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!

Deeply rooted in the community

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“Ultimately, Haskell contends that guys like Bethea—not academics like himself, or Sierra Club activists, or Washington bureaucrats—are best positioned to make good judgments about landscapes and ecosystems. Bethea is a deeply rooted member of this ecological community, as are the neighborhood folks caring for Manhattan’s street trees. They have a mature sense of ecological aesthetics based on belonging, and their ethic will stem from what they view as beautiful and whole.”

David Haskell Speaks for the Trees,” Outside

A Balanced Complexity

An interesting relationship to consider:

  1. A balanced complexity of ecosystem sounds = environmental health
  2. A balanced complexity of brain activity = mental health

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If you’re interested in the concept of self-organized criticality or networks, more here:

Even stable relationships are steeped in conflict

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By Charlesjsharp (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“We like our black-and-white narratives, with clear heroes and villains. The very term symbiosis has been twisted so that its original, neutral meaning – ‘living together’ – has been infused with positive spin, and almost flaky connotations of cooperation and blissful harmony. But evolution doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t necessarily favour cooperation, even if that’s in everyone’s interests. And it saddles even the most harmonious relationships with conflict.”

—Ed Yong, “Microbes have no morals” on Aeon

Now think about education politics. Or school relationships between staff and admin, or adults and students.

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 <https://hbr.org/2016/01/the-biology-of-corporate-survival>

Like students, plants give up after years of failure, too

By Famartin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
“The plant life of Australia’s outback may have “given up”, according to satellite-based maps tracking the impact of changing climatic conditions, such as rainfall and temperature, on the world’s ecosystems.

“The study suggests the vegetation of our interior does not respond to sudden increases in rainfall because it has “learned” that drought will soon follow. . . .

“‘Sometimes when you subject an ecosystem to some kind of disturbance, such as a drought or fire, they behave differently depending on their past,’ he explained. . . .

“‘They don’t care if it is good favourable conditions now, because they know it is temporary and it is not worth investing in growing more at this time because they become bigger and it is a lot more to care of when the drought returns,’ he said.”

–Dani Cooper, “Global satellite map highlights sensitivity of Australia’s plants to changes in rainfall and temperature” on ABC Science News

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.

Strong Social Networks Create Resiliency

DarwinPeacock, Maklaan [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
“It’s not just that money can buy more sea walls, drought-tolerant agriculture equipment, private water supplies, and other material aids to adaptation. It’s that money also tends to come along with social capital, and one of the most important findings in research on resilience is that social cohesion is just as important as technology. It is the places with strong social networks that tend to have plans, civic institutions, early warning systems, and systems of aid and support that help communities through crisis.

It is socially cohesive communities, in which people are “in it together,” that survive disaster and rebuild afterward. Places without those social networks fragment; their suffering becomes a self-reinforcing cycle.

Unfortunately, economic inequality also tends to reduce social cohesion, leading to lack of trust and fewer shared resources. So if the people who support adaptation were being honest, they would acknowledge that perhaps the first and most effective form of adaptation is to reduce economic inequality, to create more cohesive communities defined by fellow-feeling rather than mutual suspicion and resentment. That’s true on the local level and also on the national and international level, as resource transfers between and within countries will need to rise markedly to prepare the most vulnerable places for what’s to come.”

—David Roberts, “Hurricane Katrina showed what “adapting to climate change” looks like” on Vox

How to Fight Poverty: Play the Long Game

Yosemite

This post is a continuation from my last post on poverty. I made the case that poverty can be viewed as not simply a lack of money or resources, but as a lack of options, and that the development of better options for children and their families is a potential strategy for mediating against the toxic effects of poverty.

The development of more and better options certainly begins in each classroom, as RiShawn Biddle argued well in a recent post on Dropout Nation. Because the more that a child learns and gains knowledge, the more his brain is enriched with interconnections, helping to inoculate him against toxicity in his environment and ward off manipulation and illusions by others, and thus make better decisions.

And when it comes to teaching our children knowledge in a coherent and systematic manner, we’ve been failing pretty miserably on that front, in my opinion. It’s fuzzy math, or it’s Singapore math. It’s phonics or it’s whole language. It’s Common Core standards vs. don’t-tell-me-what-to-do-even-if-it’s-good-for-me. It’s political and ideological squabbling between adults, in other words, rather than a focus on systems design and iterative processes and products with students at the center.

But as I discussed before, we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can completely ameliorate the devastation of poverty in the classroom.

To scale and sustain the development of more and better options for a community ultimately requires playing the long game.

Structural changes in a society seem to mostly occur after long periods of chipping away, when suddenly some invisible threshold is reached, and there’s an avalanche, a titanic shift in mindsets, culture, and policy.

The short game is the game most politicians play. It’s the game most business folks play. It’s the game prison inmates play. It’s aggressive, it’s territorial. It’s also the game ideologues play. Hey kids, can anyone think of any ideologues in education?

It’s a necessary game, and it’s perhaps a glamorous one, but it’s not the only game in town, and it’s not the most important one.

Playing the long game means thinking at a systems level and across sectors. It means being willing to fight political or ideological battles when necessary, but also willing to develop and implement and sustain pragmatic policies and initiatives. It means being willing to work quietly in the shadows, because the long-term effectiveness of processes and policy outcomes are not something easily seen, nor something captivating to a public enraptured by the next new thing.

Playing the long game is akin to cultivating a tree.

A tree takes decades to mature. And like a child, the long-term outcome of a tree is heavily dependent on the initial conditions of it’s sowing. For a tree, the initial conditions are the soil and surrounding ecosystem. The wind, the light, the geographical placement. For a child, the initial conditions refers to his or her given family and surrounding environment.

For a tree to grow, it requires healthy, rich, nutritious soil, full with microbial life and enough water to get it started. It then benefits from layerings of mulch as it begins to develop.

A tree is an investment in a healthier future. A tree provides us shade, it cleans our air, provides a haven for birds, creates a buffer against noise and the wind, and even its simple presence, green, vibrant, and calm, can reduce violence and help to shore us up against the vicissitudes of life.

How can you tell the difference between a poor neighborhood and a wealthier neighborhood from outer space? It’s easy—you look for trees.

Something that simple, yet that powerful. But trees don’t magically appear and come to fruition. And while we can accelerate and aid the growing of a tree in unnatural conditions, we don’t yet have instant test tube trees we can transplant anywhere. Planting and growing trees takes a community effort. The MillionTrees NYC effort—one of many such efforts in an urban setting—for example, requires the sustained collaboration of government, private and public funds and outreach, and volunteers.

To nurture our children requires a similar sort of effort. It takes a willingness to work with people from different walks and roles, to build an interdependent network of care, to see beyond one’s own front yard. It takes a focus on what will matter in the future, not just right now right now right now.

And it takes a willingness to acknowledge and invest in enriching the initial conditions and circumstances in which a child is born. That’s pre-K, child care, pre-natal services, education and outreach by health providers. A willingness to acknowledge the toxic impact that infrastructural decay and lack of access to parks, diverse food sources, strong local schools within walking distance, and libraries can have on a community.

Providing options in the form of school choice is great—but it’s not much of a choice when it takes a child 2 hours to get there.

And it’s not the much of a choice when there’s a failing economy and few job opportunities in your community upon your graduation.

Let’s play the long game and invest in providing our children with opportunities and options within the communities they are raised within.

How a Lack of Natural Resources Can Affect a Child’s Education

By Matthew Hoelscher (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
An interesting article in the New Yorker, “Spare the Rod, School the Child” by Michelle Nijhuis, gives us urgent lessons with implications not only to our swiftly changing ecological environments, but also may bear lessons for our educational environments as well.

Possible lessons we can derive from the article:

In Ghana, it was discovered that a decline in fish populations could be directly correlated to a rise in children kept at home from school. Why? Because baboons were causing so much damage that “many Ghanaians were keeping their young children out of school to help guard family farms.”  Why were baboons destroying farms? Because their populations had grown since their competitors were becoming bushmeat. Why were people increasingly eating bushmeat? Because fish populations were declining.

The native Ghanians knew that fish were the cause of this. The researcher who ended up verifying their knowledge with his research at first dismissed their perceptions. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, but these uninformed people aren’t aware of some bigger dynamic.’”

In the world of education, it’s very easy to get caught up in big idea debates at the level of policy, politics, and research. An important lesson from this article is the reminder that we always need to find a way to ground and center our discussions around those whose lives are impacted the most. In the case of education: students and their parents. How can we do that? By asking them!

As Melinda D. Anderson so very neatly put it on Twitter:

Scarcity of fish can be traced to other causes of social ills across the globe: “indentured servitude and child slavery” and “fishing militias” in Thailand, HIV positive women in Kenya exchanging sex for fish, and in West Africa, “child labor and child slavery are increasing.”

Yet “these linkages are rarely discussed in academic circles, or even in the popular press. ” Why is that?

“The science side is very focused on natural-resource trends and not really thinking about social consequences, while the policy side is looking at Somali pirates or elephant ivory, and totally disconnected from the root causes.

Again, there are obvious parallels to the world of education policy and research here. As biologist Justin Brashares puts it in the article, “Our whole research and policy response system is really poorly equipped for the future.”

Why are our institutions of education failing? Ask the students. Ask their parents. Take a walk in their communities. It might be something as starkly simple as a scarcity of a natural resource.