Standing at the Edge of the Ecotone

Reading Rick Wormelli’s essay “The Grief of Accepting New Ideas” raised some questions on supporting teachers as they navigate from previous mental models to new mental models of schooling. Wormelli raises some important questions in his essay.

  • “(Do) teachers have the dispositions to make fundamental changes to teaching practices to respond constructively to our changing times?”
  • “Can we navigate these frequently troubled waters without invoking self-preserving egos and drowning in resentment?”
  • How do we support colleagues through the “deep crisis caused by the need to suppress ancient prejudices, to push aside the comfort of the familiar to relinquish the security of what one knows well” (Kaufman, 1971, p. 13 in Evans, p. 48)?

Wormelli posed the idea of the teacher’s shifting self in the environment of disruption in education. Change in teaching practice necessitates new beliefs, new assumptions, new data, all which effectively might create pressures to evolve into a new iteration of who the teacher is expected to become. The journey is often painful, much like a metamorphosis. Shedding old skin. Growing a new one. And in the growing of the new, the self is left vulnerable.

In this age of disruption, we face a frightening new landscape in our schools.

We are part of the global ecosystem, which is trying to close the education to employment gap and the achievement gap. We are increasingly facing the pressures from global forces like mobility, connectivity, longer lifespans, diversity in schools and learners, a burgeoning curriculum, the emergence of skills needed that schools are directed to provide…the list seems to grow longer each day.

We find ourselves at the edge of a terrain unfamiliar to whom we used to be as educators.

This landscape is the ecotone (Zoller, 2018). The ecotone is an area of tension that arises from disturbances to a system. It represents the area that marks a transition between ecological communities. For instance, the ecotone is the time-space continuum between educational ecosystems and employment ecosystems. And, the ecotone is the space between what we were and who we want to become.

The ecotone concept (Zoller).

In this uncomfortable place with a shifting identity, the teacher needs mindsight, a metacognitive capacity, which helps us make sense of what’s happening (Simoneau and Roussin, 2018).

In our previous systems, we have often drawn upon linear sight: formulaic patterns of behavior and practice. The pedagogy of the past follows a linear cause and effect borne from the mental models of past times. Think of those curriculum-in-a-box sets that we used to purchase for our schools. Think of the questions that were supposed to create thinking in our students after every section of the textbook.

And now we find that the grasp we had on how school works is slipping as what we thought school was fades into nostalgia and we face the wide panorama of a consciousness that has been pressed into our awareness, not necessarily by choice but by our choice of profession.

Of course it’s scary.

It is not the time to sling data at the teacher and hope there will be no bruising.

It is time instead to look to our companions in this journey and to strengthen our interdependence as a community. We need to find common ground to travel the shifting terrain. This is the time to summon curiosity, courage and community to help us face the uncertainties ahead.

Garmston and Wellman (2016) write that the journey to become more adaptive is clarifying identity as we change form. Redefining what it means to be a teacher cannot be done in a silo. The complexity that we are tasked to enact in our schools and systems is too much for one person to create in an ecosystem.

What’s in our backpack for this journey?

We can engage our curiosity and approach the new with a stance of inquiry. Action research is becoming a well-utliized professional development strategy in many schools. Studio 5 at ISHCMC evolves from the teachers’ action research. Our personal inquiries into what it means to teach in a redefined education ecosystem is one way to give ourselves permission to shift thinking.

For schools, the reciprocity this pathway requires is to embrace iterative practice, to accept that by design, redesigning teaching and learning is going to be experimental, and as such will sometimes mean failure and re-dos. Schools need to be clear about action research and teacher inquiry as a holding environment, a context that includes “both high support and high challenge” (Drago-Severson, 2009). An effective holding environment has three functions:

  • It meets a learner at his or her starting place.
  • It provides, when the learner is ready, challenges, which allow the person to attain a new “way of knowing.”
  • It provides continuity, stability and access during the growth process.

The ecotone can be a place to create change through relationships. The interdependence of a team of teachers is a rich resource for courage. Teams provide a circle of supporters and critical friends. Shared values around professional learning that are revisited in dialog, discussion and coaching conversations serve to raise empathy. These become places where we can be vulnerable, especially when we know that our colleagues listen without judgment and regard us with positive intentions.

“What is honored in a country is cultivated there.” This statement from Plato’s Republic reminds us of the psychological safety that may evolve when adults cultivate collaboration and reflection in a context that honors open communication and respect.

Paul Zak (2017) tells the story of ocytocin, what he calls the empathy molecule because it is released in both the brain and blood when humans experience connection and trust. In his experiments, Zak measures ocytocin levels before and after events to find out which types of human behaviors and interactions produce most trust or empathy accompanied by a spike in ocytocin. In one of his experiments, he found that one person had a previously unheard of increase of 150%. When he asked later what that person was doing during the experiment, it turned out that the man with the high levels of ocytocin had been chatting with his girlfriend on social media during the experiment.

Teachers who feel isolated as they face the ecotone in education and shifting professional identity have only to reach out to the community all over the world. On Twitter for instance, there are a number of chats that a teacher can join to find a tribe of like-minded inquirers who are also on similar journeys. (@MYPChat is rebooted today!)

The wisdom of our past is not lost as we face the new landscape of our future. As Margaret Wheatley reminds us, “A healthy living system is a good learner and can thrive even though its environment is moving toward increasing disorder. To do so it must be actively engaged and aware.”

As teachers, learning is our life story. Faced with the ecotone, we have all that we need, within and among us.


Suggested further reading:

Drago-Severson, E. (2009). Leading adult learning: Supporting adult development in our schools. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.

Garmston, R. J., & Wellman, B. M. (2016). The adaptive school: A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Simoneau, C. and Roussin, J. (2018, March 8). Navigating a VUCA world. Speech presented at Thinking Collaborative at NIST International School, Bangkok.

Wheatley, M. J. (2017). Who do we choose to be? Facing reality, claiming leadership, restoring sanity (1). SF: Berrett-Koehler.

Zak, P. (2017). Trust factor: The science of creating high-performance companies. Amazon.

Zoller, K. (2018, March 9). Leading in the ecotone. Speech presented at Thinking Collaborative at NIST International School, Bangkok.



Photo credit: Panoramic view of storm approaching islands in sea © Felis. Used with permission.

Location CC by Dinosoft Labs from the Noun Project.

Pinned location CC by icon 54 from the Noun Project.

Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

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