Smörgåsbord: American Stupidity, Fracturing Communities, and Integrating Minds

I’m no longer calling this the “Sunday” Smorgasbord. Because I’m releasing this one on Saturday. Just because.

American Stupidity

Sol Stern is concerned about how dumb America has become. He blames curricular incoherence.

The incoherence of economic and political policy isn’t helping, either. According to a Harvard Business School report:

“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.”

Our organizational systems are also pretty stupid.

And physical context can have a big impact: students become more stupid when it’s too hot in their schools. Heat “erases nearly three quarters of the impact of a highly effective teacher.”

Yet we still argue about whether global warming is even a thing.

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.

Fracturing Communities

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.”

Integrating Minds

We can share, reinforce, and supplement our memories with our friends and build a “transactive memory system.”

And within our own brains, the more integrated the different parts of our brain are, the better we do on complex tasks.

Gardening is good for your health. So something to be said for all those school gardens.

And if you want kids to get creative, give them simple toys and let them be bored with them.

Principles for Robustness

“Snow Crystal” — Wilson Alwyn Bentley

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:

Structural Features

  • Heterogeneity (Diversity)
  • Modularity
  • Redundancy

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 Biology of Corporate Survival – Harvard Business Review.” 2015. 15 Apr. 2016 <>

The Redundancy in Genes (and Musician’s Brains)

Redundant networks

The latest issue of my favorite magazine, Nautilus, has an interesting article by Philip Ball entitled “The Strange Inevitability of Evolution,” in which the author explores the “creative” mechanisms that enable evolution to occur.

Pivotal to genetic innovation, it turns out, may be structures of redundancy, which we’ve explored here before as a critical aspect of resilient ecosystems.

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.

Again, this feature of “robustness” is another aspect we’ve explored as a facet of resilient systems facing complexity.

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.8 But 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

This reminds me of a study that I posted about back in 2012, in which we learned that workers with more education proved more resilient when faced with exposure to toxic chemicals.

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?

  • Build and reinforce connections within schools
    • Interdisciplinary connections between content areas
    • Physical connections between classes and common areas
    • Consistent and regular meetings of both grade-level and departmental teams (professional learning communities, what-have-you)
    • Many different extracurricular opportunities (arts, music, robotics, dance, etc) for students
    • Invest in staff members who perform “auxiliary” functions that may seem “redundant,” such as literacy specialists, librarians, data specialists, lunch aides, and so on
  • Build and maintain connections between schools
    • Cross and inter- district collaboration
    • Engagement with online learning communities and content for cross state and national alignment
  • Build meaningful bridges with scholars, researchers, and policymakers

The Luxury of Efficiency

By Crops for the Future (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
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.

Integration, Inclusion, and Interconnectedness

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.

However, it’s important to clarify a point in regards to that last statement. Bill Mollison, one of the founders of Permaculture, states a fundamental principle of ecological stability in Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual that has bearing on this matter:

“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?”

It is the lack of such relationships (social capital) that many students raised in poverty face (as well as students with disabilities), and they are thus less resilient in the face of stress. I believe that students raised in affluence face the converse of this issue: they lack diverse experiences and relationships, and thus demonstrate a lack of empathy. Our primary focus in a school must be to build essential relationships within and without the school community so that students can not only make academic gains, but establish a sustainable foundation of character and social and emotional skills that will enable them to be successful in life.

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.