I’ve spent the past two years looking for language and concepts that bring the difference between system and ecosystem thinking into focus. This has included looking back at Bronfenbrenner’s model of human ecology to think about simplified language and connections to the science of learning & development. I was delighted to read Thomas Arnett’s recent post on the Christensen Institute website and learn about his commitment to exploring this topic in forthcoming posts. https://bit.ly/Remix4182
Arnett introduces a new framework – modularity theory – to explain how different parts of a system’s architecture relate to one another and how they fit and work together in order to achieve desired outcomes. And he introduces new terms – interdependent vs modular interfaces – to explain the fundamental difference between systems and ecosystems.
School systems have a myriad of interdependent interfaces. These interdependencies keep non-system providers out (even when invited in). They also constrain system providers to only make changes that conform to pre-established rules and processes.
Non-integrated systems, in contrast, depend on modular interfaces to coordinate the work of independent providers. The providers need to follow rules and standard procedures. But they don’t have to coordinate closely with each other or do things in similar ways once rules for joining the ecosystem are established (e.g. learning mission, minimum staffing and safety requirements, program components, student progress goals), a library, a museum, and a youth organization could take different approaches to engaging kids in leaner-centered, competency-based learning. Examples of non-integrated learning systems exist now: early childhood education, STEM, out-of-school and summer learning are all examples of non-integrated, community-based systems supported by national infrastructures.
The modular, non-integrated approach, as Arnett notes, has trade-offs different from, but perhaps no less important than those associated with the integrated school system that we all grew up with. The opportunity we have, given COVID-related “wall-softening” and ARP incentive funding, is to acknowledge the fact that scaled examples of non-integrated approaches exist and strive to understand how, when, where, why and for whom they work so we can give them “the runway they need to become viable alternatives to conventional education.”
I look forward to reading Arnett’s future articles. I offer only one edit to the big question at the beginning of the article: “Might it be possible to develop learning ecosystems that stack various learning experiences together to create a formal education?” Let’s find a new term to replace “formal.”