What ecology can teach us about the future of education

Many thought leaders in education, including Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Sir Ken Robinson, have suggested that the current education system is outdated and requires fundamental transformation to respond to the growing pressures of societal change. Often drawing on analogies to evolution and natural selection, leading thinkers have characterized the need for change as not just well-timed but inevitable.  Here, we draw upon the work of ecologists Lance Gunderson and C.S. Holling to compare the education system to other maladaptive human and natural systems in an attempt to understand the transformation ahead.

A brief lesson on adaptive loops

Ecosystems in nature are constantly evolving. Organisms in an ecosystem make use of the resources around them as they reproduce, compete, and alter their habitat in ways that impact other individuals, populations, or species. As the surrounding environment changes, the ecosystem must maintain a level of flexibility that buffers the disturbance and allows productivity to resume. Comprised of four stages of a cycle, this method of sustaining the ability to adapt is known as an adaptive loop.

In the first stage, known as the exploitation (or r) phase, a recently disturbed area is colonized by opportunistic pioneer species. These species – typically algae, bacteria, grasses, or insects – are generally small, simple, and able to rapidly reproduce. Yet as these species clamor for success, their productivity slowly improves the conditions of the area, rendering it more hospitable for larger and more genetically and behaviorally complex species to take root.
Thus launches the gradual climb from exploitation to the next phase, conservation (or K). The K phase is typified by the existence of larger species, such as trees and bigger animals. These species represent the ecosystem’s highest amount of capital – that is, they exist at a time of greatest resources – and they become sequestered into separate consumption and reproduction patterns that tend to maximize their populations. Energy in the ecosystem is diverted from growth and is instead expended in maintaining the costly structures that rule the K phase.
The K phase is generally stable, but its resources become so tightly-bound in the existing system that they become fragile and vulnerable to drastic environmental changes – fire, drought, unusual pulses of pests, imbalanced grazing, invasive species, or human activity. The K system collapses into a chaotic release phase (or omega phase), during which the potential that had accumulated is rapidly depleted.

Ecosystems rarely remain in the release phase, however, but quickly transition into the reorganization (or omega) phase. During this stage, the rigid connections that had developed between elements in the K stage are broken to allow for new habits and patterns to emerge. Species find new niches, or mutants within a population find they have an advantage that allows them to gain ground. The destruction of some of the more inflexible elements gives room for new opportunists to emerge, and a new exploitation phase ensues. The cycle continues.

Adaptive Loops in Education
Calling on the heuristic of an adaptive cycle, one can understand recent system phenomena as indicative of a gradual climb toward a conservation phase. In this phase of a system’s lifecycle, the energy that drives the system gets diverted away from innovating new growth into maintaining the existing system [1]. The curve from exploitation to conservation phases (r to K) is representative of the tapering-off logistic curves that typify high school graduation rates [2] and teacher effectiveness [3] over time. System productivity stagnates as the elements in the system become more costly to maintain.

Another characteristic of the conservation phase is that there is a high degree of connectedness among system elements. Connectedness means that various factors in the system (people, policies, programs, and practices) tend to rely upon and reinforce each other. New initiatives aimed at reforming teacher pedagogy still largely rely upon the existing structure of core subjects, seat time, and bell schedules. In addition, there is a structural problem with the K-12 industry structure of recruiting and retaining educators. For example, typical pensions reward tenure and long-term employment within a state. Educators are discouraged to branch out, causing there to be little influx of outside expertise at administrative levels. The system of education becomes rigid.

According to the heuristic, a system can persist in the conservation phase for a long time, perpetually expending its resources in self-preservation, until its surrounding environment changes and its vulnerabilities are exposed. Whether the change occurs because an existing vulnerability collapse [4] or because of the emergence of disruptive technology [5], the system breaks and dips into chaos. This change in phase (from K to omega) has been observed in many business institutions, and its likelihood of occurring in the education sector is felt by theorists and practitioners alike. Changes in the public education ecosystem, such as charter schools, online learning, or other technological innovations that provide cheaper alternatives threaten – or some would say, happily challenge [6] – the structure of the existing system. As James Shelton, acting Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education noted, “The next five years will determine whether we are net importers or exporters of these learning innovations. If we get behind the curve we will never catch up.” [7]


Other potential drivers of collapse include a weakening public support base for public education and the ever-changing environment of the current budget crisis [8]. American Institutes for Research Vice President David Osher adds additional variables to the list of drivers: the fact that schools fail so many students; the inability to turn out people who can keep the country internationally competitive; and the fact that the “powerfully disproportionate share” of resources traditionally held by the U.S. was never truly sustainable [9]. As our rigid, overly-interconnected system of education ages, it is only a matter of time before its vulnerabilities collapse and chaos ensues.


The Role of Research and Development

Thankfully, adaptive loops in social systems have one great lifeline enabling them to avert total collapse: human foresight and planning. And here’s where RD&D becomes critical. As C.S. Holling writes, “human foresight and intentionality can dramatically reduce or eliminate the boom-and-bust character of some cycles” [10].  In adaptive cycles ranging from the business sector to modern democratic politics, humans have found ways to “diffuse large episodes of creative destruction” by predicting system limitations and creating safe pockets of experimentation that can evolve new paradigms [11].  Whether that entails “skunk-works” projects in the business sector; periodic political elections that disrupt the creation of a monolithic society; or gaming with ecological models to explore change in natural systems; breaking a system’s rigid assumptions to allow for small-scale experimentation drives the adaptive learning that can circumvent system collapse [12].



  1. Gunderson, L., & Holling, C. (2001). Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Washington: Island Press.
  2. Goldin, C., & Katz, L. F. (1999, Spring). Human Capital and Social Capital: The Rise of Secondary Schooling in America, 1910 to 1940. Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 29, pp. 683-723.
  3. Kane, T. J., Rockoff, J. E., & Staiger, D. O. (April 2006, April). What does certification tell us about teacher effectiveness? Evidence from New York City. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.
  4. Holling, C. (1973). Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 4, 1-24.
  5. Schumpeter, J. A. (1950). Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. New York: Harper & Row.
  6. Christensen, C. M., Horn, M. B., & Johnson, C. W. (2008). Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. New York: McGraw Hill.
  7. James Shelton, personal interview, Washington, DC, May 11, 2011.
  8. Lance Gunderson, telephone interview, 28 February 2011.
  9. David Osher, personal interview, San Francisco, CA, 23 February 2011.
  10. Gunderson, L., & Holling, C. (2001). Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Washington: Island Press.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.



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