Schools that Flourish
A class identifies key turning points in the evolution of the Nova Scotia school system.
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At the Tata Bay School, 30 people—some in their teens, some mid-career, and a few seniors—are arriving for the second meeting of the Social Systems Design module. Many of the school’s windows are open, and cool fall sea breezes freshen the room as people drift in and make their way to a circle of chairs. Occasional sounds from musical instruments being played by younger children downstairs and chatter from other children harvesting berries in the garden outside mix with guitar riffs and conversations in the room. When most of the seats have been filled, people begin to look around the circle, noting the presence of new and old friends. Gradually their attention settles on a man in his 40s who is playing an acoustic guitar from his seat in the circle. The room becomes quiet as he finishes playing and sets down the guitar.
“Welcome back,” he says. “Let’s see what you’ve all come up with.” Aaron, their module guide, is referring to their assignment, which was to analyze the evolution of the school system in Nova Scotia, using historical documents and their own understanding of how systems adapt and evolve. The challenge was to work in teams to identify key turning points and see bigger trends.
One person from each team now gives a snapshot of trends they saw and the turning points they uncovered. After an hour of this story-telling, everyone sits in silence for 15 minutes, absorbing what they’ve heard while Aaron resumes his guitar playing.
The group then begins to create a collaborative picture, which is recorded as a story on the interactive walls of the room. As the session progresses, the group moves into a kind of flow, each person building on the previous, occasionally coming up against contradicting views, stopping to look more closely, and then expanding the picture to include differences. Some of the insights are analytical, as the underlying drivers of the system emerge in high relief, and some are more heartfelt, as the frustration of wasted potential and a sense of helplessness among students, teachers, and administrators also becomes palpable.
Schools that Teach
In the first panel of the story, historical images and captured phrases from the conversation weave together, evoking an era of discovery, when a hidden order was being revealed through physics, math, and scientific tools, and new and powerful machines were being invented. This new knowledge could be systematized and taught through books, and soon became available to everyone through schools. These first school systems, like society itself, valued order, efficiency, good management, standardization, economies of scale, and equal opportunity. Just as factories mass-produced consumer goods, school systems mass-produced literate, educated people prepared to enter a growing workforce and democratic society.
The story continues. Now we see some of the unforeseen consequences of the early industrial era—climate change, depleted resources, growing inequity, unrest, stress. Many systems designed in this era are unable to adapt because they are rigid, held in place by bureaucratic hierarchies and mindsets. Some large corporations and whole industries lose their competitive advantage to more flexible, creative, networked enterprises. As a response, systems awareness and complexity science began to seep into all corners of society, including business, government, and school systems.
Schools that Learn
The next wall records a time of knowledge explosion—beyond books, schools, and libraries. It is the dawning of the Internet era. By the early 2000s, he rate of change has become exponential, requiring a very different set of skills and competencies than in the previous century. In Nova Scotia, a key turning point is identified when, in the mid-2010s, it became widely acknowledged that schools were preparing students to meet the goals of the system—grades and graduation rates—but not to be meet the realities of their time. Students themselves reported that they were simply not engaged, even when they were successful by the system’s own measures. As in other parts of Canada, Nova Scotian educators pointed to a vision of 21st century education and called for a major redesign.
Predictably, one response was to advocate taking apart the existing system and replacing it with a new, updated one. A second turning point was when Nova Scotians realized that this was still old-system thinking. Instead of a top-down system-wide update, a change in the very nature of the system was needed. Like students and citizens themselves, schools needed to engage in ongoing learning, continually evolving in response to changing realities. At the same time, they needed to honour continuity with the past while managing risk, quality, and the pace of change.
Educators applied the principles of complexity science to the needed redesign. They invited experiments on the edges of the current system, gradually assimilating those that were successful. Students, teachers, parents, educators, and whole communities were all involved in these experiments. Because they were breaking new ground, and because they were so invested, the innovation teams were highly energized and committed, adding to the chances of success. As confidence grew, so did the pace of the transition across the provincial school system.
Schools that Flourish
By 2025 the Nova Scotia school system had found a good balance of coherence and flexibility, common goals and diverse expression. There continued to be differing views within school communities, passionately debated, but there was also a growing capacity to collaborate and, when needed, compromise for the sake of the whole. In rural areas, parents and communities took responsibility for financial and population constraints, sometimes combining small-group home schooling with online curriculum like the Khan Academy. In the process the community and nature became living classrooms. In both rural and urban areas, many of the old school buildings became community hubs, blending the role of the traditional classroom with distance learning, lifelong learning and skill upgrading, local knowledge and resource stewardship, arts and culture, and the incubation of new enterprises.
The next turning point once again followed a broader shift in understanding about the nature of systems. Concern over the unanticipated ravages of the industrial era led to a re-examination of basic assumptions about growth and development. At first this was outward-focused, in the form of a quest for new economic models and sustainable development practices. But soon it became clear that the root of the issue was even closer to home. It was in attitudes and mindsets—in the human mind itself.
This was a period of turning the mirror around, to face inward and more fully reflect and understand the mind and heart that learns and grows. The discoveries of neuroscience, educational psychology, and mindfulness began to converge into a more sophisticated understanding of how children develop into flourishing adults. The key insight, and turning point in this story, was the realization that all children have the capacity to retain their natural joy of being and learning throughout their lives, and that schools could play a much more important role in supporting this potential than formerly imagined.
Rather than seeing capacities like empathy, reflection, creativity, self-management, authenticity, presence, and engagement as peripheral to education they became core. It became clear that when children learn and live as integrated “whole systems” within themselves and within their school community, they naturally grow to understand and feel at home in the complexity and connectedness of the social and economic systems around them. When this understanding becomes deeply engrained, they are prepared to learn at their highest capacity and enter society as fully engaged, confident, and responsible contributors.
If we turn the mirror around again, we see that this is also true of schools themselves. Schools that flourish pay attention to how things are done and how people are engaged, not just what is being taught, learned, or accomplished.
At the end of the session, the class reviewed the story now spanning three walls. They created a hologram of three nested spheres that hovered in the centre of their circle. The innermost sphere was labeled Schools that Teach, the second Schools that Learn, and the outermost Schools that Flourish. They realized that the industrial-age school systems were not wrong, only incomplete. As schools evolved, so did the level of society's well-being, resilience, and capacity for learning and sustainable growth.
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Susan Szpakowski is co-initiator of Likely Stories.