Evolutionary Lessons for PLC Principals

When Theodore Roosevelt lost his final race for the presidency in 1912, he was crushed. 

A bold and determined man who had conquered in nearly every personal and professional circumstance, losing just wasn’t his style.

The results—as described in Candice Millard’s The River of Doubt (2005)—were shocking.  Roosevelt—an outgoing, confident man for his entire life—retreated to his personal residence and refused to engage with anyone beyond his closest family and friends.

Fate intervened, however, in the form of a letter from a progressive Argentinean political organization—Museo Social—inviting the former President to make a series of speeches on government to the fledgling democracies of South America.

For Roosevelt—a lifelong outdoorsman and naturalist who found strength in physical challenges and who’s greatest joy had been a recent safari trip to Africa—the opportunity to travel to a largely unexplored continent was too good to pass up. 

He quickly joined forces with an old friend, Father John Augustine Zahm, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York to plan a rather unorthodox side trip—down a previously unexplored river in the Western reaches of the Amazon jungle—in hopes of regaining his swagger.

Despite being led by one of the Amazon’s most experienced explorers—a Brazilian military leader named Candido Rondon—it didn’t take long for Roosevelt and his expedition to fall into serious trouble. 

Plagued by equipment failure—the team set sail in five balky dugout canoes purchased from natives that did little on the water—tracked by cannibal tribes, and betrayed by dishonest members of their own expedition, the biggest danger Roosevelt’s exploration team faced was hunger.

Strange, isn’t it?

How could a team of seasoned explorers and outdoorsmen who had spent their entire adult lives hunting, fishing and living in the brush struggle to find food in an environment seemingly teeming with life like the rainforest?

The answer can be found in the mysteries of evolution.

You see, the very diversity of the Amazon—thousands of different species of plants and animals live side-by-side in each square mile of the jungle—makes it a challenging environment for anything to survive. 

Millard explains the paradox in this way:

“In temperate forests, with their large stands of similar trees, reproduction can frequently be accomplished in a fairly indiscriminate fashion.

Given the large number of nearby trees of the same species, pollen can be successfully transferred to other trees of the same species by a wide range of means, from insects to wind alone, and the dispersal of seeds can be achieved through simple methods…

In the rain forest, by contrast, the requirements for successful reproduction are much more demanding. 

The wide separation of trees or plants of a single species means that pollinators must be attracted very selectively, and the intense competition for every available food source means that fruits and seeds must evolve highly refined strategies of dispersal if they are to avoid being consumed or destroyed long before they reach their intended destination.”

(Kindle Locations3565-3571)

 

The results of this competition for survival are plants that are uniquely prepared to defend both themselves and their seeds. 

Plants trap pollinators.  Plants emit smells ranging from urine to rotting meat.  Fruit grows high in canopies, discouraging all but the most specialized animals from visiting. Plants produce seeds covered in poisonous chemicals.  

Edible seeds—often colored different shades of green—go unnoticed on the floor of the Amazon, camouflaging potential food sources from all but the most skilled and knowledgeable predators. 

“For Roosevelt and his men,” writes Millard, “the evolutionary sophistication of pollination and fruit production in the rain forest resulted in a frustrating and confusing inability to glean sustenance from the plants and trees around them” (Kindle Location 3601-3604).

As strange as it may sound, there are real lessons for the principals of professional learning communities in Roosevelt’s struggle against evolution for survival.

Perhaps most importantly, a huge range of professional diversity isn’t always a good thing for individual learning teams or for entire school communities.

Just like the huge range of diversity in the Amazon Rainforest makes it far more difficult to for plants to reproduce, teachers with drastically different approaches to—and philosophies about—teaching and learning make intellectual cross-pollination difficult at best. 

Pair educators who hold strongly to very traditional approaches to teaching and learning with colleagues who are progressive thinkers and little collective inquiry is likely to occur.  Instead, teachers will develop defense mechanisms designed to protect their practices from apparent competitors. 

While it is possible for ideas to germinate in these wildly diverse environments, it is an energy-intensive, inefficient process hardly conducive to ongoing, systematic collaboration.

Learning teams who share a set of fundamental core beliefs are far more likely to build on one another’s ideas, adopting and spreading best practices easily and efficiently—much like the large stands of similar plants in the temperate forests we’re all familiar with.

The risk, however, is creating teams that are too intellectually sterile to encourage professional evolution. 

Biodiversity matters to the overall health of ecosystems, too.  Environments that are ecologically diverse can support larger populations and are less dependent on individual species for survival and sustainability. 

Biodiversity also provides new opportunities for adaptation.  When new species of plants and animals appear, they force existing species to change in order to survive and thrive. 

The implications for principals of PLCs are clear:  Structuring learning teams with a higher likelihood of professional evolution requires delicate balance and careful staffing choices.

Teams with too much intellectual diversity will struggle with efficient collaboration.  On the other hand, teams with too little intellectual diversity will either over-rely on one or two members or fall into the trap of intellectual stagnation because there is no existing challenge to their current beliefs.

Any of this make sense? 

How are your learning teams—or school leaders—encouraging professional evolution without creating environments that are to intellectually diverse to make the efficient spread of ideas possible? 

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Related Radical Reads:

What Can Educational Policymakers Learn from Amazonian Explorers

4 comments

  1. Karen

    Reminds me of Mandelbrot…
    connectedness….
    Thanks for sharing; I will share again with principals as we travel along the PLC journey.

  2. Bill Ferriter

    Thanks, Clix….
    Glad that you liked it!
    Im into this associational thinking lately. Trying to find interesting connections between seemingly dissimilar topics is motivating to me—and helps me to think in new ways about things like PLCs.
    My hope is it does the same for readers!
    Rock right on—and thanks for stopping by!
    Bill