Learning Ecosystems

Sandy Mackenzie, Director, Copenhagen International School.

The concept of a learning ecosystem has never been so relevant as it is today in March 2020. In countries across our inter-connected world, the delicate nature of a healthy ecosystem has been brought into stark focus through the spread of a global pandemic. International schools are resilient beings that have withstood many tests of disease, natural disaster and man-made catastrophes. Never before has such a single, tiny entity had such far-reaching implications – as well as creating a threat to health worldwide, making us question our modus operandi in all aspects of society. 


In our globally mobile profession, we all have friends and former colleagues working in China. Therefore, we had all heard about corona virus, that schools had to close their doors and provide remote and online learning in February. Somehow, in Europe we became apocryphal King Canutes and believed that it would not happen here and so were in varying states of readiness when it was time to write a risk assessment matrix and a remote learning plan. 


Across Europe, in late February and early March strategic thinkers and planners made calm arrangements for procedures in the event of a case of the virus entering our communities. The speed of the spread of this threat quickly overtook the pace of the careful, thoughtful leaders. Countries swiftly brought in restrictions and closed schools to halt the impact, and brought new terms to our lexicon such as “flattening the curve” and “social distancing”. Social media became the super-spreader of information and mis-information, from which Donne’s “no man is an island” is even more relevant than it was 400 years ago. 


International schools often describe themselves as a bubble within an environment, floating in the ecosystem they inhabit. COVID-19 pierced that bubble and illuminated the symbiotic relationship between a school and its surroundings and its neighbours. Moreover, the success of the school to respond to the challenge of remote learning and campus closure is largely dependant on four main factors: 


  • Human adaptability and preparedness for change 
  • Consistency of availability of tools required for remote learning 
  • Clarity of expectation in the local and national environment
  • Leadership and communication 


Presence of all four conditions is required for a sustainable, successful remote learning solution during this uncertain time. Without able, caring, dedicated, versatile teachers any effort to alter the nature of learning so radically virtually overnight would fail. Software solutions and technological tools are fantastic aids to distance learning; for them to be employed equitably and usefully, all students need access to them. We know that stressed and anxious people rarely make good students – those governing the local community and the nation need to provide clear guidelines for operating within restrictions. Otherwise, toilet paper runs out and sane, upstanding members of society become headless chickens caught between two stools!  

As well as clear societal guidelines, a calm and reasonable set of expectations for all community members in the face of a dynamic, shifting environment is needed. School leaders set the tone for the response to this novel situation – optimism and confidence are key. In our school, Arthur Ashe’s famous words “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can” provided a guide star for approaching the challenge of shifting learning to a blend of online and offline activity delivered through sychronous and asychronous methods. While we may not have had a glossy (digital) brochure describing our remote learning provision with virtual bells and whistles attached, we were fortunate to have the four bullet points above. 


The subtitle to the ECIS Leadership Conference due to take place in Madrid 2020 was “leading school communities that thrive”. In this new normal of remote learning, how do school leaders ensure that their community continues to not only survive but to also thrive? At these moments of uncertainty, leaders display empathy and provide reassurance; they communicate thoughtfully and appreciatively. Moreover, they look for opportunities for new learning, not merely a pale imitation of on-campus learning. It is quickly apparent that teaching volleyball or developing skills in using 3D printers and laser cutters are not possible in a home learning environment. Well supported, adaptable teachers make proverbial lemonade from those lemons – PE teachers creating podcasts for a modern sex education programme, Design students taking photos and measuring the height of their tower made of household packaging that needs to support a carrot on top, video challenges that involve the entire family and encourage social interaction, home cooking and human connection. 


Colleagues from China with experience of many weeks of remote learning tell us that students, and their teachers, focus less on the content of learning as time passes; instead they crave the social interaction, collaboration and human connection that school provides in their daily lives. That is evident in week three of our enforced remote learning experiment. Reflecting on the different things we can do, on the things we can do differently and the aspects that we can live without is making educators question what is important. How many conferences have you attended where the keynote speaker expounds a powerful message that it is about time we changed school education, that in the 21st century our content-based, teacher as fount of all knowledge paradigm needs a significant shift? In the age of the answer being immediately available on a screen, is it not time that we asked different questions? Many of us leave those conferences with great ideas in our mental briefcase, brimming with confidence and good intentions to bring in a new initiative only to find that days later, we are back in a familiar groove. 


The retrospective inertia that exists in all schools (also known as the “this is how we have always done it” syndrome) can slow or stifle change. Could it be that the necessary catalyst for disrupting the status quo is this global pandemic of COVID-19 and the international response to lock down countries, restricting movement and enforcing working and learning from home?  


Across the world, in every type of international school, educators are asking what are the important skills for students to gain. Teachers are utilising creativity and employing ingenuity to design experiences that engage students, both in real time and in asynchronous, offline tasks. They are engaging in a different manner with their environment; they are adapting the ecosystem to ensure that communities remain strong. As they do so, even larger questions come into focus that may require a re-examination of the axioms of school education. If the International Baccalaureate and other bodies can cancel all exams, and universities are able to make good decisions about admission, in 2020, are written, timed examinations still fit for purpose? If we truly value collaboration, research skills and project-based learning, do we need to redefine the concept of academic honesty? What is the true purpose of the teacher, and what skills and attributes are necessary to be an inspirational educator in the 21st century? 


As we hear about some of the horrific immediate effects of COVID-19 ravaging countries, our thoughts are with families and communities losing loved ones. The next phase of concern will be the resultant economic changes for organisations and societies. For many of us, the medium term impact may be deep with educators examining the core of how we define school as part of a global, interconnected learning ecoystem. 



Sandy Mackenzie is Director of Copenhagen International School and has over 20 years of experience supporting the education of young people in many parts of the world, including China, Denmark, Scotland, and the United States. Sandy has taught Mathematics, co-authored a textbook and held senior leadership positions in four schools. Empowering and supporting teams to provide an outstanding education to young people that  positively contributes to their academic, personal, social-emotional, and intercultural well-being, learning and growth is his true passion.    

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