Last year I was introduced to the idea of ‘systemic biomimicry’ while researching a community project in South Africa (a short post about the experience can be found here). This thought has since been behind much of my subsequent inquiry, and in this post I would like to explore the idea a little further.
The Biomimicry Institute gives a list of principles that are common to all life, and therefore key components of applied biomimicry.
- Being locally attuned and responsive
- Using constant feedback loops
- Antenna, signal, response
- Learns and imitates
- Resourceful and opportunistic
- Free energy
- Shape rather than material
- Builds from the bottom up
- Simple, common building blocks
- Being resilient
- Decentralised and distributed
- Cross-pollination, common information systems
In this list there are several points that immediately jump out as being relevant to organising a social and educational institution.
Take for instance the recent example in Scotland where funding has been cut to the teaching assistant (TA) program. In recent years the assistants in Scottish primary-level classrooms were increasingly taking on the roles of pastoral care and individual student learning support, allowing the main teacher to focus on lesson planning and essentially, paperwork.The system appeared to be working because essentially there was a ‘job-share’ happening, where the teacher and their assistant were able to occupy similar positions in the school’s ecology, without being in competition with one another. By removing the assistant and increasing the bureaucratic load on the central teacher, a system is created that has no redundancy, and therefore low resiliency. A decentralised, distributed, redundant network of teachers is a model far more in line with a living system than our current, delineated, centralised and categorised system.
The concept of ‘building from the bottom up’ is a point that I have discussed at length from different viewpoints on this blog and the SA project blog, but is essentially this: a school begins from interaction between a community’s resource base and it’s needs, in this case, a group of young people and their parents, and people who are willing to act as teachers. This is the starting poing of a school. In contrast to this, schools are often built in response to a distant need- i.e. that of a different community. New schools are built to be isolated from a community, whilst drawing students from a wide catchment area. This approach has strong tendencies towards centralisation, and in consequence it loses the ability to be locally attuned and responsive. The introduction of Free Schools in the UK has been one step away from this centralisation, but without the support and feedback loops provided by local government they will still be overly beholden to the needs of an abstract interest group, and not the local community as a whole.
The Sustainability Institute in Stellenbosch is a wonderful example of how to establish a school in a different way. They built a primary school next to the university building, but have no direct influence over the management of the school. Instead, their ideological and scientific agenda is laid open to the primary school, allowing the teachers and students there the free choice in participating or not . Of course, this might yield slower results than a more mainstream approach (which is happening nearby with the construction of a bona-fide Eco-School), but in the long term will have far greater resilience whilst still achieving the goal of providing an ecological education to the young people of their community.
Another interesting concept that is becoming an increasingly closer reality is that of open information systems and shared information systems (biologically in the form of genetic material). Access to these information systems is primarily governed by both environment (context) and ability. In modern schooling systems we acknowledge something of the context by organising children by age, but ability (and personal development) is not fixed to specific age groups. Intergenerational learning is a great step forward in this, but it also needs to be happening within the school itself. It is no great secret that the most effective way of learning something is to teach it to someone else, and this principle is grossly underused in modern schooling systems. Collaborative work across all age groups is something that should be encouraged, and not just within the arts as is currently the case (most commonly with schools that still have a strong drama department).
There are many nuances to recognising living systems within education, and recent years have seen a surge in experimentation along these lines. Here in Scotland, with the prospect of increasing devolution of political power, there are important discussions to be had on decentralising the educational authorities and placing ‘educational agency’ back in the hands of parents and educators. So stay tuned for more to come!