematically, like I've been doing with the cells.
Taking them at face value, we can say that instruction is a core function.
So just like cells, some kinds of information transfer are at the core of schooling.
And just as there are threats to our DNA, like virusues, the key threat to instructional effectiveness are what I will call motivational energy suckers.
Let's think about motivational energy sucking as a kind of disease process that diminishes the energy available for learning.
It shows up as students and teachers who are not tapping into the sources of their own passions and enthusiasms and therefore in order to participate they must suck passion and enthusiasm out of those around them.
I'm sure you've known people who distract from, delay, and derail whatever forms of focused attention and excitement that occur around them; those people are motivational energy suckers.
There are only three way to address the presence and persistence of motivational energy suckers and the current organization of typical school spaces makes them all problematic.
So, the major challenge in schools, when we take them at face value, is the existence and persistence of motivational energy suckers that distract from the instructional processes that we commonly take to be the core of schooling.
Now, here's a generic school.
All schools have two kinds of spaces, instructional spaces in which the core function of deliberate information transfer happens and non-instructional spaces that support the instructional practices in a way that is similar to how all the other parts of the cell support the nucleus to carry out it's information transfer functions.
Notice that there are two openings, the school gate and the classroom door.
Now, here's how a stereotypical public school is organized.
The non-instructional spaces are stigmatized.
"Do you have a pass?"
"Why are you out of class?"
"Who gave you permission to be in the hall?"
Those spaces are considered mere transportation corridors between the all-important instructional spaces.
One consequence of this organization of the space is that every child who shows up has to occupy an instructional space, even if they are not in an appropriate state of mind to take advantage of instruction.
In other words, motivational energy suckers come into existence as they enter because they don't have any where else to go but into the instructional spaces.
This is effectively like a prokaryotic cell that is organized for easy access to it's DNA and willy-nilly information transfer is the result.
Although with the ironic twist that the information transferred is just about anything but what the teacher intended.
Given this organization, successful schools MUST either prevent the motivational energy suckers from entering, transform them after they enter, or expel them.
These are, logically, the only options.
And transformation of people is notoriously difficult and unreliable, so except under special circumstances it is impractical as a strategy.
Attempts to replicate transformation processes often require most people to be better than they already are.
Movies like Stand and Deliver, Freedom Writers, and the Ron Clark Story, portray true stories of transformative teachers but those stories are interesting because they represent rare achievements that have proven to be very difficult to replicate.
For schools organized in this manner the most reliable methods of dealing with the motivational energy suckers are creating barriers to entry and using subtle processes of exclusion to eventually drive them away.
In your typical public schools these options are not readily available within the school, but there may be community-level processes that serve the same function or there may be ways that teachers and administrators are unofficially making due.
If the function does not get handled then the school will deteriorate if motivational energy sucking spreads throughout the community.
Private schools seem to mostly rely on the "barrier to entry" method of preventing motivational energy sucking, though I'm sure some use the exclusion principle, as well.
In some celebrated academic charter schools they use the exclusion method by applying pressure for hard work with an ethic of diligent all-consuming devotion to the requirements of their system.
This serves to ultimately discourage those who may be prone to motivational energy sucking, even if the school's party line says they support everyone.
But what else can we do?
Well, let's look towards home and democratic schooling.
My thesis research is being conducted at a Home School Resource Center which acts a lot like a community college in which a variety of courses are offered according to the interests and needs of their community.
I also work with a democratic school in which the kids have classes available but are not required to take any of them.
For our purpose here what you need to know about these schools is that they create welcoming, non-stigmatized, non-instructional spaces.
And, thereby, ensure that the children have to first want instruction before it will be provided, and then they have to also show on-going interest and engagement or it will not continue to be provided. In other words the children have to both want and work for their access to instruction.
Now imagine what might be possible in public schools if we bring together the biological design principle of protecting the integrity and fidelity of information transfer and the proven example of home and democratic schooling.
What if... we maintain the social pressure to enter the school gate, but re-create the non-instructional spaces to be welcoming to everyone who is not in the right state of mind for instruction?
Removing the stigma is a significant challenge but motivational pre-requisites for instruction is a potentially practical and promising strategy for improving public schools which should be tried.
Naturally this requires more than just arbitrarily declaring one day that these spaces are now different.
We have to figure out how to make the transition from what we have to what we want.
Fortunately, alternative schools have done decades of research and development already that can help us envision what is likely to work in the end.
For instance, one of the most consistent features of democratic schools are student-run justice systems that are highly effective at maintaining a pervasive sense of just and equitable treatment in the face of conflicts.
But the critical key to making the shift is changing the adults attitudes towards children and the policies and procedures that guide their behavior.
The adults need to shift from a sense that they are entitled to having dictatorial control over children to a sense that they have been chosen for their ability to support the children in responsibly exercising their autonomy.
Remember "autonomy support?"
I mentioned it at the beginning as the other key lesson mainstream schooling should learn from the alternative movements.
Autonomy is a fundamental human psychological need and adults who provide for that need are being "autonomy supportive."
The antithesis of autonomy support is control.
(And for those who automatically assume that losing control of children is a bad thing, you don't need to worry because it has always been an illusion anyway, and you can't really lose what you never had in the first place. But that's for another video.)
The key point of this video is that the organization of school spaces can be transformed to cultivate creativity and social coordination by taking a lesson from our own biology.
Our biology teaches us that our own cells have evolved the ability to protect the integrity and fidelity of the information transfer of our DNA.
Cells accomplish this through maintaining their investment in the various functions that take place around the nucleus, and not by expanding the nucleus's core function to take over everything else in the cell.
So in this view schools are manufacturing motivational energy suckers that can kill the learning process because the core function has been taken to outlandish extremes.
Everyone experiences occasions when they are NOT ready or willing to participate fully in instruction.
But, when ALL the non-instructional spaces are stigmatized then anyone can be forced into sucking motivational energy from others in order to participate.
However, we can prevent the disease of motivational energy sucking by creating welcoming non-instructional spaces where members of the learning community can learn together in non-instructional ways.
The task is to create schools that will protect the integrity and fidelity of instructional processes through having motivational pre-requisites for instruction.
I believe this strategy for re-organizing school spaces is practical for several reasons.
While it will require some organized and motivated advocacy it does not require people to be better than they already are, they do not have to acquire specialized skills, nor have access to more technology.
This strategy does require people to learn some ideas, coordinate conversations to spread those ideas (to figure out how to apply them in their school community), and eventually formulate a clear plan for implementing changes.
But learning an idea, spreading it in their community, and then acting on how that idea resonates with the values of that community is what education is already supposed to do, isn't it?
P.S. Here's another article on how unschooling is a model for school reform biomimicry.