“Divisive political rhetoric and an uninformed national debate have confused the average American about what the country needs to do to restore the economy. . . .
“There is almost a complete disconnect between the national discourse and the reality of what is causing our problems and what to do about them. This misunderstanding of facts and reality is dangerous, and the resulting divisions make an already challenging agenda for America even more daunting.”
Meanwhile, young men who could be working (and thinking) are playing video games, and the happier for it, so long as they can stave off reality while living at their parent’s house.
But what kind of jobs are out there for many? Trickle-down ain’t working, and the incentives are for the rich to take all the money they can and horde it from the have-nots.
And they will do all they can to ensure the children of the have-nots keep out of the schools where they have stake in property, as the residents of Lincoln Towers on the Upper West Side demonstrate.
NY Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal and state Senator Brad Hoylman, eager to show their support for affluent parents, claim that rezoning the school district would “fracture the community“—which is ironic, since the proposed rezoning would increase neighborhood integration across race and class. One would think that would actually be fostering greater community. . . but, you know.
Conor Williams warns that while millenial parents are less tied to geographic stakes, and thus interested in open enrollment systems, without policies that promote equity, such parents will find “ways to massage these systems into protecting their privilege.”
In an article in Harvard Business Review, “The Biology of Corporate Survival*” the authors lay out some principles for managing complex adaptive systems. While framed for a business audience, these principles could be applicable to the complex adaptive system (or, perhaps more aptly, the “complexicated” system) of a school.
The authors delineate a set of principles for robustness into structural features, and managerial levers:
Expect surprise, but reduce uncertainty
Create feedback loops and adaptive mechanisms
Foster trust and reciprocity
How might these principles apply in a school?
I’ll leave that to you to contemplate, but for the record, I’ll note that most public school managers typically do quite poorly in reducing uncertainty and in fostering trust.
The structure of redundancy can be viewed in the “RNA sequence space”:
First, there are many, many possible sequences that will all serve the same function. If evolution is “searching” for that function by natural selection, it has an awful lot of viable solutions to choose from. Second, the space, while unthinkably vast and multi-dimensional, is navigable: You can change the genotype neutrally, without losing the all-important phenotype. So this is why the RNAs are evolvable at all: not because evolution has the time to sift through the impossibly large number of variations to find the ones that work, but because there are so many that do work, and they’re connected to one another.
This redundant structure can also be viewed, according to the article, in proteins and gene circuits. In fact, evolutionary biologist Andreas Wagner of the University of Zurich and “his coworkers have discovered that this “evolvable” (they call it a robust) structure is a common feature of biological complexity.”
This helps to explain a puzzling aspect of gene circuits: their robustness. . . . You can obliterate many of their individual genes to no obvious effect. But this is no surprise if there are plenty of similar gene circuits that do much the same job as the original one. Looked at this way, robustness is complementary to innovation: Any network that can evolve new features and forms among a vast array of alternatives must necessarily be robust against small changes, because it almost certainly has an alternative on hand that performs equally well. This realization offers an antidote to an excessively deterministic view of genes: Exactly which genes you have may not matter so much (within reason), because the job they do is more a property of the network in which they are embedded.
As the article notes, this is not solely a feature of biological systems:
Karthik Raman, a former postdoc in Wagner’s lab, now at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, has studied much the same issues of functional equivalence of different circuits not for genes but for electronic components that carry out binary logic functions. By randomly rewiring circuits of 16 components and figuring out which of them will perform particular logic operations, Raman found that they too have this evolvable topology.8But crucially, this property appeared only if the circuits were complex enough—if they had too few components, small changes destroyed their function.“The more complex they are, the more rewiring they tolerate,” says Wagner. Not only does this open up possibilities for electronic circuit design using Darwinian principles, but it suggests that evolvability, and the corollary of creativity or innovability, is a fundamental feature of complex networks like those found in biology. [bold added]
This is an interesting point. If a system is not deeply interconnected, then it is more fragile and susceptible to change. This is a feature, it turns out, of our brains.
Learning—and Playing Music—Makes Our Brains More Resilient
Interestingly enough, in the same issue of Nautilus as the one explored above, there’s an article by Brian Gallagher entitled “Brain Damage Saved His Music,” which also extends this idea. The article refers to jazz guitarist Pat Martino, who had a large chunk of his left temporal lobe removed. To the surprise of neuroscientists and physicians, Pat demonstrated a remarkable recovery when he picked up his guitar again—which somehow restored some of his memory, as well as his gift for virtuoso jazz guitar playing.
Diana Omigie, lead author of the study, and a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute, explained that larger gray matter volumes in motor and auditory regions in musicians than in non-musicians would create a “brain reserve,” which “in turn might be enough to fuel relearning or recovery of a musical function.” . . .
Omigie echoes the point that Martino’s brain, long before it hemorrhaged or Martino even knew about his tangled veins, reorganized itself in a way that might shield it from damage. “In our review,” Omigie said, “we observed that musicians who underwent surgery for early lesion, cerebral malformations, or slow growing tumors, showed a larger likelihood of recovering cognitive function than those who, for instance, had a stroke and therefore suddenly lost a large amount of healthy normally functioning tissue. The reason is that in the case of slow-forming lesions, some reorganization might have occurred such that over time, the musical function was able to transfer to other parts of the brain and leave the damaged portions less necessary.” [bold added]
We can see here the ecological principles of interconnectedness and redundancy.
Learning, especially the sort of learning that occurs when pushing the boundaries of improvisation and creativity such when playing jazz music, builds redundant connections in the brain that creates resiliency and robustness when faced with volatility.
Back to Public Education
So what might be some possible lessons for schools and school systems?
I’m currently reading Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday, in which he examines traditional societies and compares them to modern state societies, and I came across a passage which lends an interesting perspective to a word Will brought up recently: efficiency.
Diamond describes a traditional form of planting that has greatly perplexed modern minds: field scattering. Why are these ignorant peasants and tribal peoples wasting their energy in planting and tilling and traveling between many small plots, rather than consolidating their yields? “To modern economic historians, that was “obviously” a bad idea.”
It turns out that it has a lot to do with managing complexity in the face of immediate needs.
“In any given year there are big differences between yields of different fields, but a peasant can’t predict which particular field is going to produce well in any particular year,” Diamond states of the Cuyo Cuyo farmer.
So in the face of the unknown, the peasant scatters his potential yield. This decreases his overall yield, and ensures he will rarely have a great abundance (which he wouldn’t be able to store for long anyway), but also ensures that he will rarely starve.
“If your time-averaged yield is marvelously high as a result of the combination of nine great years and one year of crop failure, you will still starve to death in that one year of crop failure before you can look back to congratulate yourself on your great time-averaged yield.”
Thus, “through long experience, and without using statistics or mathematical analyses, Goland’s Andean peasants had figured out how to scatter their land just enough to buffer them against the risk of starvation from unpredictable local variation in food yields.”
I wonder what lessons there may be in this for schools.
In the face of stark accountability (“starvation”) and potential closure, a school may strategically “scatter” its efforts to meet its immediate needs, rather than “efficiently” investing in more coherent and systematic measures that will, over time, accrue in more lasting impacts and yields.
After all, when you are facing starvation, your primary concern is not to starve. But when you already have a buffer of wealth, you can take greater risks.
We often talk about how much money America spends on education in comparison to other countries, with little to show for it. Yet school funding is often on a perpetual cycle where schools are encouraged to scatter their money willy-nilly on immediate needs, rather than take bigger risks and strategically invest in longer-term investments.
I’ll stop there, as I’m probably pushing the analogy too far. But it’s interesting to consider how the concept of “efficiency” can be considered as a product of luxury.
I’ve been thinking more about this concept of “biodiversity” since my last post, and I agree with Will that if we are to discuss the concept of “diversity,” we must necessarily tackle the disturbing reality of the increasing segregation of our schools since Brown vs. Board of Ed. I also think we should discuss providing inclusive and supportive environments for students receiving special education services in this conversation, and that in fact those two necessities go hand in hand under the umbrella of equity. Cultivating biodiversity in a school community, therefore, could be translated directly into the concepts of integration and inclusion. The greater the diversity, the stronger the community.
“It is not the number of diverse things in a design that leads to stability, it is the number of beneficial connections between these components.”
In an earlier post (Relationships Matter), I discussed the ecological principles of redundancy and interconnectedness, and I think those principles are important to return to here. The question is not simply “How do we increase diversity in our public schools?” but more fundamentally “How do we build, cultivate, and strengthen relationships between diverse individuals and groups in our communities?”
While we are on the idea of stress, Mollison has some more interesting ecological insight on this:
“Some disturbance or ‘moderate stress’ such as we achieve in gardens provides the richest environment. We can actively design to allow some undisturbed (low stress) islands of vegetation, while mowing or digging in other areas (high stress), thus getting the best of both worlds in terms of a stress mosaic.”
In developing a rich environment for all students, we can deliberately design for an admixture of niches for learning and social interaction in our curriculum and physical environment, with some areas more heavily managed, while leaving other areas less managed and open to creative possibility and risk-taking.
At the heart of education reform, we must adopt a relentless focus on fomenting interconnectedness in our communities and schools, through the pursuance of policies and systems that explicitly “target” the integration and inclusion of diverse individuals and groups. And the only way we can do that is by cultivating positive communities founded on trust, empathy, and mutual respect.