The roots of this seed change can be traced back to environmental theory of the mid 20th century, but it has been creeping into mainstream thinking about social sciences, systems thinking, and education. I had begun to be aware of these shifting perspectives when this summer, two books came my way about seemingly very different ideas, yet the underlying theory of interdependence influencing success were common to them both.
In Peter Wohlleben’s lovely book, The Hidden Lives of Trees: What they Feel, How they communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World, he writes beautifully about his observations and discoveries spending more than 30 years managing a forest in the Eifel Mountains of Germany. What he shares is that trees are social beings. They communicate with each other to support each other. The community of trees pumps water and nutrients to members of their community that are sick. They warn trees when pests have come so others can release chemicals to repeal the pests. They depend on the community of trunks to block the wind, insolate the temperature and humidity, and other species such as fungi and woodpeckers, support their community. The oldest and strongest trees are found in the oldest and most intact forest communities because systems of support have developed over time to create healthy, sustaining, ecosystems in which all succeed and thrive. If it was truly survival of the fittest, trees with no competition and all the light and water they want would be the oldest and healthiest, but that is certainly not the case. Trees need a healthy interactive ecosystem to be most successful and that means interdependence among others, not competition. In the forest, it is not a zero sum game.
It reminded me of the story of the wolves of Yellowstone that one of my students researched in her grade 5 Personal Passion Project. (similar to the PYP exposition) The wolves, long seen as predators were hunted almost to extinction and almost disappeared from the park and much of the western US. When they were return to Yellowstone, they helped to regenerate the entire ecosystem. When the wolves kept the deer population in check, the grass, which had been overgrazed, regenerated, stabilizing flood run off and bringing more and more trees, which brought more and more animals, and more and more diversity in the entire ecosystem. It is an amazing story and a testament to the interconnectedness and interdependence required for an ecosystem to be successful. (For more information watch the 4 minute video below)
Edward P. Clapp offers new insight into the idea of creativity in the classroom in his 2017 book Participatory Creativity – Introducing Access and Equity to the Creative Classroom. In it he considers a shift in thinking about creative individuals to a focus on creative ideas. Instead of focusing on the biography of a person who had a creative idea, he suggests considering a biography of the idea. Much work and many people lay the groundwork that provides the context in which the new idea can break free. It is an individual or group of individuals that bring it to fruition based on the work that has come before.
“Creativity is a distributed process of idea development that takes place over time and incorporates the contributions of a diverse network of actors, each of whom uniquely participate in the development of ideas in various ways.” (p.7)
In recent US politics both Elizabeth Warren and Barack Obama have echoed this sentiment. It is the idea that the successful person may have built a great business, but s/he did not do it alone. They went to great schools and so did others who work with them and those schools were paid for by the government. The roads and bridges they depend on were built by the government. Their business is protected by the police and fire departments, which are funded with tax dollars. It doesn’t make the success of the business any less extraordinary, but it is able to be extraordinary because of the context in which it exists – the social system that supports it. The community is successful because of the interconnectedness and interdependence of the parts of the system is strong and stable.
Yet these paradigm shifts are fraught with conflict. The world as we now experience it is more interconnected then ever before thanks to globalism and technology. This has brought many challenges and there are those who embrace the change and challenges and innovate new systems and responses. And, there are those who resist it. Yet we cannot go backward to an idealized past. We cannot ignore our current reality, which consists of ever more complicated, interconnected systems. We need to be pragmatic and not dogmatic in the way that we respond within the systems with which we interact. So how do we prepare students to succeed in an ever more connected world? How must we respond to this paradigm shift? Clapp considers one possibility. He suggests it must be done together. Students must learn how to innovate together. They must have opportunities to think creatively in a group. They must have opportunities to learn and to practice this in the classroom.
I will explore what this looks like in practice in my next post. Stay Tuned.
Clapp, E.P (2017). Participatory Creativity – Introducing Access and Equity to the Creative Classroom. New York: Rutledge.
Wohlleben, P. (2015) The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a secret world. Vancover/Berkley: Greystone Books Ltd.