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Aurora Institute

Stories and Ecosystems at #Aurora23

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Gary Chapin

Issue(s): Aurora Institute Symposium, Commit to Equity, Learn Lessons from the Field

At the Aurora Institute Symposium 2023, we piloted Networking Groups for various topics and affinity groups to support making connections and building community. An inaugural crew of Networking and Storytelling Stewards, including the author, Gary Chapin, guided the groups. We invited each steward to write a blog post with their reflections to continue the reach of #Aurora23. 

So many of us were talking about story at #Aurora23, and so many of us were talking about ecosystems. Even better, so many of us were talking about the two themes in tandem – how the stories and ecosystems reflected and amplified each other. By pointing out how others are talking about these two big ideas, I hope to help you consider these themes and how deeply related they are to each other.

A few quick definitions. Both “story” and “ecosystem,” have perfectly fine colloquial definitions, but let’s talk about what they mean in the #Aurora23 context. Story is the idea that every kid, every teacher, every person comes to learn with a whole story behind them and a whole story ahead of them. A classroom is a crowded mosh pit of stories, like mad Venn diagrams, some of them overlapping, some of them bouncing off each other. Story is also fundamental to assessment in that any assessment is gathering evidence that will be used to tell a story of a student’s learning.

The idea of learning as an ecosystem is based on the idea that learning happens in a complex, multivariate, organic context. It’s not just that learning is VERY COMPLICATED or that it has parts in many places that interact – that can be said about many machines. The two most important points of learning as an ecosystem that I want to highlight are as follows:

  1. Mutuality. The different pieces of an ecosystem are involved in a continuous flow of energy, resources, people, and information. Each part of an ecosystem affects all parts of an ecosystem. To paraphrase Bill Bryson, “We’re not only more interdependent than we imagine. We’re more interdependent than we CAN imagine.”
  2. Ecosystems are self-generating. We can get things rolling. We can build a frame. We can set conditions. But the complexity and dynamism of all parts of an ecosystem means that many, many processes – systems – influence the outcome of things. The system has agency you have only limited control over. It’s both wise and useful to accept that.

Storytelling and ecosystemic thinking support each other. One without the other is just an interesting exercise in reframing. Together they can remake the ground we learn on. Story and ecosystem are like the axes on a graph, with ecosystem being the y-axis (context, place, structure, geography) and story being the x-axis (time, events, analysis, process).

Here is some of the ecosystem and story talk – not all of it – I heard around #Aurora23.

Student presenting in front of an audience during a workshop at the 2023 Aurora Institute SymposiumIn a session called “Partnering with Youth to Lead,” a group of students connected to different Big Picture Learning sites talked about projects and competency-based practices they lead in their schools. One student, Isaiah Vargas from South Valley High School in Ukiah, CA, talked about successfully establishing a fitness project in his school centered on boxing. I am spotlighting this not just because Isaiah’s eyes lit up with the vibrancy of the story he was telling – he was very excited – but because the idea of Isaiah going to his administration and saying, “How about a project where kids … hit each other?” And then going on to pitch boxing as a sport and leadership in 2023! Isaiah had a story and an ecosystem it could live in.

“Architects for Authenticity” brought folks from the Hillbrook School (JK-12), located in downtown San Jose, to tell their story. The school is devoted not only to developing kids’ potential and agency but also to increasing their engagement and impact on the world around them.

Chloe Scott, Class of 2027 – a “Founding Freshman” in the upper school – opened by telling the story of her time at Hillbrook, specifically her work on an immersive project around healthcare access. She was mesmerizing, honestly, and totally convinced of – and convincing about – the genuine value of her work. Chloe’s talk and demonstration overlapped with that of Aaron Schorn, a “craftsman and storyteller” with the Unrulr reporting app (a “social learning app” that “makes holistic growth visible”).

Schorn’s story was different from a lot of tech-oriented tales in that it was imbued with more “why” than “how.” It’s a way for students to collect evidence, curate it, tag competencies, and share their learning with peers, teachers, communities, or educators like those at the #Aurora23 conference. It embodied the key competency-based education (CBE) ideals of body-of-evidence, reflection, exhibition, student agency, and multiple media. I was not surprised to discover it was developed in Hawai’i since so much of the work around story and ecosystem leans on Indigenous pedagogy from that archipelago.

At a session the next day – “Meet the Learner-Centered Ecosystem Inventors” – Emily Bader from Education Reimagined facilitated a conversation among the developers of educational ecosystems around the country. Steve Heath of FabX, Greg MacPherson of Big Thought, and Kara Bobroff of the Native American Community Academy and NACA Inspired Schools Network, have each fostered the sort of flexibility, immersion, relationship, and, again, mutuality of a genuine ecosystem. The point of the conversation wasn’t that they each had specifically great ideas – though they did – but that each was a radically different vision of an approach designed for the individual needs and wellbeing of their learners. This is a big thing we’re doing, and in a model based on ecosystem and story, the way there will be guided by your community and your kids.

Many sessions talked about storytelling and ecosystems, but these three left me feeling inspired and hopeful in exactly the way I hope to feel when I go to the Aurora Symposium. But they weren’t the only place such talk emerged.

Keynote Speaker Alcine Mumby presenting at Aurora Institute Symposium Alcine Mumby, of Envision Education, delivered a keynote on “Building Liberatory Assessment Systems,” which took the top of my head off and flipped my brain around. Within it, she proposed some technical solutions and also advocated for a change in the mental models that came from the era of intelligence tests. Mumby said that the designers of these tests said things like intelligence is rarely found in the disabled, poor, women, or non-white people. Mumby also told stories about her grandmother, illustrating why she believed the things she believed, why she acted on those beliefs the way she did, and why she held the hopes she held. I mention this because the stories of the family ecosystem she emerged from are intrinsically related to the educational ecosystem she is helping to create.

A central tenet of CBE is that more than the kid’s academic or technical acumen is at stake. CBE promotes storytelling at every level for kids and the ecosystems in which those stories can thrive. Students do more than develop academic skills and knowledge in schools. They develop emotionally, as citizens and humans. You can’t do that without an ecosystem, and you can’t do that without stories.

The same is true for us adults who are educators and advocates for educational change! The stories at #Aurora23, from both youth and adults, were not just interesting and fun. They were powerful, inspiring, and necessary. They provided ethical and moral guidance to go along with the philosophy and technical assistance. They moved beyond how to do such a thing and took us to the ever important why.

Students sitting in white chairs on stage with moderators for the student panel at the Aurora Institute Symposium.At a plenary panel of students at Monday lunch, four students from around the country –  London Gray, from Dunbar High School, Andrea Guajardo, from the Phoenix STEM Military Academy, Christopher Vargas-Ibarra, from Bostonia Global High School, and Abby Lyons, from Grand Rapids Public Museum High School – offered a radical human introduction, making themselves vulnerable, sharing those things they care most about. Amidst all the other wisdom, London Gray offered the following observation to us educators about the importance of stories:

“We all have a story to tell, and it will be told. It’s up to you whether you’re the superhero or supervillain.”

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Photo of author, Gary Chapin. Gary Chapin is the co-author of 126 Falsehoods We Believe About Education (2021). He is an advocate and supporter of equity-based practices in schools such as competency-based learning, performance assessment, adaptive leadership, and collaborative cultures. Gary works with Educating for Good, The Essex County Learning Community, the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment (MCIEA), as well as school districts across the United States.

Follow @garychapin67