Evolution is a biological process that both requires and creates variation.
Variation creates all sorts of results. Some successful, some not. Most of all, variation allows results that are personalized to fit a specific niche to flourish. Variation is a powerful process that encourages many different things to take place. This gives each variation the opportunity to be strengthened, modified or left behind.
A lack of variation is known as a monoculture.
Monocultures can be powerful forces as well. Once moving ahead they can have strength and speed to spread and take over an entire process or area. But the problem with a monoculture is that they are susceptible to more nimble competitors or outside influences (such as a virus). It may take time, but once the “weakness” of a monoculture becomes apparent, it is torn down in fairly short order.
This is my concern: is education a monoculture?
Our system of education is incredibly complex. But it is being driven towards standardized learning and testing and a laser focus on academic outcomes. This is creating thousands of classrooms that are using the same books, the same websites, the same tools and the same assessments to focus on few goals; better test results and higher grades being the main ones.
As difficult as our jobs can be as classroom teachers, I don’t think that this is setting the bar for us or our kids nearly high enough.
Education, not schooling, is a process that needs to help students grow into well rounded, well grounded, creative, moral, informed individuals. Increasingly lock step curricula tied tightly together with pre programmed resources and assessments certainly aren’t going to get us there. Education and learning have become a focused monoculture tied to few acceptable goals: higher test scores, better results, fewer discipline issues.
There is danger here. Danger for us as professional educators who are losing a voice in what happens in classrooms. Danger for our students who are seeing an increasingly narrowing picture of what counts as learning and valuable knowledge. Danger for communities and nations who are going to see their economies suffer over the long term because students cannot adapt to a changing globe.
A monoculture is certainly less messy. A monoculture is more easily mandated, controlled and legislated. It is easy to set policy initiatives for a monoculture. But in changing times we need to be able to step back and take a look at our goals. There are other ways of doing things, but they are difficult and often require difficult decisions to put them in to place and to support change. They require community input, open discussions, goal setting, professionalism and trust. All things that are unfortunately sometimes in short supply.
Will Richardson has begun calling them Bold Schools. Schools that are willing to be different, to take chances and to see a larger picture. More kids, families and communities need to be engaged in this thinking. Throwing money at problems doesn’t solve them, but taking the time to think reflectively, to do some goal setting and planning will help to move things along and help us to see the power, the strength, the value and the opportunity in being open to variation.