The Learning Pond: The “Eco” in Educational Ecosystems: Words Matter

Latest Story: Reblogged from Grant Lichtman’s Blog, The Learning Pond

Grant Lichtman is Senior Fellow of The Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence, a growing national organization focused on transforming education through professional development for teachers and administrators.  For almost 15 years, Grant has been involved in education as a trustee, chief of finance and operations, teacher, parent, and volunteer at Francis Parker School in San Diego, one of the largest independent schools in the United States.  Grant is the author of “The Falconer: What We Wish We Had Learned in School” based on his seminar in strategic and creational thinking. In 2012 he completed a 10,000-mile trip around the country visiting 64 schools to learn about how they are innovating to meet the needs of the 21st Century.  His manuscript of this journey will be published next year by Jossey-Bass.  He blogs at The Learning Pond.

On the Art of Teaching Science blog, I’ve used the word ecosystem in many posts, and I was especially happy to read this post by Grant.  In my work with the Global Thinking Project, ecosystem was an integral concept in the development of the GTP curriculum, and the way in which people worked together across different cultures.  In our work on the GTP in Russia, I was introduced by Russian ecologists to the work of  Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky, who wrote the groundbreaking book, The Biosphere.  Grant’s thinking reminds me of Vernadsky.  Grant helps us understand how the word “ecosystem” should be used to understand that we are in the system of education, not external to it.  And for me, it becomes a crucial aspect of educational reform.    Here is Grant Lichtman’s blog post: The “Eco” in Educational Ecosystems: Words Matter.

The “Eco” in Educational Ecosystems: Words Matter by Grant Lichtman

Words matter. The first time I saw the word “ecosystem” used to describe a process of learning more attuned to the future needs of our students was by Thomas and Seeley-Brown in A New Culture of Learning”.  It resonated with me; they described the teacher as a farmer who sets out the boundary fences of inquiry for her students and allows them to evolve as learners within those fences.

imgresI see the word “ecosystem” used freely now, perhaps too freely to describe maker spaces, incubators, design labs, digital collaborations, professional learning networks, and more. Just because one uses the term, does it mean that the system has any “eco” in it at all?

I used to be a geologist and studied one of the largest, most complex ecosystems on the planet: the oceans.  As I have studied learning systems I have found profound similarities between the major characteristics of natural ecosystems and much of what educators see as a transformed vision of learning. These characteristics are very different from those that define the currently dominant education system that was designed by human social engineers over the last 150 years.  In my upcoming book I offer what I believe is the first rigorous definition of the difference between these two systems.  Here are a few highlights.

All engineered systems, of which the dominant assembly line model of education is one, are designed to be controlled, predictable, scalable, repeatable, measurable  and contained within relatively rigid boundaries.  For the most part we measure the success of our schools by how well they achieve these design parameters.

Natural ecosystems are characterized by a very different set of factors that determine their success or failure.  These include adaptability, permeability, diversity, connectedness, resilience, and the distribution and recycling of resources, all within generally elastic boundaries, and all without design or external control (except, perhaps, God).

Good systems borrow from each other, and well-designed social systems are not bereft of elements of a well-functioning natural ecosystem.  But there is anenormously important difference…and I think this is where the loose use of “ecosystem” in education goes awry.

Humans do not design ecosystems; they exist within them. In my view ,great learning does not “act like an ecosystem”.  It “is” an ecosystem. There is a big difference.  Good maker spaces, incubators, design labs, digital collaborations, and professional learning networks…pretty much all that we think of as “education”… are designed by people. They may borrow elements of process from naturally occurring ecosystems, which is good.  But they are not the ecosystem itself.

Why split this hair?

Because the most important element of a natural ecosystem, the function that no engineered system yet developed has been able to copy, is also the outcome we most want for our students.  Ecosystems are self-evolvingthey don’t need designers to make them better; they get better, more well adapted to changing external conditions all on their own.  We, the people in the ecosystem can help or hinder that process, but we are in the process, not the determiners of the process.

Of all the things we say we want for our students in order for them to be successful and happy living in a rapidly changing world, the one that is most important is that they become self-evolving learners.  They will only learn how to do that if they spend time in a self-evolving learning ecosystem.  And that is why the word, and what it really means, is important. If what we call an ecosystem is not capable of evolving without “us” as external designers, we are just using a cool term in ways that mislead.

Grant Lichtman on Simple Metrics

If you haven’t read any of Grant Lichtman’s blog posts, you might want to check out his recent post in which he describes a metric that he suggests is more meaningful in the lives of our children than how well any of them did on a test this week.

Sent from my iPad

The Ecology of Innovation in Teaching and Learning

In this post I want to show that innovation in teaching & learning is a form of deep ecology in which collaborative relationships among teachers and students opens the classroom to new ways of thinking. These actions and subsequent innovations can be local and global in nature.  For most of my career I majored in bringing the local to the global and vise versa through the Global Thinking Project (GTP), headquartered at Georgia State University.

Innovation in teaching results from a process in which democratic principles are put into practice to foster experiential and collaborative work.  The innovative teacher takes a holistic view of students and the world they live in, and engages them in projects and activities that help them make sense of the world, and applicable to their own lives. Thinking in wholes was beautifully described by the Russian scientist Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky in his book, The Biosphere, published in Russia in 1926.  It wasn’t until the time of Gorbachev’s perestroika that Vernadsky’s ideas came of age in the West.  I began my collaboration with the Soviet Union in 1981, and later in the decade, I met Dr. Anatoly Zakhlebny, a leader in the Russian ecological movement.  He introduced me to Vernadsky’s ideas.  Vernadsky viewed the biosphere as “a region of transformation of cosmic energy,” and as such the biosphere is a life sustaining space born of innovation and transformation.  The concept of biosphere as explained by Vernadsky became an organizing principle for the Global Thinking Project.

In 1993 I met Narcís Vives a teacher in Barcelona who was using the Internet to make education more humanistic and creative.  In 2013, I came across the work of Grant Lichtman, an innovative educator from San Diego who is exploring the creative and leadership qualities that are essential for education in a democratic society.

For these educators, innovation in teaching and learning is a progressive ideal that each has worked on for decades. Narcís has been engaging students, teachers and citizens in global communication to instill democratic thinking from Catalonia to other cities and nations globally.  Grant has worked locally within his school in San Diego to foster thinking conducive to learning in a democratic school and society, and has expanded his reach to other schools in this nation through his outreach and writing.

In February of 1991 I received an e-mail message from Narcís Vives, who at the time was a teacher and director of a telmatics project in Barcelona. He said he had learned about the Global Thinking Project (GTP) from his involvement in another telecommunications project (iEARN) and since Barcelona and Atlanta were linked via the Olympics, he wondered if we would be interested in some form of collaboration. At the time I was director of the Global Thinking Project, a hands-across the globe environmental and Internet-based program.  In May he traveled to Atlanta to visit the GTP project, as well as schools he had made contact with through his telecommunications activity. After visiting some of the project schools, and examining the Global Thinking materials, he suggested that some Barcelona schools join the project for the 1992-1993 school year. Nine schools joined the project. The GTP Center in Barcelona grew to include many schools across in Catalonia.

Two Innovators

Narcís Vives now is President of  Fundació Itinerarium and a Spanish Ashoka Fellow. Each of these organizations works with teachers, students and citizens around the world to promote innovation to solve local problems.  Since I have known Narcís he has been instrumental contributing to a humanistic paradigm shift, especially in informatics and cooperative learning.

I have met Grant Lichtman through his writing, and I have viewed his TEDx video that he presented to teachers in Denver.  Not only do we share a background in geology, but we also believe that the progressive ideas of John Dewey provides many answers to some of the pressing issues facing education in the U.S.

For each of these educators, I will show how their progressive views have resulted in the transformation of the thinking of many educators, and provided students and their schools with an innovative approach to teaching and learning.

Telecommunications in the Service of People and Innovation

In  1993, the Global Thinking Project held the first of many summer institutes for teachers at the Simpsonwood Conferences Center in Norcross, Georgia.  Teachers from the U.S., Russia, Czech Republic, Australia, and Spain participated in these conferences.  Narcís made arrangements for Anna Pinyero, a teacher in Barecelona, to attend the conference.  When she returned to Spain, she and Narcís recruited teachers from schools in and around Barcelona.  Eventually, more than 30 schools from Spain joined the project.

Ramon Barlam, Unnamed colleague, Anna Pinyero, and Narcis Vives in a school in Callus, Spain
Figure 1. Ramon Barlam, Unnamed colleague, Anna Pinyero, and Narcis Vives on our first visit to Callus, Spain, 1996.  We returned two years later for an international telecommunications conference organized by Ramon Barlam’s school.

In 1994, I made my first visit to Barcelona at the invitation of Narcís and the teachers in the Barcelona area. The schools in the Barcelona and Callus are part of Catalonia where the language spoken is Catalan.   During that trip, Narcís and Anna took us to Callus, a small town about 60 miles northwest of Barcelona at the foothills of the Pyrenees. We were going to Callus to visit a school, and there we met Ramon Barlam, who was coordinating and directing a global communications and Internet project far more advanced than any I had been associated with in the U.S.  Here in this small school, students were engaged as leaders of a telecommunications project bringing together schools throughout Europe to find how the Internet could be used to foster collaboration and innovation.  The school was staffed with teachers from across Europe, and there was an atmosphere of creative and progressive thinking.  The principal of the school provided the administrative leadership and realized that she needed to enable Ramon and the other teachers to work with students to develop new skills, and new knowledge.

Innovation can take many forms, but at the heart of innovation in teaching is the humanitarian aspects engaging students in real issues and problems.  Narcís and I were brought together because of our interests in using new technologies to humanize teaching, and provide an environment for students in different regions of the world to collaborate and work together to deal with real issues.

For decades now, Narcís Vives and other educators in the Catalonia region of Spain have been on the forefront of using new technologies in humanistic ways.  At the center of their work with technology was the goal of enabling students and teachers to participate in and contribute to solutions of real problems facing the world.

In an article written in 1995, but only recently published online, A Telematics Forum on the Family in Countries from Around the World, Narcís Vives explains one of the most powerful and humanitarian ways that the Internet is being used to enable “boys and girls in far-away places to join together in educational projects.”  That way is to use the Internet as a way to make it possible for people to connect with each other; to talk to each other; to act together on a project.  And it doesn’t matter where one lives, access to the Internet is far reaching, and has since 1995 grown exponentially.  In 1995 we had email and electronic bulletin boards.  Today we have smart phones, tablets, Twitter & other social networks, the World Wide Web, blogging, podcasting, and on and on.

My point here is that collaboration is one of the most potent tools of the Internet, the tool that Narcís and many colleagues in Catalonia have been pioneers in working out practical ways to this kind of participation to people around the world.

Participation has local and global components. Action locally is based on a view of environmental education which is described as “education for the environment.” In this view students not only become knowledgeable about their environment, but aware of environmental problems, how to solve them, and motivated to work toward their solution (Michel, 1996). The design of learning experiences includes an action-taking component that is fundamental to the idea of participation. The other component of participation is global. The use of telecommunications enables students to extend participation beyond their own communities. Telecommunications sets up cross-cultural partnerships, global communities, and global summits for studying common global concerns. Dr. Jenny Springer, Principal of Dunwoody High School, suggests that telecommunications used for dialog with peers on the other side of the globe is based on the work of the Russian psychologist Vygotsky. Vygotsky viewed knowledge being constructed in a social context, with student’s ideas being influenced by the ideas and interactions with others (Springer, 1993).

In this context I want to describe an example of how Narcís Vives used telecommunications to engage students around the world during the Bosnian War, 1992 – 1995.

I received the following email message from Narcís Vives on December 20, 1992 (please see Figure 2).

Screen Shot 2013-05-19 at 1.53.25 PM
Figure 2. A 1992 E-mail message from Narcis Vives asking the Global Thinking Project schools to join his effort in reaching out to children in a refugee camp in Zagreb, Bosnia

This message was forwarded on to all of the GTP schools in Australia, Czech Republic, Russia, and United States.  Narcis’ proposal to the Global Thinking Project resulted in bringing together students and teachers from three continents to focus their thoughts and actions on a refugee camp in a remote location in Bosnia, thousands of miles from their schools. The events that followed Narcís’ original invitation reflect the humanistic potential of global thinking in general, and telecommunications in particular. Here are some of the events that followed.

1. Message from a Young Bosnian Boy. On January, Narcís Vives posted a message on the Global Thinking bulletin board written by a young Bosnian boy, Sanel Cekik who lived in the Veli Joze camp. The original telecommunications message was written in a Servo-Croatian dialect and was translated by three American high school students from the Coldspring Harbor High School (New York). The message written by Sanel was as follows:

The war slowly but surely came over our city. After some time, it happened; Serbs took over the city as everywhere they started with their terrible torture. My incident is next. One night in my apartment where unfortunately was my father, came four Serb soldiers. First they beat him (my father is 60 years old). Then they made horrible wounds on his back, on his forehead, and his hands with razor blades. The next day when I came and saw him in this condition, I was very shaken. This picture is going to forever stay in my mind as the pictures of many other people and children who were killed by the Serbs. A message to the whole world from me and all the children, my friends, and from all other refugees. Thank you for all the help. Stop this damned war!!

2. Solidarity Day.  In early February, 1993, Narcís announced on the GTP electronic bulletin boards that Friday, February 26, 1993 would be a Day of Solidarity for camp Veli Joze. He said this:

We are planning to organize a solidarity day on Friday the 26th February. A very well known Catalan clown is traveling with two teachers to act for the Bosnian children. I have received a lot of drawings and writings from Veli Joze which will be exposed at Centre Educatiu Projecte on the 26th. Student from the eight schools in Barcelona will meet together to see these drawing, see slides from the camp, sing peace songs and know each other. Till now they have only used telecommunications to coordinate the campaign in favour of Veli Joze.

The Solidarity Day.  Barcelona schools met and celebrated a solidarity festival among eight schools. The day before Solidarity Day, three Catalan teachers and a clown left Barcelona for the camp with a lot of school material. In the morning of the 26th, Veli Joze and the Catalan schools participated in a live teleconference. All the Catalan schools and the camp were connected by computer seeing each others’ messages at the same time. Narcís posted this message a few days later:

It was very moving to start receiving messages from Bosnian children and then sending them solidarity messages which they read at the moment. They also answered questions posted by Catalan children. Half an hour later I was invited to a radio program to talk about the solidarity day. We could also talk to a Catalan Volunteer in Veli Joze who explained what they were going to do during this solidarity day. All the Catalan schools were listening to the radio and happy to listen to the impact that their project is having not only in Catalonia but also in other countries (I have received messages from Australia, Israel, Chile, Russia, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Croatia, and different states in the United States). In the afternoon the Catalan schools were invited to Centre Educatiu Projecte where they could see an exhibition of drawings made by Bosnian children at Veli Joze. They could also attend a Lumaphone conference between Veli Joze, two schools in New York, and Barcelona. It was very moving for them to see Sanel Cekik’s picture on the screen and listen to him and to other Bosnian children.

3. Moscow School 710.  Teachers and students in GTP School-Gymnasium 710, Moscow joined the Barcelona schools on the Day of Solidarity. They sent this message to the children in the Bosnian camp via Barcelona and posted it on the gtp.earthconf.

Dear friends!

Teachers and students of school-gymnasium #710 in Moscow, Russia send you our best greetings. From radio, TV and newspaper reports all of us know about the events in your country. We are very much concerned about the situation. We sympathize with you. Please, mind that in this difficult hour you are not alone, you have many friends on our planet. Today, we have talked about your beautiful country, recited poems, thought about you and about the hard life you are living now. We don’t want any war to happen and we hope, that very soon people all over the world will live in peace and friendship. Women and children will not cry; men will not fight. Please, be brave and don’t lose your heart. We are sure that the smoke of war will disappear and peaceful sun will shine again above your country.

Your friends: students of the 7th class, and teachers Galina Zhuravskaya and Vera Rizhova

4. North Heights school, Rome, Georgia. The Global Thinking class at North Heights posted this report on May 21, 1993.

North Heights recently completed a project to help Camp Veli Joze.

We did three projects. One was a school dance. The way we raised money was we charged $1.00 per head. We also paid to see the teachers dance! The students were responsible for planning the details for the dance, for collecting money, and selling refreshments. We raised $156.74. The next thing we did was a charity softball game at the school during field day. We raised $99.00. We also put out money jars in local stores. We designed posters to tell the story of Veli Joze and Global Thinking to display in the businesses to encourage people to donate their money. One 5th grade student thought of the slogan “Your Change Will Change Camp Veli Joze” to put on the canisters. We haven’t gotten the results from this yet. Messages from Narcis Vives about Camp Veli Joze, the sad message from Sanel Cekik, and the poem “I’d like to go alone” inspired us to try to do something to help the camp. Within two weeks, our teacher will be sending a check and some photos to Narcis Vives for the camp.

5. Melbourne Girls Grammar School, Australia. The GTP class at the school posted a message on June 7, 1993.

Topic 157. The Bosnian Boy

Peg:mggs: Global Thinking Project

This poem is our reaction from the letter from Sanel Cekik who is a Bosnian boy who at the time was living at a refugee camp called Veli Joze and we hope through this poem that he and everyone else can see we care.

Boy, in your room I heard you weeping,

Boy, in his room you saw him sleeping,

Then from his peace he was awaking,

Only to a hell that today is creating.

Boy, with all the terror you must be sinking,

I wonder how many lives they are


The Veli Joze experience was considered by many students to be an important event in their lives. Brief reports written by students from schools in Australia, Russia and the United States at the end of the school year supported this assertion. As Springer noted, global thinking facilitates interactions and partnerships that allow students to experience the social nature of knowledge.

When we began our work with Narcís Vives and other educators in Catalonia, Russia, Australia, the Czech Republic, and later other countries, the telecommunications technology available to us was primitive.  In the beginning we used e-mail and electronic bulletin boards to send, receive and read each other’s ideas.  We sent pictures to each other using slow scan TV.  We did not have browsers and the World Wide Web, and clearly we didn’t have FaceBook or Twitter.  But we were able to launch and carry out telecommunication projects that were grounded in cooperative and collaborative learning, and mutual trust and support of teachers and students in different countries.

Narcís Vives has for more than two decades promoted innovative global collaboration amongst students and teachers.  Most recently, he participated in the Global Education Conference, a collaborative, world-wide community initiative involving students, educators and organizations at all levels.  Narcis presented is most recent efforts in connecting students and educators through Fudacio Itinerarium.

Searching for Innovation

Grant Lichtman, (author of The Learning Pond blog), for 15 years, has been involved with independent school education, as trustee, chief of finance and operations, teacher, parent, and volunteer at Francis Parker School in San Diego, one of the largest independent schools in the United States. He recently completed an 89 day automobile trip to visit and explore schools across the U.S.  At present he is working on a book based on that experience.

In his book, The Falconer, Grant Lichtman explains that few problems and issues in life and learning are “clean and linear.”  As he says, we all learn better  by experience than instruction.  Dewey wrote about experience and thinking many years ago, and it seems that he and Lichtman are on the same wavelength.  Dewey explains that experience has two parts, an active and a passive which are “peculiarly” combined (Dewey, 1924).  Experiential learning is not simply an activity or simply hands-on learning.  Experience means on the one hand, trying, and on the other hand undergoing.  So when we have students experience something, they act upon it, or what might say we do something with it.  Then, as Dewey says, we “suffer or undergo the consequences.  Participation in experiential learning activities does something to the participants, and what happens will determine the value of the experience.  Lichtman’s book is an experiential account of his journey as a teacher.  Dewey would suggest that Grant’s book is a good example of his experience as a teacher.

But you can learn about Grant’s ideas garnered not only from that trip to these schools, but from his experiences as a educator for many years.  Included here is a video of the talk that he gave at the TEDx Denver Teachers event.

Grant Lichtman’s ideas are rooted in a number of progressive thinkers from the past, including John Dewey.  In fact, in his talk in Denver, he asked where do we want to be in education in the future, and his answer came down to one word: DEWEY.

His philosophy, much like Narcí Vives’ is rooted in experiential and humanistic conceptions.  Grant is involved in working with educators around the country who are interested in transformational education.   He was recently named a Senior Fellow of The Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence in Memphis.

According to Grant Lichtman, in order for schools to evolve to offer transformational education that is relevant the present world “we must change the ways we are structured and oriented, and we must change how and what we teach. These changes will involve all aspects of our schools, and some aspects that are not even present today. (Lichtman, 2013)   According to Grant Lichtman, we will have to:

  • Question the sacred cows that drive our budgets and define the parameters of our teaching corps.
  • Fundamentally change the relationship between teachers, students, and knowledge.
  • Adopt the lessons of innovation and change management that are now foreign to our ivy towers.
  • Engage the world outside our classrooms in fundamentally different ways.
  • Re-write curriculum.
  • Learn to embrace risk rather than fearing it…

Innovation in education, according to Grant Lichtman and Narcís Vives, involves teachers and students working collaboratively, and in an environment in which taking risks, and working at the farther reaches of human nature are essential components.

What do you think about the ideas of Narcis Vives and Grant Lichtman?  What is your view of innovation in education?


Dewey, J. (1924). Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York, The Macmillan Company.

Hassard, J. (1990a) The AHP soviet exchange project: 1983-1990 and beyond, Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 30 No.3, Summer 6-51.

Hassard, J. (1992). Minds on science: The art of teaching middle and high school science. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Hassard, J. (1990b). Science experiences: Cooperative learning and the teaching of Ssience. Menlo Park: CA: Addison-Wesley.

Hassard, J., (1994). The global thinking project: Linking students together around the world through the communication highway. Curriculum Perspectives, 14, 19-23.

Hassard, J. & Cross, R. T. . (1993). The global thinking project: Shared concerns and shared experiences across the continents.Australian Science Teachers Journal, Vol. 39, No. 3, 18-23.

Hassard, J. & Kolb, S. (1996). Citizen scientists: Student experiences in the gtp– georiga/russia exchange project. Paper presented at the conference on Telecommunications and Education, Callus, Spain, April 27.

Hassard, J. & Weisberg, J. (1995). Global thinking Teacher’s resource guide. Atlanta, GA: Global Thinking Project.

Lichtman, G. (2008). The Falconer: What We Wish We Had Learned in School: A Primer for 21st Century Education. New York: iUniverse, Inc.

Maslow, A. H., Maslow, B. G., and Geiger, H. (1993). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Penguin

Michel, Rachel (1996). Environmental education: A study of how it is influenced and informed by the concepts of environmentalism. Doctoral Dissertation. La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Robinson, W. (1996). The Effects of the global thinking project on middle school students’ attitudes toward the environment. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia.

Springer, J. L. (1993). A principal’s perspective of the global thinking project at dunwoody high school: Implications for adminstrators. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, The Union Institute, Cincinnati, Ohio

Vladimir I. Vernadsky. The Biosphere: Complete Annotated Edition (Kindle Locations 127-128). Kindle Edition.