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Blog post Part of special issue: Education and the climate crisis: A curriculum for sustainability

How a monoculture of corn mirrors the education system and why we need to go against the grain

Denise McKeown, Teacher at English Schools Foundation

Figure 1: Against the grain

This illustration uses the metaphor of a monoculture to conceptualise the interplay of systems, drawing parallels between education and agriculture. I created this illustration to provoke conversation and thinking that might help us to see the cost of a monoculture approach in education more fully. It shows a field of corn, a farmer and a businessman in discussion, and two ears of corn, the second bigger than the first.

System level

A monoculture is a space or a process that one creates because one type of life or expression is valued over all others. Repeating this process over time homogenises the product. This is good for short-term business goals, but it infers a system-level vulnerability on the species. The species is no longer able to adapt to changes in the environment so, for example, heavier rainfall, longer periods of drought or an increase in temperature can destroy the entire crop. The total loss is much less likely if there is natural variation within the species. We can describe the process of a monoculture as inferring this vulnerability on the species because it has removed diversity in favour of a consistent output.

‘Artificial intelligence might eclipse many professions, or climate change might render them obsolete. In the face of exponential technological and environmental changes, we will need more robust students, not a consistent product.’

A similar type of vulnerability can prevail in the education system if we adopt a monoculture strategy. While I understand that students and crops are very different, this metaphor helps to exemplify system-scale dynamics, which can play out to a certain degree. Particularly significant are the size and scale of the shifts. Artificial intelligence might eclipse many professions, or climate change might render them obsolete. In the face of exponential technological and environmental changes, we will need more robust students, not a consistent product. We can also look to ecologists to advise us on what the healthiest and most resilient eco-systems are. The most diverse are often the most resilient and stable (Tilman, 2006).

Individual level

The third part of the illustration shows the corn ears getting bigger, shown as actual ears increasing on the personified corn husk. This draws attention to how the drive for compliance and listening skills in our students can mirror the selection for yet bigger ears of corn in the agricultural world. The cost of these decisions and who pays the price are not always obvious.

The corn example allows us to illustrate some of these costs. Continuing to select for a specific characteristic over others, for example the size of the fruit, and repeating this on a large scale over time, will lead to the loss of other characteristics. We call this collection of characteristics the intrinsic variation. Often we cannot see it completely – you probably think of corn as yellow, but it comes in different colours and, historically, there were many more. This is a physical example but texture, taste and nutritional variation have all been homogenised too. We sometimes lose the other variations that we don’t appreciate or have not found value in. I often wonder about this in education. What non-essential skills or traits are we losing to favour the more palatable expressions we sometimes strive for in the classroom?


System thinking requires consideration of its drivers. The illustration points to the farmer and the businessman. The farmer has their role: growing and nurturing the crop to protect it and the output measured in yield. How do we currently measure the value of education? Does one label carry more weight? The farmer suggests that he has ‘removed all non-essential expression helping to improve the yield’. I wanted to point out how selection for certain characteristics plays out in education and to remind us that this selection comes at a cost. The businessman is the driver that informs this process the most. His reply: ‘And they won’t be able to change fields?’ implies that this lack of movement, or the compartmentalisation which cuts groups off from the rest of nature’s ecology, benefits his agenda.

Directing future progress

The ecological system supports its own stability and resilience by cross-pollination. Where adaptations that give benefits to the individual or group are shared to others. Sustainability education needs the same: a movement of ideas across fields and disciplines, built on a flourishing diversity. In order to do this, we need to go against the grain.


Tilman, D., Reich, P. B., & Knops, J. M. (2006). Biodiversity and ecosystem stability in a decade-long grassland experiment. Nature, 441, 629–632.