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What Kind of Ecosystem Is Your School?

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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Fifty-three plus teenage students are sitting outside in the sun on raised, cement seating.

A school is an ecosystem. One dictionary definition of ecosystem is: "a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment." If we believe that a school is an ecosystem, it has tremendous implications for how we organize schools and conduct ourselves within them.

My thoughts about this were crystallized from a recent trip to Costa Rican rainforests and biological preserves. A fundamental principle of an ecosystem is interdependence. This means that something that happens in one part of the system affects other parts of the system.

Another fundamental principle of ecosystems, they are designed to adapt and thrive. So when alterations are made, say, due to policies like deforestation to gather wood for commercial uses or circumstances such as global warming, there can be severe negative consequences. The patterns of relationships of weather, soil, and access to food and other resources become disrupted. These can threaten certain species or lead them to change their behavior over time in unpredictable, often harmful ways.

Every Element in a School Affects Other Parts

If you have not yet drawn the analogy to our regimen of high-stakes testing, linking teacher evaluations to salary, and otherwise scripting education to make it "teacher proof," you should do so.

Adam Grant, writing in the New York Times ("Week in Review," January 31, 2016), shows that regimens of practice designed to develop prodigies, and related drill-repeat-test kinds of routines that we see in urban education, lead to counterproductive results. To quote one example: "Top concert pianists didn't have elite teachers from the time they could walk; their first lessons came from instructors who happened to live nearby and made learning fun" (p. 12).

If we believe that a school is an ecosystem, and act that way, then we shift our perspective. We realize that every element of a school affects other parts. How our least-advantaged and most at-risk students are treated affects the success of the entire school. How teachers treat one another and students matters. How lunch aides treat students and are treated by other school professionals does matter.

If we believe that a school is an ecosystem, then we become more sensitive to the nuances of policies that we set into schools. We look at their effects in proximal, not only distal, ways. We redefine high stakes to include small interactions, and the mind, heart, hand, and soul of all those touched by our policies.

If we believe that a school is an ecosystem, then we realize we must care about every aspect of the school. The school itself is the product of all of the interactions and interdependencies of all of its components, regardless of visibility. And a school district is an even wider ecosystem, and defined by its most troubled schools as much as its best. Indeed, just as corporate inequities are built on the backs of the least cared for workers, educational inequities are built on the backs of the least cared for students and staff.

Walking through the rainforest, and other ecosystems in Costa Rica, I realized that the wisdom is beyond us to know what parts of the ecosystem are expendable, worthy of neglect, or possess less importance: Therefore, we have an ethical and moral obligation to nourish the ecosystem of the school by supporting all of its parts equally, to allow every student to develop his or her capacity to thrive in ways that will make a positive contribution to the whole.

How Many Turtles? How Many Raccoons?

Please read the descriptions of each of the rainforest residents below, and determine who, in your school -- or team, group, or committee -- is a representative of that resident. (Thanks to my travel companions in Costa Rica for your input on this.) The scoring system is itself ecological; you can figure out whether you have too many of some and not enough of others:

Macaw: The macaw is renowned for its loyalty. Though not averse to straying on occasion, it always comes back to its senses.

Crocodile: The crocodile is ancient, formidable, and has a powerful jaw quick to snap shut with many sharp teeth. It adapts well to all kinds of circumstances, and is not to be messed with.

Turtles: Though a symbol of deliberate wisdom, turtles are pretty ornery and retreat into their shells in response to threat. They stick to highly, routinized patterns and are resistant to changes.

Howler Monkey: The howler monkey is incredibly loud and can be heard from miles away. It uses its howl to disconcert and threaten, but it retreats when confronted.

Three-toed Sloth: The three-toed sloth is very slow moving and not concerned much about others around it. It saves negative things up for a week and then spews them out, though not with an intent to harm -- but it still harms those in the way.

Capuchin Monkey: The capuchin money is very social and involved in everyone's business. It operates in cliques and is not hesitant to take what belongs to others.

Frog: Frogs are highly nurturing, especially of newbies. They are willing to put aside their own well-being to help the next generation emerge in a healthy way.

Manuel Antonio Park Raccoon: These raccoons are focused on extrinsic motivation; their actions are focused around incentives, rewards, and contingencies -- even to their own detriment.

Spider Monkey: The spider monkey swings from tree to tree with little focus. It likes to show off and be seen.

Bats: Bats are an essential part of the rainforest and are highly varied. Some help pollinate, bringing seeds to different parts of the rainforest; some attack small, defenseless animals, and even infants; and some help control the mosquito population, minimizing these annoying ecosystem residents.

School Turnaround Means Improving School Climate

Schools cannot be "turned around" without treating them like ecosystems. Schools cannot produce proficiency, let alone excellence, without attending to the climate of the school and the social-emotional competence and character of everyone in the school.

This poses a tremendous challenge to education and educators. Our policies and programs tend to be fragmented, not holistic. Too often, they focus on subject areas and content, rather than on the people in the schools and their relationships to one another and the material being taught.

What are your thoughts on this post? Please share in the comments section below.

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

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chandrusekaran's picture

This article is nice to read and very useful to make best ecosystem in all schools in all country. Thanks for sharing it...!!!

Chandru From Edubilla - Global Education Portal

Carmella Trevizo's picture

This is deep. When thinking of a school being like an ecosystem, how do all the different organisms help each other? Some personalities are out to do right and realize their actions/decisions affect the whole not just at the moment, where as other not so much. Here is the largest factor is that a new organism is introduced (ie new curriculum, rules and regulations, mandatory assessments, the inevitable of tying test scores to evaulations, etc) no one really stops to see what will be affected and unable/unwilling to adapt. Teaching used to be for one sole purpose to help children aquire knowledge to be able to be successful to their ecosystem in the way that best suited the ecosystem from a well educated possibly wealth individual who makes decisions to help the ecosystem continue to function as a whole instead of pieces and parts to even the simple trades and vocational skills to build the ecosystem and help it reach its maximum success. Today this is lost there is this big goal of being the best ecosystem here but globally and the top predators are making changes without thinking what will happen to the producers who build our foundation. Since this is happening we have pockets of excellence but those pockets seem not to be the model ecosystem we want. (If it is what we want the top decision makers don't/won't ask and watch to see what works, we just change because what we have is not sustaining our ecosystem at the rate we know is achievable). Instead the top predators like the crocodiles need to step back and think of the turtles or howler monkeys are not adapting to the whole ecosystem and without the whole ecosystem change is going to happen but highly not with the impact as one would hope because the top organisms need to see the pieces and plan for both the positive and negative. The push for trying to place a larger value on test scores to teacher and school performance is going to get you a base that has missing pieces (dna) and will not adapt. The top makes changes again before seeing if time will show the benefits of these changes or even the negative. The negatives are starting to show. Student being promoted because they are a number rather than a functioning part of an ecosystem

I know this sounds like rambling but it is my thoughts as a teacher (1am, when i should be sleeping) at the base of an ecosystem providing the energy to help our producers (students) in OUR ecosystem grow to be their best without dna mutations so they can adapt and continue to be successful contributing components of our local, national, and global ecosystems, is and will occur if we work together as the ecosystem do even as complex as the tropical rain forest.

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Maurice J. Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

To view the school as an ecosystem is to change from an individual view of education- focusing on the accomplishments of individual students and the skills of individual educators- to a collective view of education. An ecosystem is highly difficult to influence wisely, and so it will require tremendous and ongoing collaborative efforts. The students are as important to this effort as the educators. It is a challenge we can delay meeting, but we cannot avoid it!

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