How can schools become learning arboretums?



In 2006, Stephanie Pace Marshall wrote about the fact that science was becoming increasing clear on the interdependence of living systems. This is increasingly clear as we see the impact of climate change. There are also ramifications for formal education. Instead of school systems being somewhat mechanistic in design and predictable as well as predetermined in terms of organization, Marshall’schallenge to educators was to find ways to nurture interdependence among disciplines and aspects of schooling in the same way that living systems modelled dynamic, interconnected relationships and creativity (p. xii).


Wikipedia suggests that commonly modern arboretums are botanical gardens containing living collections of woody plants and are intended at least in part for scientific study. Marshall reminds usthat “learning is the most natural and creative of all human endeavors” and “how we are asked to learnmatters profoundly. Mind shaping is world shaping” (p.xiii). Schools are now places to be studied as well as places of learning if we are going to become effective change catalysts and change agents.


Systems pay some homage to dynamic learning in kindergarten classes in Ontario and elsewhere where students are encouraged to discover, be curious and explore, create and imagine. ‘Schooling’ becomes firmly rooted as learners progress from one grade to the next as students and educators alike face a myriad of expectations. Focussing on learning conditions soon competes with learning standards, outcomes and levels.


How would our conversations change if we envisioned learning as generative instead of sequential? I do see promise in inquiry environments where educators and students can also reacquaint themselves what it means to enjoy the feeling of co-learning and build individual and collective meaning. We need teaching and learning environments to empower learners to seek connections and a sense of wholeness with their communities, their environments and each other to meet present and future challenges.


What would school systems look like today if we could, to use Marshall’s language, ‘water the roots of learning’ instead of focusing on trying to reform the ‘leaves’ of our structures? Can we do a better job of helping students discover that life is a continuous, natural process of constructing meaning? Can we help students to better understand that each new aspect of learning is dependent upon what has gone on before and what will follow and that it is transdisciplinary?


Do we have a strong enough understanding that the properties of life and principles of learning are the deep roots for creating generative systems for learning? Is this really possible in systems that are firmly compartmentalized and siloed?


At the end of every school year, I find myself thinking about how we can re-imagine schooling in more dynamic ways to better serve learners! We know that strong learning relationships affect the culture of learning. How might a vision of learning as generative and connected affect the outcomes of learning?


Marshall, S. P. (2006). The power to transform: Leadership that brings learning and schooling to life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.