Evolving schools through community science

Covid-19 has laid bare the need for schools to increase their capacity to adapt to change, and for students and teachers to have a voice in the processes driving these adaptations. How such needs get addressed is an open question. The Evolving Schools project offers a community-based solution.

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By Dustin Eirdosh & Susan Hanisch

If you talk to students and teachers around the world about how their school is adapting to the Covid-19 pandemic, the responses you'll find are as diverse as the individuals and communities themselves. For nearly everyone, however, this has been a time of deep reflection, a recognition that schools and school communities were generally unprepared to meet the shifting demands imposed by the rising and falling of the pandemic curve lines.  With most schools now out of session, the question of what will happen during the 2020-21 school year looms large. To be sure, nobody, no matter what their expertise in educational research or management, has the experience to provide sure-fire recommendations to make this fall workable for all. So what should schools do?

As school improvement specialist David Sherer has argued, it is not about choosing "the right model", it is about ensuring your school has the systems in place to improve. This is to say, it is the adaptive capacity, the evolvability, of the school system, more so than the simple choosing of one particular policy over another. This is because when it comes to outcomes, how a program is implemented (i.e. adapted and improved) over time is often the driving factor as to whether it will achieve the aims it was designed for. 

Increasing the adaptive capacity of schools is a critical yet complex endeavor (we strongly recommend you explore the ideas and resources about Networked Improvement Communities from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for guidance).  

For our part at GlobalESD.org, we have been been working with a local team of 8th-10th graders and an international team of educators, education scientists, and evolutionary anthropologists to advance an exploratory pathway for strengthening student and teacher voice in school improvement processes focused on school culture and governance. 

Our Evolving Schools project (http://EvolvingSchools.GlobalESD.org), part of the Community Science Lab at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, Germany, was launched in early March 2020, just prior to the pandemic.

Two new creative commons resources from GlobalESD.org offer a collaborative and participatory road map to engaging students, teachers, and entire school communities in making values-driven changes to adapt to and learn from the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. (Download via links below)

The original project aim was to engage students in reflecting on a persistent debate in educational design:

What does the science of evolution suggest about how schools should be designed?

Some education experts argue that our evolutionary history within small egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups suggests modern schooling is more like prison, and students should instead be 'free to learn' under the optimizing conditions for Self-Directed Education. In contrast, other experts suggest that our modern world is far different than that of hunter-gatherers and therefore, educators should use the best of modern cognitive science to craft direct instruction methods for efficient, enjoyable learning. Still others believe that the emerging science of cultural evolution can empower school communities with a toolkit for evolving an optimal mix of autonomy and evidence-based instruction. Of course, these characterizations are just brief summaries of vast and complicated debates, and many education experts endorse some nuanced position in between. We wanted to know what students might think about this debate, and if reflecting on these divergent perspectives could help elevate student voice within a scientifically informed framework for school improvement. 

Just as we were getting the project started, Covid-19 shut down our partner school and moved all learning to an online platform. 

Through our committed student collaborators, we were able to persist, albeit in limited form. The results have been captured in our Evolving Schools Project Report, and document both the motivation and capacity for students to engage in nuanced reasoning about how school culture could be improved. 

This is just the beginning. We are now working to "Covid-Proof" the Evolving Schools project, making it more accessible to a wider diversity of schools regardless of the challenges presented during the coming school year.  This is part of a larger effort to use emerging methods in Community Science to empower students and teachers to become investigators of their own school culture. By working to understand and positively influence the cooperative dynamics around shared values within school communities, students and teachers can become more effective drivers of school improvement while also engaging with the fascinating scientific perspectives linking the evolution of human behavior, cognition, and culture with the modern design and governance of their own educational institutions. Join us!

Further resources

Go to the profile of Global ESD

Global ESD

Educational innovation and curriculum design, in cooperation with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Global ESD works internationally to support sustainability education initiatives that connect concepts in human evolution, behavioral ecology, and sustainability science. By linking scientific perspectives on social change with students and classrooms seeking to make the world a better place, our aim is to foster a more global discussion about where we are going in the light of where we all have come from. Our work is done in close collaboration with the Department of Comparative Cultural Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Primary contributors to this blog community are Dustin Eirdosh & Susan Hanisch

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