Living in tune with nature isn’t about being happy

Let me be clear: I’m totally on board with the “get out into nature more” bandwagon, and I’m thrilled to see increasing research showing how much being out in nature contributes to well-being and health.

But in this interview on Wired with the writer of The Nature Fix, Florence Williams, something stood out to me as problematic in how we often approach this natural buzz:

“We don’t recognize how happy nature makes us.”

I think we need some clarity around terms. If by “nature” we simply mean “green living things,” then sure, it makes us feel good. But if we mean “nature” as in the wilderness and the brutal forces therein, then happiness may be a quixotic cause.

Living in tune with nature means having humility and respect, which comes from an appreciation for the often volatile and seemingly senseless danger and risks that are inherent in living in nature. In other words, it’s not just about something we can “get” from nature, in a transactional way, but also about recognizing and assuming our proper place within the cosmos.

That’s a point, alas, I don’t expect many people will buy into, so I understand why we focus on the transactional benefits of nature.

So while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about our children. We want them to be healthy and happy, right?

As Williams points out so well in the interview, our kids are the ones suffering the most from our lack of attunement to nature (however one defines it):

“I think our institutions need to take [incorporating nature into urban infrastructure] on, especially schools. Where I live, only 10 percent of kids get the recommended recess time. Which is appalling, because we know that kids need this time to run around and have exploratory free play in order to just pay attention later in the day.

. . . If you have kids, the most important thing you can do is get your kids outside enough to develop their love for nature. You will be giving them a gift they will have their entire lives.”

And while we’re at it, let’s help them gain a requisite humility and respect for the forces beyond our ken.

https://www.wired.com/2017/03/spend-5-percent-day-outside/

Integrated schools as a stabilizing force in times of chaos

A beautiful post on the benefits of integrated schools. Read the whole thing.

The experience of being a part of a diverse and inclusive community is equipping me and my kids to go forward and connect and speak up in a world of difference, however messily. We proceed respectfully, and with eyes and ears wide open. We disagree, and we discuss. Our days have more texture, more color, more depth. There is tension, yes, and sometimes confusion; there are hurt and bad feelings, and there are misunderstandings. But there has also been so much joy. Despite the instinctive resistance to leaving “the comfort zone,” which all of us have, when we persevere through that feeling, we profit. It is the right thing to do. But it also feels really, really good.

. . . integrating our nation’s schools is not the whole solution — but I believe it’s a powerful step that will have a powerful ripple effect. I believe that integrated schools can have a powerfully stabilizing and sustaining effect in a time of chaos. I’ve already seen how my own community has anchored me, and many others, during this tumultuous past week. It is a place where we know we have a common investment in our future. It is a place where we talk and think about justice. It is something real and tangible in an increasingly virtual world. It is spiritual infrastructure.

–Kelly Bare, “A Divided America Gave Us the Problem of a Donald Trump Presidency. Integration is the Solution.

Smörgåsbord: The Chaos Begins. The Work of Education Continues

What is there to say about the rude awakening that shook cosmopolitan, progressive minded Americans and the world?

Well, here’s a few positive spins on it:

  1. Trump is a chaos monkey that will assist us in building a better democracy by forcing us to re-establish the original balance of power our founders intended. (This would require the Republican party to pull up their Big Boy pants and actually govern.)
  2. The one thing that united Clinton and Trump campaigns was a commitment to investing in infrastructure — and it is the one thing Democrats are already reaching across the aisle to work on.

What does it mean for education politics and policy?

  1. Rick Hess: Who the heck knows?
  2. Chad Aldeman: NCLB will suddenly look really good to Democrats, on hindsight. And you can kiss any education related investment goodbye.
  3. Elizabeth Green: Education reformers will pivot their attention to long-neglected rural and rust-belt communities.
  4. Neerav Kingsland: Charter proponents need to recognize the populist appeal of local, traditional public schools and thus address fears that public schools will be harmed by charter expansion.
  5. Matt Barnum: If Trump actually wants to follow through on his anti-Common Core rhetoric, he’d paradoxically have to wield federal power.

What relation does this election have to knowledge or the lack thereof?

  1. Rick Kahlenberg: Civics and democratic values need to be explicitly taught. (But Andrew Rotherham and Doug Lemov are angry about the anti-choice aspect of his piece)
  2. Problems with our democracy are due to lack of knowledge. For that, we can blame schools.
  3. George Thomas: In our shift to populism, we’ve lost the educative purpose of a representative democracy as envisioned by Madison.
  4. “Trump was not elected on a platform of decency, fairness, moderation, compromise, and the rule of law; he was elected, in the main, on a platform of resentment.”
  5. An additional bonus of a knowledge-rich curriculum is that it can help kids do better on tests.
  6. Some are blaming Facebook and social media for the segregation of our attention from those who could challenge our “crony beliefs”.
  7. Three reasons to teach a knowledge-rich curriculum: cognitive, socio-cultural, and economic.

Smorgasbord: Sundries, Inclusion, and Democracy

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Sundry Items from the World Wide Web

Here’s a handy infographic of the 74 ways characters die in Shakespeare’s plays.

Clinical psychiatrist Daniel Siegel argues that our minds are best understood as a combination of bottom-up sensory experiences and top-down schematic models.

If you want to enhance your brain, stop wasting your time with “brain training” apps and pick up a new musical instrument, instead. And exercise.

In Los Olivos, California, parents pay $49,000 a year for their kids to chop their own wood and grow their own food. Seems like a worthy trade-off, to me. Especially given the growing amount of research substantiating the positive effects of the outdoors on learning.

Speaking of the outdoors, if you have a view of the ocean, you probably have lower levels of psychological distress. Supposedly this applies across income or neighborhood quality, but let’s be real: most neighborhoods with an ocean view usually have a few other competitive advantages.

We all know being born well-off (financially speaking) comes with benefits. But here’s some depressing results from a new report: “even poor kids who do everything right don’t do much better than rich kids who do everything wrong.” So much for meritocracy.

Speaking of meritocracy, boys read less than girls and even when they do read, they comprehend less. Which is a problem since even tech startups are trumpeting the value of reading.

And what separates champions from “almost champions” is how they respond to adversity. They put in the practice and training, and most critically, they compare themselves against past versions of themselves, rather than external comparisons against others. Implications for supporting our students in self-monitoring their progress here.

Because hey, even a ball of dough can learn to learn, with the right amount of electric shocks.

Sorry to inform you, frenetic button pushers: pushing those crosswalk and elevator close buttons are just placebo placating your sense of control.

In his new book, Messy, economist Tim Harford argues that allowing a bit of disorder and chaos into our lives can make us happier and more productive. One way, he suggests, is to force ourselves to interact with others who are different than us. (And here’s a past post on how allowing a little bit of chaos in a school can also be a good thing.)

Equity and Inclusion: Can we overcome our history?

While some may see this as merely a symbolic gesture, I think it’s a pretty big deal that a “president of America’s largest police management organization” issued a formal apology for police mistreatment of communities of color.

Knowing our history, as Politico’s Eliza Shapiro reports, is important as new battles about school zones and desegregation play out. Here’s a quote demonstrating why:

Recent meetings on the proposed rezoning have turned hostile: Lincoln Towers residents have wept and pleaded with the city not to go ahead with the rezoning, arguing that it would divide their community. Parents have shouted down Department of Education officials at meetings, accusing them of lying and intentionally concealing details about the plans. One person referred to PS 191 as a “cesspool.”

The principal of PS 191, Lauren Keville, has attended some of the public meetings, urging PS 199 parents — to apparently little effect — to visit her school before forming their judgment. PS 191 parents have been largely absent from the debate.

After the Council proposed its own plan and made explicit pleas for a more integrated district at a recent meeting, scores of parents spoke out against the plan. When one member of the council claimed he’d been “blindsided” by the plan, dozens of parents gave him a standing ovation. The PS 199 parents who support the integration plan — a constant but muted minority presence at public meetings — have been largely drowned out. (Bold added)

The parent group that is calling for integration, however, is making it’s views loud and clear.

A new report highlights what schools successful at increasing diversity are doing. Keys to increasing diversity: promote the school to diverse communities and make it welcoming to all, and change admission policies.

Democracy: Should complex decisions be made by the people, or their elected representatives?

Populist democracy is on the rise. Yet our founders envisioned the US as a representative democracy. George Thomas argues that we have lost sight of the educative function of political leadership, and that we are increasingly placing complex policy decisions in the hands of voters who may lack an understanding of the need for compromise that effective and experienced political leaders possess. Repercussions are to be found in Republican kowtowing to Trump and Tea Party supporters, Democrat kowtowing to Sanders supporters, across the pond in the Brexit referendum, and California’s ever increasing ballot measures. Some argue that voting should only be left to those who have the requisite knowledge. And there’s some evidence to back this up: education levels have a correlation to who you vote for. Just take a guess.

And the 538 explores some of these issues from another angle: a science experiment in Key West open to public vote.

There’s no right way out of a riptide

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Everything we’ve done points to the fact that there’s not one single message that works. Sometimes swim parallel is great, sometimes it doesn’t work. Same for floating.”

It’s a view that the Surf Life Saving Australia has taken, too. After working with Brander, they’ve updated their messaging. Rips are a complex, dynamic hazard and the multitude of variables—swimming ability, current strength, circulation, wave size—make the threat nearly impossible to solve with one-size-fits-all advice. No single “escape strategy” is appropriate all the time, the group now says, and lifeguards in Australia currently recommend combining the advice from both MacMahan’s circulation concept and traditionalists like Brewster. If you’re not a strong swimmer, stay afloat and signal for help; if you can swim, consider paddling parallel to the beach toward breaking waves—though be mindful of the potential circulating current. “All responses,” the group concedes, “have their pitfalls.” [Bold added]

—David Ferry, “Everything You Know About Surviving Rip Currents Is Wrong” on Outside

While this quote may refer to rip tides, I think the concept of dynamic complexity and variability could just as easily apply to schools and school systems. As we’ve explored here before, in the face of complexity, sometimes you’ve just got to try multiple strategies until something sticks. And sometimes,  you’ve just got to pick something and stick to it. It is not always so easy to predict what will lead to a breakthrough.

A Brain is More than the Sum of its Parts

“Why does the brain transcend bell-curve averages?  One possible explanation is that the brain lacks a privileged scale because its functioning cannot be reduced to component parts (i.e., neurons).  Rather, it is the complex interactions between parts which give rise to phenomena at all spatial and temporal scales. . . . Like averages, reductionism is deeply ingrained in our scientific thinking.  Water is explained in terms of molecules, molecules in terms of atoms, etc.  If the brain is reducible to simpler parts, it should also exhibit a privileged scale of organization.

And yet, it does not.  A unifying mechanism for power law behavior in the brain and other systems is that of self-organized criticality (SOC).  According to this model, systems such as the brain operate on the brink of instability, exhibiting slow processes that build energy and fast processes that dissipate energy.  In such systems, small causes have effects of many sizes. Imagine you are at the beach building a sand pile.  As you add sand, the pile gets taller until its slope reaches a critical angle where it can barely support more sand.  Steadily adding more sand will result in avalanches ranging in size from a few grains to significant portions of the pile.  The avalanches are a scale invariant emergent property. Studying individual grains of sand tells you little about avalanches.”

—Joel Frohlich, “Scale Invariance: A Cautionary Tale Against Reductionism” on Knowing Neurons (HT Alexis Madrigal’s newsletter)

Cultural Connectedness As a Buffer Against Chaos

“In the Midwestern U.S., psychologist Teresa LaFromboise and her colleagues found that American-Indian adolescents who were heavily involved in activities focused on their traditional language and traditions did better at school and had fewer behavior problems than kids who were less connected to their traditional cultures—in fact, cultural connectedness buffered them against adolescent problems more than having a warm and nurturing mother.

—Julie Sedivy, “The Strange Persistence of First Languages” on Nautilus

On Failure, Uncertainty, and Risk

I came across this really interesting video shortly after writing about the concept of “explosive networks.” In this overview of his book, Greg Ip provides a comprehensive explanation of how efforts to increase safety and stability can often end up resulting in greater catastrophe (including the efforts in fire prevention). I think his ideas pair well with our broader conversations about the relationship between complex systems and chaos.

Ip asks an interesting question: How can we allow danger to make us safe?

He provides the example of the aviation industry, and how it is now far safer to fly than it is to drive in a car, thanks to the great pressure and transparency generated by any disasters that have occurred. He also frames this in terms of the economy, acknowledging that risk-taking is ultimately what increases wealth.

In the world of education, there has recently been much talk on the importance of failure in learning, and it’s interesting how this parallels broader discussions about complexity and uncertainty within other sectors. For example, if you really want to geek out, you can watch video of the panel of Tyler Cowen, Jared Bernstein and Alex Pollock debating economic principles — what I found interesting was how all of the panelists implicitly concurred on the point that human beings suffer from psychological limitations, which results in greater uncertainty and unpredictability. We have frequently examined this topic here under the banner of “cognitive bias.”

Much of the work that we do in my school’s Support Services department (we’ve decided to rebrand the term “special education) is to try and shift student perceptions of themselves. Often the greatest barrier to student learning is not disability, nor even the content and tasks demanded by rigorous academic subjects, but rather a student’s belief that they are either unable to do the work, or that asking the necessary questions to clarify their understanding is simply not worth the “risk” of appearing “stupid.”

To bring the classroom side of things back to Greg Ip’s question: How can we allow danger to make us safe? I think in a school, we can never completely remove the psychological “dangers” of peer and self-perceptions when challenged by difficult and complex academic content and tasks. The question in a school is not how can we make content easier or ignore the reality that failing in front of others is inherently risky, but rather how can we increase students’ willingness to take the risks necessary for learning? And as Ip suggests about the aviation industry, maybe being transparent about the smaller failures and misconceptions that inevitably do occur along the way can be of greater benefit in the long-run, and prevent much greater disasters from occurring father down the line.

 

 

These Little Avalanches

Visitor running down a dune in Great Sand Dunes National Park.
“If you frequently trigger small cascades, you never get really massive events, but you [sacrifice] all that short-term profit,” D’Souza explained. “If you prevent cascades at all costs, you might make a lot of profit, but eventually a cascade is going to happen, and it will be so massive it [could] wipe out your entire profit.”

—Jennifer Ouellette, “The New Laws of Explosive Networks” on Quanta Magazine

This quote, referring to a concept termed “explosive percolation,” runs parallel to best practice in fire prevention.

After decades of overzealous fire prevention (think: Smokey the Bear), we’ve ended up with a situation wherein apocalyptic wildfires have become a norm. Fire prevention, experts have come to recognize, now requires smaller burns—or, in the absence of controlled burns due to the risk involved, actively thinning underbrush and trees through human labor.

The concept of “explosive percolation” also relates to a concept we’ve explored here before, termed a “self-organized criticality,” in which complex systems maintain stability via “small avalanches” that spontaneously transition between states of chaos and order.

In schools, this confirms the notion that to maintain stability and order within a school community (or classroom) requires “frequently triggering small cascades” of new learning and activities interspersed within stable norms, rituals, and traditions that any school or teacher maintains.

In schools where order is so strictly maintained as to suffer from a “blind application of rules,”  greater disorder may await further down the line. As always, a healthy balance necessitates diversity.

Grim Reminder of Thresholds Crossed

By Philip Sclater (The Book of Antelopes) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A grim reminder that we never know when invisible ecological thresholds may be crossed: more than half of an endangered antelope species in Central Asia died off within a month.

We are entering an era of increasing turbulence due to factors related to climate change, of which the saiga antelope is one casualty.

Check out this post for more on the concept of thresholds.