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Change in Education: The Amoeba vs The Paramecium

The power of a new metaphor
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In his new book, Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That's Transforming EducationKen Robinson calls for a changing of the guards in terms of the metaphors that we use to think about our work in education. In particular, he wonders how our approach to schools and systems of education might be transformed if, instead of the familiar industrial/mechanistic metaphor that currently grounds education design, we begin to think in terms of natural ecosystems.

Well, this got me thinking a little more deeply about the natural world that we inhabit and what other insight and inspiration might emerge if we look at little more closely. From a biological perspective, you can't look much closer than the fascinating world of single cell organisms.

And that's where I found my mind going this week. In particular, I couldn't stop thinking about—you guessed it—AMOEBAE and PARAMECIA. I forced myself to move beyond some of the struggles I had with high school science class and landed on the differences between the way the amoeba and the paramecium get from one place to another. Here are couple of video clips that may remind you:



Notice how the paramecium moves from Point A to Point B as a single unit, propelled along by the coordinated movement of hundreds of tiny cilia. It appears to be very deliberate and intentional, doesn't it? Our friend the amoeba, on the other hand, navigates its world by sending out part of its cytoplasm into the desired direction. The rest of the body then eventually flows into the pioneering pseudopods, gradually establishing a new location. Notice that there are multiple pseudopods being formed at any given time!/p>

I'm thinking that, as a metaphor, the amoeba may hold some promise for our conversations about change in education.

  • For one, the very name amoeba is Greek for change!
  • Second, I love the exploratory nature of the movement. I would never pretend to get inside an amoeba's head (wherever that might be) but, when compared to the movement of the paramecium, there is something about the way the amoeba travels that just seems much more open to possibility and changing direction if need be.
  • I find that the way the cell resources flow into each pseudopod very powerful. It's almost as if the nucleus of the amoeba is saying, "Go and check things out. We trust you and we'll be right behind you—literally!"
  • And there is a sense in which the ability to easily change shapes allows the amoeba to respond to both its internal and external contexts in a very fluid way.

Now, I have nothing against the paramecium. In fact, its controlled and predictable movements will be attractive to many. But, in terms of a possible new metaphor for innovation and change, I think I will spend a little more time thinking about the amoeba!

There are some who like to talk about system change that is planned, coordinated and very deliberate. It's change where the entire system is on the move, in the same direction. It's sometimes risky for creative thinkers to consider sticking their neck out to move off in a different direction. 

But what might happen if we used an amoeba metaphor to help frame our approaches to change as well as  the way that we support imagination, creativity AND innovation?

And just to get you thinking about it a little more, I'll leave with you with one of my favourite Christine Lavin tunes, illustrated here by young students from the Park School in Brookline,Massachusetts: