Antifragility Lessons for Public Education


Photo by Rennett Stowe

I apologize for the general dearth of posts as of late; this school year has been especially busy, and I’ve spent most of my “free time” and attention developing curriculum. However, I aim to increase blogging again from here on out as we wind down for the close of the school year. Thank you to any and all readers out there who have stuck with Schools as Ecosystems through this first year of blogging.

The always insightful John Hagel has a post up outlining takeaways on complex adaptive systems from Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile that I’d like to share with you.

Under the section on “System design principles” that Hagel draws from Taleb’s writings, every single item on that list applies to systems of education, but the one that stood out to me as most relevant and in dire need of immediate attention was principle #7:

(7)    Give higher status to practitioners rather than theoreticians 

Taleb is eloquent in his contempt for theoreticians and his admiration for practitioners. He believes that a lot of society’s troubles come from the fact that we over-estimate the role of research and analysis and downplay the role of practice and experimentation in driving advances in knowledge and material well-being.

This principle is so antithetical to current trends in education as to be nearly inconceivable. Give higher status to teachers rather than wonks, researchers, or special interest groups? Pshaw! Teachers know not what they do. Obviously.

Next, under the section on “Strategies for antifragility,” which can apply to both individuals and institutions, I found a couple of other points highly relevant to the wonderful world of public ed:

(7)    Don’t get consumed by data 

Be suspicious of data: “. . . the more data you get, the less you will know what’s going on.

Again, a hearty PSHAW to that one as well. The buzzword that you will hear ubiquitously across nearly any public school conference in the United States, aside from “Common Core,” is “data,” generally in the context of “data driven,” though also in such lovely permutations as “drilling down into the data,” “triangulating the data,” “data inquiry” and so on and so forth.

Yet all this fascination with data, at the ground level of a school, can often lead you astray from the most fundamental thing: observation, discussion, and learning provided by the students directly in front of you.

Don’t get me wrong. Data that can be gathered quickly and easily examined is invaluable. Unfortunately, however, the type of data that is generally gathered in schools is something painstakingly graded, input by hand into spreadsheets or tabular charts, and rendered into something that looks nice in a binder but is largely meaningless to practice (just like those end of year state tests). Or the assessments used are of questionable value. I’ve been wanting to write more on this and will return to the topic of data gathering later.

(11)     Respect the old 

Taleb argues that “antifragility implies . . . that the old is superior to the new. . . . What survives must be good at serving some (mostly hidden) purpose that time can see but our eyes and logical faculties can’t capture.” Only the antifragile survives and thrives; the fragile is ultimately exposed by time and history. 

Right now in the world of public education, as is probably occurring in other sectors, there is a major shift from an older generation to that of a younger. Unfortunately, there seems to be a quiet bigotry that occurs against older teachers as younger, often more ambitious, teachers enter the workplace. One thing I have learned from the few years I’ve had in public schools is not to judge a teacher by the way they interact with other adults outside of the classroom. Sometimes the teachers I find most impressive in their work with children are the ones I assume to be the most unprofessional, or unkempt, or crazy, or some other such superficial trait.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that the years you’ve put into the system means that you are a great teacher, by any means, but I also feel that our system of education ignores a wealth of knowledge currently existing in the practitioners out in the field at its peril. These older, crazy, challenging teachers that have worked for 20-30 years in decrepit public schools have something to share. It’s time we listened. Even if such insight may come off as abrasive, intransigent, or jaded at times.

Respect our elders. What a quaint notion!

I encourage you to review the post from Hagel in its entirety, as I just highlighted some of the especially provocative ones. All are relevant to public ed.

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