Survival lessons from an anglerfish

Fall 2016

By Kurt D. MacDonald

As an independent school teacher for 16 years, I endeavored to extend the relevance of biology to aspects of the world beyond science (code for trying to show science’s value to students who professed greater appreciation for other subjects). In so doing, I recognized many parallels between what happens in nature and the inner workings of business, politics, and even interpersonal relationships. One such biology lesson is critical to independent schools, and it will help them capitalize on their unique position to deliver optimal programming while ensuring their place in the larger education marketplace. Let me explain.

As Lord Tennyson wrote, nature is infamously red in tooth and claw. Competition is everywhere, and the struggle for survival is inescapable. To persist in an environment with finite resources and an abundance of competition is no small feat. It requires taking advantage of unique opportunities and devising strategies to help differentiate you from your competitors. It’s why the monarch butterfly feasts on the toxic milkweed, why Nevada bluegrass can be found in the contaminated tailings of abandoned mine sites, and why the anglerfish finds comfort in the icy-blackness of the deep ocean. These are all adaptations to help organisms escape competition and find a way to survive, and, optimally, thrive.

Independent schools are not fundamentally different from the earth’s biota. Our finite resources are students, and we face competition from a host of different educational providers — from public schools to mission-specific charters to other independent schools. In this saturated marketplace, there are two basic approaches to survival. You can either emulate others and hope to outcompete them by being more effective and efficient, or you can differentiate yourself and offer opportunities that your competitors cannot. It is by employing this latter strategy that I believe independent schools have the most to gain.

The very term independent suggests an autonomy inaccessible to many of our major competitors. Unbridled by state-mandated standardized tests, burdensome reporting requirements, and other bureaucratic hurdles, independent schools can focus on the business of educating their specific student populations. Trying to outcompete rivals, many of whom are free, by emulating their courses or by offering widely available educational programs provides little added equity to justify a family’s hard-earned tuition dollar.

In addition to administrative freedom, independent schools also benefit from a faculty with diverse backgrounds. In independent schools, it’s not surprising to find teachers with experience in engineering, finance, marketing, medicine, research, law, and, of course, education. Like the benefits of genetic diversity in a resilient species, this diversity of experience fosters an eclectic marketplace of ideas from which independent schools, and ultimately their students, can draw.

Taken together — the enviable freedom from bureaucratic distractions and the heterogeneous and experienced faculty — independent schools are optimally positioned to offer novel programs, courses, and activities for maximum student benefit. Seizing on that opportunity, however, requires a purposeful strategy.

That strategy should begin with a comprehensive assessment of those human and capital conditions that are unique to each institution. These include campus resources, facilities, potential and existing professional collaborations, alumni connections, and faculty with particular passions and expertise (both within and beyond their traditional teaching areas). Once these prized attributes are catalogued, school leaders should support and encourage efforts within and outside the curriculum to capitalize on them.

By enhancing and expanding distinctive electives, independent schools will create a clear educational signature, best capitalize on their assets, and secure the school’s unique position in an otherwise crowded ecosystem. They will also contribute educational diversity to the marketplace that will best prepare students for a rapidly changing world where many of tomorrow’s technologies and issues have yet to be imagined. Finally, by embracing a one-of-a-kind approach, schools will also rally constituents around the sentiment that they are part of something big, unique, and irreplaceable.

The anglerfish would surely find itself extinct if it simply tried to emulate the life of an organism at the ocean’s surface. Fortunately, the anglerfish doesn’t have to, as it has carved out a successful existence by taking advantage of conditions few others are equipped to use.

It’s time for independent schools to take a lesson from the anglerfish: survey their environment, embrace their autonomy, and capitalize on those attributes that enable them to do things differently from their major competitors. It’s time to expand custom offerings, abandon off-the-shelf courses and curricula, and move forward for students. It’s time to stop surviving and start thriving.

Kurt D. MacDonald

Kurt D. MacDonald, a former teacher and administrator, is currently the director of NatureSays, a consulting firm specializing in biomimetic strategies to help organizations and institutions thrive in the 21st century (