Fractals, Self-Organizing Principles, and Self-Segregation

Fractals are all around us

Came across this study on planting patterns, “Fractal planting patterns yield optimal harvests, without central control” that bears some closer review.

What’s fascinating about this is that it seems to present a real-world solution to a problem commonly referred to as the “tragedy of the commons,” in which the self-interest of individuals leads to the destruction and overuse of shared natural resources.

Spatial patterning often occurs in ecosystems as a self-organizing process caused by feedback between organisms and the physical environment. “The centuries-old Balinese rice terraces are also created by feedback between farmer’s decisions and the ecology, which triggers a transition from local to global scale control,” explains Lansing. “Our model shows for the first time that adaptation in a coupled human-natural system can trigger self-organized criticality.”

This is absolutely fascinating, and it’s interesting to consider this in relation to other ideas on a “self-organizing criticality” that we’ve explored here before, such as in brains and sand piles.

For proponents of ed reform who argue against centralized control, this seems like it could be worth digging into further.

The aspect of fractals here is also tantalizing. After chatting with a colleague about the article, he referred me to Ron Eglash, a mathematician who has studied fractals in African history and culture. Do yourself a favor and watch his TED talk, it will blow your mind.

Eglash raising an interesting point about self-organizing principles: they can be wonderful, as in Google search, or our brains. But there is also a dark side, such as in the spread of HIV or the damaging effects of capitalism. He suggests that the fractal algorithms employed in Africa could present us with “robust” “ways of doing self-organization — of doing entrepreneurship — that are gentle, that are egalitarian.”

I’d love to explore more about how the fractal design of school structures and systems could be utilized for a productive purpose. Please share if you’ve got more on this.

Another interesting angle on the Balinese rice farmers is suggested in an earlier study reported also on Phys.org, “Phase transitions of rice farmers may offer insight into managing natural resources.

Their study and modeling seems to suggest that smaller self-segregated communities within a society are desirable in the long-run.

They found that the downside of the segregation is that it increases the social disharmony throughout the society as a whole. The upside, however, is that the social disharmony within each community becomes very low. In some communities, individuals are more likely to keep cooperating with each other—using the shared resource fairly—compared to the situation without segregation. These results were very similar to what the researchers observed in the segregated society of the Balinese subak.

This seems to be a dark side unmentioned in the more recent study on how the Balinese farmers exemplify a self-organizing society in harmony with nature. Or perhaps this isn’t a dark side — it’s a suggestion that some self-segregation can be positive.

But I don’t know anything about the Balinese subak, either, so not sure how much to read into this. Certainly worth going deeper into this. If any readers have knowledge of African fractal algorithms or Balinese subaks, please share!

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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/

People in the United States Don’t Fund What They Value

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In a study released this month and conducted independently of the National Park Service, we sought to develop the first-ever comprehensive assessment of what the parks are worth to the public. We calculated that Americans put a total value of $92 billion per year on our national parks, monuments, seashores, and recreation areas. However, what we also concluded is that we are not funding the park system at a level that reflects its value.

—Linda Bilmes and John Loomis, “Americans Value National Parks, But Don’t Fund Them

Birds make us better

I’ve always loved animals–I grew up alongside a German shepherd, an Amazon parrot, parakeets, and cockatiels. The parrot, Vincent, is still with me today. Here’s my current little vibrant family:

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Birds are, in some ways, representative of humanity’s simultaneous fascination and awe of the natural world, as well as utter disregard. Many bird species are declining due to human activity, their diverse voices silenced. Many are killed by pet cats allowed to roam freely outdoors. In the past, tribal kings would kill hundreds of parrots to string their iridescent feathers into gaudy headdresses and capes.

These beautiful creatures possess an intangible intrinsic value that makes our world a better place to live. But as you will see in the following stories, they can furthermore provide benefits that are more tangible. Just like greenery, natural light, and other environmental enhancers, the sounds, visuals, and presence of birds brings greater vibrancy into our existence.

♥ In this first story of aging well, Bill Thomas, a professor and physician on a mission to improve the care of our elderly, brings alive the concept that our environment has a tremendous impact on well-being. This story is not only about birds, of course, but birds are a part of the equation of what he terms the “Eden Alternative.”

“So he decided to transform the nursing home. Based on a hunch, he persuaded his staff to stock the facility with two dogs, four cats, several hens and rabbits, and 100 parakeets, along with hundreds of plants, a vegetable and flower garden, and a day-care site for staffers’ kids.

All those animals in a nursing home broke state law, but for Thomas and his staff, it was a revelation. Caring for the plants and animals restored residents’ spirits and autonomy; many started dressing themselves, leaving their rooms and eating again. The number of prescriptions fell to half of that of a control nursing home, particularly for drugs that treat agitation. Medication costs plummeted, and so did the death rate.

He named the approach the Eden Alternative — based on the idea that a nursing home should be less like a hospital and more like a garden — and it was replicated in hundreds of institutions in Canada, Europe, Japan and Australia as well as in all 50 U.S. states (the animal restriction in New York was voted down).” . . . 

He moved beyond nursing homes to set up small, intimate residences called Green Houses. With private bedrooms and bathrooms, they offered dignity and privacy. Their size had an unexpected effect.

“Within six weeks, they had to send a truck around to pick up all the wheelchairs,” Thomas said of one house. “You know why most people [in nursing homes] use wheelchairs? Because the buildings are so damn big. . . . The buildings disable elders.”

—Tara Bahrampour¸ “We’re lucky if we get to be old, physician and professor believes” on Washington Post

Imagine if we had schools that were “Eden Alternatives”!

♥ In this next story on parrots and veterans of war, we learn that traumatized parrots and traumatized veterans can support one another in ways that traditional therapy may not always be able to address. According to the veterans, it has something to do with the nature of the birds themselves—something a bird lover such as myself can well relate to.

Taking hold of Cashew once again, she cupped her against her cheek. ‘‘Their spirit gives me the will to get up and do it another day. They’re all victims here. Kind of like what the veterans have been through, in a way.’’ Love lowered her hands and watched Cashew roll over once more on her back, a play position known as wrestling that is peculiar to caiques. ‘‘They don’t belong in captivity,’’ Love said, rubbing Cashew’s white breast feathers. ‘‘But they have a real survivor’s mentality. These forgotten great beams of light that have been pushed aside and marginalized. I see the trauma, the mutual trauma that I suffered and that these birds have suffered, and my heart just wants to go out and nurture and feed and take care of them, and doing that helps me deal with my trauma. All without words.’’ . . . 

‘‘You can look in their eyes,’’ Love said, returning with Bobbi, ‘‘any of these parrots’ eyes, and I myself see a soul. I see a light in there. And when they look at you, they see right into your soul. Look around. They’re all watching. They notice everything. It’s intense.’’ . . .

‘‘They look at you, and they don’t judge,’’ Jim Minick, the badly injured helicopter-squad member, told me. ‘‘The parrots look at you, and it’s all face value. It’s pure.

—Charles Seibart, “What Does a Parrot Know About PTSD?” on The NY Times Magazine

As we know from research on stereotype threat, our children are intensely aware of stereotypes and judgment. Unfortunately, not every adult who works in a school with children experiencing acute and chronic stress and trauma looks at our children without some form of judgment, however unconscious it may be.

Perhaps if we included birds in our schools, children would gain a similar benefit from the non-judgmental gazes of our feathered brethren that veterans can gain.

♥ In this final story, a former drug dealer from DC’s love of birds helps him to discover his better self. He now works with children, introducing them to the beauty of raptors, to help them learn to engage with the natural world, and in the process, also discover their better selves.

“Rodney Stotts grew up selling dope and guns. But he’s always loved caring for birds. The drugs landed him in jail. The birds helped set him free.”

—Ari Daniel, “Rodney Learns to Fly” a Podcast on Transistor

A world without birds would be an immeasurably poorer place to live.

Give Students a Green View to Increase Attention

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“Gazing out of the widow onto green pastures or a peaceful copse of trees while sitting an exam will actually help students score higher. And not just a little bit either—a new study has found that students’ capacity to pay attention increased 13% with a green view outside their classroom window.

. . . a 13% boost in attention might be enough to convince architects that classrooms and offices should come with better views, and perhaps teachers won’t scold pupils for gazing out the window.”

—Charlie Sorrel, “Want Kids To Do Better On Tests? Let Them Gaze Into Nature” on FastCompany

Being In Nature Benefits Health – But How? | IFLScience

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“Kuo suggests that fresh air, sunlight and a beautiful view relax us and turn off our “fight or flight” responses. “When we feel completely safe, our body devotes resources to long-term investments that lead to good health outcomes – growing, reproducing, and building the immune system,” she said. If so, many of the same benefits can be achieved for those who really aren’t the outdoor type by doing what they love, be it reading a good book or spending time with friends. However, Kuo adds these don’t provide elements of good health such as Vitamin D.”

–Stephen Luntz, “Being In Nature Benefits Health – But How?” On IFL

Back at It. & Photos

I’ve had a packed and busy school year, so for these last few weeks, I took a hiatus from all matters education—and news and social media in general—to visit Ireland and Scotland. I greatly enjoyed the architecture, green and blue expanses, non-humidity, whisky, beer, haggis, and blood pudding. Here’s some pictures:

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Now I’m back to work, doing a summer residency with one education organization and virtual contracting with another. I’ll be posting more as I shed the sweet remnants of Britannia from my soul. . .

Unnatural Selection: Darwin and the Business Model

I’ve been thinking about natural selection lately. If schools are ecosystems and students are the species occupying those ecosystems, these student species must be constantly adapting to meet the demands of their environments. Eventually, some of these adaptations must harden into character traits, and these character traits, developed in response to school environments, must form some part of a student’s adult identity.

In a school based on our ecosystems model, we would hope to create an environment where successful adaptations might include taking intellectual risks, supporting one’s peers, pursuing long-term projects, and contributing to the school community outside the classroom. In the end, such adaptations would help students develop into adults who are well rounded, thoughtful, open to new experiences, and compassionate towards others.

Unfortunately, our schools are led by reformers who believe that a corporate model, rather than an ecosystems model, will produce the healthiest adults. What sorts of values do these reformers promote? As The New York Times recently reported, David Coleman, an architect of the Common Core Standards, articulated the business reformers’ values quite clearly last year:

“In progressive education circles, Mr. Coleman is often criticized for his emphasis on ‘informational texts’ over fiction, and his push for students to write fewer personal and opinion pieces. Last year, he gave a speech making that point in strong terms, asserting that it would be rare, in the working world, for someone to say, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.'”

Under the corporate model, an account of one’s childhood is superfluous fluff, while a market analysis is a text of value. Let’s look at the skills required to produce these two types of texts.

To write a “compelling” account of one’s childhood, a writer must first engage in thoughtful, critical reflection. The writer must identify themes that run like threads throughout the events of their childhood, and must convey these themes to the reader. Using imagery, metaphor, and a variety of other literary devices, the writer must evoke the world of their childhood for the reader, allowing the reader to visualize, empathize, and ultimately experience that world vicariously. Finally, the writer must edit and proofread vigorously, with an eye for both minute detail and broader meaning. The writer’s goal is to share an experience with the reader, to guide the reader through that experience, and to help the reader learn from that experience.

Now, I’ve never written a market analysis, so I did a bit of research to find out what that process requires. Apparently, a market analysis is a text of such complexity and sophistication that it’s written every time someone has a proposal for a new business. Thankfully, unlike with compelling memoirs, the folks at about.com were able to break down the process of writing a market analysis step by step. Here’s are the highlights:

“To define your target market, you need to ask the specific questions that are directly related to your products or services. For instance, if you plan to sell computer-related services, you need to know things such as how many computers your prospective customer owns. If you plan on selling garden furniture and accessories, you need to know what kinds of garden furniture or accessories your potential customers have bought in the past, and how often…

You’ll write the Market Analysis in the form of several short paragraphs. Use appropriate headings for each paragraph. If you have several target markets, you may want to number each.

Remember to properly cite your sources of information within the body of your Market Analysis as you write it. You and other readers of your business plan will need to know the sources of the statistics or opinions that you’ve gathered from others.”

In other words, a market analysis involves doing research on what sort of things different types of people like to buy, putting that information into paragraphs (which you may or may not label with numbers), and citing your sources. Oh, and the purpose of this text? To convince investors to give the writer money.

To be honest, I think Coleman’s crazy for preferring this type of reading to a good memoir. Then again, the business model is a bit crazy. Literally. As The Week reported a few months ago, the business world is “full of psychopaths.” Specifically, according to the CFA Institute (“a global association of investment professionals that sets the standard for professional excellence), one out of every ten Wall Street employees “is a clinical psychopath…compared with one out of 100 people in the general population.” The CFA report describes these “financial psychopaths” as people who “generally lack empathy and interest in what other people feel or think,” and who possess an “unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication, and manipulation.”

What does all this have to do with our students? Well, when folks like Coleman argue that schools should be promoting the skills and values of the corporate world, they’re talking about a world that’s disproportionately composed of psychopaths. Instead of healthy participants in sustainable communities, reformers like Coleman want schools to produce adults who are incapable of empathy, but skilled at writing market analyses.

Am I being too harsh on the business reformers? Here’s Mayor Bloomberg, champion of the business model, describing the methods he used to achieve success (I’ve added the bold):

“Among old McDonald’s hamburger wrappings and mouse droppings, we dragged wires from our computers to the keyboards and screens we were putting in place, stuffed the cables through holes we drilled in other people’s furniture—all without permission, violating every fire law, building code, and union regulation on the books. It’s amazing we didn’t burn some office or electrocute ourselves.”

You can judge for yourselves, but running electrical cables through a firetrap littered with rat feces in violation of health, safety, and legal regulations for the sake of personal financial gain sounds pretty nuts to me.

In a school system run by people who hold these values, students who display kindness, generosity, or any of the other fluffy virtues that generally fall under the umbrella of “goodness” will be failing to reach the standards. As our schools fall increasingly under the sway of these corporate reformers, is it any wonder that cheating scandals are on the rise? Students, teachers, and administrators are simply adapting to their values of their new, corporate-minded environments. It’s unnatural selection: survival of the sickest.

Emerson on Nature and Education

Perhaps no writer has as much to say about the connection between education and the natural world as Ralph Waldo Emerson. I was just re-reading his lecture, “The American Scholar,” and was struck by how relevant his ideas and language are to our “Schools as Ecosystems” project.
For example:

“To the young mind every thing is individual, stands by itself. By and by, it finds how to join two things and see in them one nature; then three, then three thousand; and so…it goes on tying things together…discovering roots running under ground whereby contrary and remote things cohere and flower out of one stem.”

Isn’t this what real teaching– as opposed to test prep– is all about? At its core, our job is to help students recognize connections that were formerly hidden to them. Of course, we also have to present them with facts and formulas, but in isolation those facts and formulas lack substance. As Emerson writes, their significance lies in the hidden roots that connect them to “remote things.”

Emerson goes on to argue that these connections are not simply an aspect of the young mind’s academic development, but of a much deeper process:

“Thus to him, to this schoolboy under the bending dome of day, is suggested that he and it proceed from one root; one is leaf and one is flower…[Nature’s] beauty is the beauty of his own mind. Its laws are the laws of his own mind…the ancient precept, ‘Know thyself,’ and the modern precept, ‘Study nature,’ become at last one maxim.”

As we discuss education policy and school reform, we should keep Emerson’s vision in mind. Learning is not simply a gathering of facts, and teachers are not information-delivery professionals. Our schools should be spaces where students learn to explore and appreciate the world around them– and to see their own connection to that world. Without that type of integrative perspective, all the facts in the world are simply academic.

The Beauty of Teaching, the Teaching of Beauty

Every teacher I know believes that our jobs hold some deeper purpose than test preparation. What is this deeper purpose?

There are many answers to this question. Some folks argue that we are imparting “core knowledge” to our students that will help them easily assimilate into the adult world. Others argue that we’re providing our students with occupational skills. Still others argue that we’re helping our students develop the analytical skills necessary to become responsible citizens.

One thing I try to do in the classroom is help my students appreciate beauty. Whether we’re reading Of Mice and Men or discussing evolutionary theory, my students are not simply acquiring new skills or information. They are learning that science and literature can be beautiful.

In her wonderful book, “On Beauty and Being Just,” Elaine Scarry argues that beauty itself is a kind of teacher:

“Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people…The generation is unceasing.

[The] willingness continually to revise one’s own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education. One submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet makes its sweep through a certain patch of sky.”

This process Scarry describes is, in fact, my favorite part of teaching: directing students towards beautiful things, as well as helping them recognize the beauty of things. It goes without saying that this process is impossible to measure with an alphanumeric scale, and that test-obsessed reformers have sucked much of the beauty out of our classrooms. Yet when this process bears fruit, its value– for both student and teacher– is immense.

Beauty, as Scarry points out, motivates us. A student who sees the beauty in a sonnet or an equation will seek out more sonnets and equations, and will eventually start their own sonnets and equations. This is why many of us become teachers: to share something beautiful with our students and thus ensure that this beauty continues to perpetuate itself. Surely there’s an intrinsic value in that.