Friday, February 11, 2011

Sentinel Programs

In describing the natural world, environmentalists  use the term sentinel species to describe a species whose condition indicates the overall health of a particular environment. Amphibians, for example are important indicators of water quality, because what affects amphibians presently, such as pH or levels of pollutants, may affect other animal species in the future.

I think that this term can also apply to our educational model. Just as an ecosystem is more than a causal chain, but an interconnected weavework of life, an education is not linear, but an interconnected weave of different disciplines, attitudes, and learnings.  

Note that I say is, not should be. One of the great misconceptions and arrogances, in both the environment and education, is the belief that our models determine the complexity or simplicity of our surroundings. That is, if we choose to ignore, or even to undermine complexity, that the complexity disappears. In environmentalism, our environment becomes something we can use or save. If we don't save the whale, the only effect is a lack of whales. In education, we naively think that we can get our students to focus on the next standardized test. If we cut an art program, then students will simply not have art. 

However, time and history has proven that once you kill the dogs, the rats will come. Once the fish are killed, the opportunistic species such as algae and jellyfish take hold. And our students, in absence of an educational system that teaches them sensibly, will be taken and devoured by the opportunistics, as well. 

Because of this, I propose the term Sentinel Programs to describe those programs, such as Art, Music, Athletics, whose condition indicates the overall health of a school system. A school system that has been forced to terminate these programs is a system that is in crisis, and should be regarded as such. 

Thinking of Sentinel Programs in this way highlights the value of these so-called expendable programs not as isolated species, but as programs that nurture and foster the entire academic environment in nuanced, yet vital ways, and whose very presence serves to preserve the integrity of the system and keep away the weeds.