Ecologising the Dialectic: 4 ways schools can be ecological in their thinking

“Mermaids Hate Plastic” (2016) by Von Wong

I completed my Masters in Education for Sustainability just over 20 years ago. As should be the case, some things I have remembered!

Apart from the statement that “one day, they’ll call it education” (when discussing sustainability education in schools), a phrase that has remained with me is “Ecologising the Dialectic”.

At the time, I hadn’t a clue what this meant. For those of you who are students of Hegel (what? Science of Logic not on your summer reading list?) or Marx (dialectical materialism?), you will know that “dialectic” refers to discourse over differing points of view to establish truth through reasoned argument. “Ecologising” relates to the synthesis of thinking that brings these differing points of view together to see them as a whole system in which human society relates to its environment (see Murray Bookchin).

I am, at heart, a “green” ecologist however it wasn’t until one of our PGCE students introduced me to the work of Urie Bronfrenbrenner, that a very large and important penny finally dropped! Far from being a “green” issue, ecology and ecological thinking is applicable to human society and social ecology is a manifestation of this.

Society is an inter-dependent system. Just as in the natural world each element acts to influence or be influenced by other parts of the system. It has been our wilful disregard of this principal that has led us to the state of emergency over plastics in the oceans, for example. Therefore, using the same thinking, schools (with Bronfrenbrenner in mind) are also inter-dependent systems and seen as such will lead to greater improvements in how they work.

Seeing your school as a social eco-system will enable you to bring together the often disparate thinking that sets in. Staff, classes, departments, leadership teams, can consider themselves separate to each other in a way that overlooks the powerful influences that exist between them. Far from the top-down, bottom-up, process-driven approach that has dominated education, “ecologising” our thinking about schools will lead to improved performance and greater engagement from all elements of the system.

Here are 4 ways that you can think more ecologically about schools and education. Separately, they are intuitive, however together “the whole is greater that the sum of its parts.

1. Early Intervention

From SEND and safeguarding to literacy in under fives, from parental engagement and behaviour to quality first teaching. The “earlier” change can be effected, the quicker improved outcomes can be achieved. Therefore consider “early” in both senses of the word: “early” in a child’s life or in a parent’s involvement with the school, and “early” as soon as concerns are raised.

2. Things go in spirals

Dialectical thinking has given us the problem-reaction-solution approach which has in turn led to the Shewhart Cycle (Plan-Do-Check-Act/Adjust) which we all now know as Plan-Do-Review. It’s active learning, action research or just good sense. But it’s a spiral, it’s iterative, with each turn of the cycle leading to progress. The review leads to further planning, which takes you further forward than the last time you planned. Whether it’s performance management, school improvement plans or assessment for learning, each turn of the spiral builds on that which has gone before.

3. It’s all connected

Child achieves a learning objective, this leads to next steps. A teacher assesses and facilitates learning of next steps impacting their planning for the next set of learning objectives, and the next… Progress of the whole cohort is monitored over time and support for learning is necessary where children require it. SLT, Governors, OfSTED are all interested in the progress being made, the rate of progress and support utilised. This affects the school improvement plan, which in turn affects the quality of teaching and learning which in turn affects the learning objectives, which in turn impacts upon the child.

4. It’s not “engagement”, it’s “enabling”

Engagement is a “point-to-point” connection. Parents should be more “engaged” in reading with their child. Governors should be more “engaged” with monitoring outcomes. But where there is engagement, there can be dis-engagement. Therefore, to be more effective and sustainable, there must be an enabling of involvement and inclusion that has greater impact in the long term. Take parents and reading for instance. Parents should be regularly and consistently given opportunity to understand WHY reading is important – newsletters, seminars, guest speakers, coffee mornings, well-trained parent readers…This then “enables” parents to become comfortable with HOW they can encourage reading and WHAT they can do outside of school to PLAY A PART in developing children’s reading ability. By consistently and regularly providing messages and growing knowledge and skills in parents, they will feel enabled to respond when the cry goes up: “you must help your children to read!” If they don’t feel enabled, any amount of “engagement” is not going to impact on progress.

I am sure you will have other ways that “ecological” thinking can support schools to become more effective and I would love to hear them. However, these 4 principles underpin all relationships within a school, between the school and parents and between the school and the wider world (especially other schools and local services). These are Bronfrenbrenner’s principles and from plastic in our oceans, to early childhood literacy, a greater understanding of ecology will improve our schools and the systems within which they operate.


Published by Neil Jones

Free School Principal, writing on leadership in schools. Education anorak, a fan of the learning potential in the social web and of Leyton Orient FC.

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  1. I can’t claim to be much of an ecologist, but perhaps another application of ecological thinking to education is ‘Address the root cause of a problem rather than the results’ (I actually think this overlaps with your 4 points too). It’s obvious to everyone that the Indonesian military’s efforts to clear tons of plastic from rivers, though admirable, is not sufficient to free rivers from future pollution. That will only be achieved through concerted government initiatives to discourage people from discarding plastic – or even enabling them to buy goods with less packaging in the first place. To me it seems that the same goes for problems in school. For example, little Sammie’s lack of motivation in the classroom is not going to be permanently cured by distracting him/her with whizzy bangy activities if the root cause of the problem is an issue at home, a health issue or generally feeling that he/she is ‘no good’ at school work. In fact, those whizzy bangy activities might even tip the balance of fun v. learning so far out of sync that Sammie’s understanding and skills actually suffer, and his/her motivation dips still further. Much better to try to identify and resolve the root cause of problem, whilst still treating Sammie with the care and consideration he/she deserves.

  2. Astute as always! Thank you. I agree and identifying and resolving the root cause is, I feel, why an enabling culture is so important. A big challenge for schools – to give parents the skills to support learning – but no one to shy away from.

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