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!

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.

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.

Relationships Foster Resiliency

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Strikingly, even some children who had “gone off the rails” in their teenage years managed to turn things around and get their lives back on track by the time they were in their 30s and 40s, often without the help of mental health professionals.

Many of the factors involved in such turnarounds, and several of the factors associated with resilience throughout the children’s lives, involve relationships of some kind, whether within the context of a larger community – a school, a religion, the armed services – or in the context of one important person.

Our relationships really are key,” says McCubbin. “One person can make a big difference.

Wider research suggests that the more risk factors children face, the more protective factors they are likely to need to compensate. But as McCubbin says, “A lot of the research supports this idea of relationships, and the need to have a sense of someone that believes in you or someone that supports you – even in a chaotic environment, just having that one person.” . . . 

The idea of resilience as an adaptive process rather than an individual trait opens up the potential for other people to be involved in that process. McCubbin sees the importance of relationships as being wider than only protective relationships with people, and she and her team have created a new measure of “relational wellbeing” to try to capture this. “We think of relationship as with a person,” she says. “But what we really found was that it was relationship with the land, relationship with nature, relationship with God, relationship with ancestors, relationship with culture.” [Bold added]

—Lucy Maddox, “‘I saw things children shouldn’t see’ – surviving a troubled childhood” on Mosaic

The gestalt of the brain

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We’ve looked at nueroscientist Christof Koch’s theory of consciousness a while back, and a recent study pairing fMRI scans with network analysis pairs nicely with his premise.

To review, Koch’s theory is that consciousness has everything to do with connectivity (and nothing to do with distinguishing between inanimate and animate matter).

In this recent study at Vanderbilt University, researchers found:

“No one area or network of areas of the brain stood out as particularly more connected during awareness of the target; the whole brain appeared to become functionally more connected following reports of awareness. . . .

Consciousness appears to break down the modularity of these networks, as we observed a broad increase in functional connectivity between these networks with awareness.”

What does this have to do with schools?

Well, it correlates with the wider theme that you need to look at the connections between components and people and the contexts they operate within in order to truly understand what’s occurring within any given system. This is why a school is so very complex: they are dynamic and fluid, predicated as they are on social relationships, constrained within political, class, and cultural hierarchies and norms.

Relationships are Fundamental to Well-being

A duck and a rainbow at Loch Lomond.
A duck and a rainbow at Loch Lomond.

There’s a great post up on Nautilus summarizing research that drives home one of the key points of this blog: strong social relationships are fundamental to well-being (and thus, learning).

Here’s some key tidbits. Do read the whole thing when you’ve got some time.

. . . ‘You are the most social animal on Earth, invest in your social relationships, it will be a form of happiness.’ ” It’s an answer that is so obvious that most people dismiss it.

. . . In 2009, the study’s longest-serving former director George Vaillant was asked by Joshua Wolf Shenk of The Atlantic what he considered the most important finding of the Grant study since its inception. “The only thing that really matters in life are your relations to other people,” he responded.

. . .“The biggest take home from a lot of this, is that the quality of people’s relationships are way more important than what we thought they were—not just for emotional well-being but also for physical health,” he says. Marital happiness at age 50, he says, is a more important predictor of physical health at 80 than cholesterol levels at 50. “Close relationships and social connections keep you happy and healthy. That is the bottom line. People who were more concerned with achievement or less concerned with connection were less happy. Basically, humans are wired for personal connections.”

Not only did strong personal relationships lead to better health outcomes, it affected the architecture of the brain.

For more on the importance of social relationships to learning, please check out Esther Quintero’s invaluable gathering of information on “the social side of education” over on Shanker Blog.

For more on this topic from this blog:

Ecological Advice for New Teachers

By HitroMilanese (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Here’s some nice ecologically minded advice for first year teachers from middle school teacher Jennifer Gonzalez. She takes the idea of ecological guilds and applies them to two possible archetypes that might be encountered by new teachers: marigolds (allies) and walnuts (toxic):

Marigolds exist in our schools as well – encouraging, supporting and nurturing growing teachers on their way to maturity. If you can find at least one marigold in your school and stay close to them, you will grow. Find more than one and you will positively thrive. …

While seeking out your marigolds, you’ll need to take note of the walnut trees. Successful gardeners avoid planting vegetables anywhere near walnut trees, which give off a toxic substance that can inhibit growth, wilt, and ultimately kill nearby vegetable plants. And sadly, if your school is like most, walnut trees will be abundant. They may not seem dangerous at first. In fact, some may appear to be good teachers – happy, social, well-organized. But here are some signs that you should keep your distance: Their take on the kids is negative. Their take on the administration is negative. Being around them makes you feel insecure, discouraged, overwhelmed, or embarrassed.

Sound advice. Forming a guild and finding your positive niche within a school is fundamental to your professional growth and sustainability.

During my first year teaching, I remember asking my Fellows advisor—a 35 year veteran teacher in the South Bronx—what it was that kept her going in those first challenging years as a new teacher. She spoke about a group of colleagues that she could cry with, eat lunch with, and share resources with. She maintains contact with most of those colleagues to this day.

You’ll most likely find this is a common theme. Teaching, especially in high needs schools in communities facing great challenges, is an incredibly difficult profession, and there is little beyond experience that can prepare you for it (and hence why apprenticeship is such an important model). It can be spiritually, emotionally, and cognitively demanding in a minute-by-minute manner.

Isolation can be a damaging reality of many public schools. Forming positive professional social networks is a critical key to thriving.

If you are a new teacher gaining your foal footing, make sure to form your guild!

Reference

Gonzalez, Jennifer. “Find Your Marigold: The One Essential Rule for New Teachers.” Cult of Pedagogy. N.p., 29 Aug. 2013. Web. 26 Aug. 2015. <http://www.cultofpedagogy.com/marigolds/&gt;.

More on Guilds

Human Guilds: Cultivating Inclusion and Adaptivity

Guilds and Diversity in Schools & Ecosystems

Acknowledge the Complexity of Schools

“Blueprints, technical experts, strategic plans and savvy managers simply are inadequate to get complex systems with thousands of reciprocal ties between people to operate effectively in such constantly changing and unpredictable environments. These web-like complex systems of interdependent units adapt continuously to turbulent surroundings. . . .

At the minimum, know that working in a complex system means adapting to changes, dealing with conflicts, and constant learning. These are natural, not aberrations. Know further that reform designs borrowed from complicated systems and imposed from the top in complex systems will hardly make a dent in the daily work of those whose job is convert policy into action.”

–Larry Cuban, “The difference between ‘complex’ and ‘complicated’ — and why it matters in school reform“, a repost of an oldie but goodie on The Answer Sheet

Success In College Takes More Than Academics

At a time when a college diploma is more important than ever to compete in the global economy,only 10% of students from low-income communities across the country who enroll in college are earning a degree. Pair that with the fact that the majority of African American and Latino students graduating high school don’t meet “college readiness” benchmarks (New York City reported last week fewer than a quarter of its students are ready for freshman year) and we have to conclude that public schools aren’t setting up students for long-term success. while creating a culture of high academic expectations is certainly crucial to success, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. There are social, emotional and financial barriers that students from low income communities have to overcome. Getting them to their next graduation day is the challenge we face.

–Jason Bernal, “Getting low income students to college takes more than just academics” on The Hechinger Report

Social Relationships, Ecology, and Schools

Social service icon from The Noun Project

You may have noticed that I changed the subtitle of this site to “Socio-ecological perspectives on education.” I’d like to explain what that means and why I changed it.

It used to read something like “holistic, ecological, and student-centered perspectives on education reform,” but I’ve noticed that words and phrases like “holistic,” “student-centered,” or “reform” can carry a lot of baggage, dependent on the reader’s frame. Furthermore, when I do get around to posting, I’ve been straying from those themes at times and needed to find another way to capture what this blog is really about. Socio-ecological perspectives sounds perhaps more academic and clinical, but it succinctly states what threads consistently through most posts here.

Socio” stands for “social” or “society.” When we talk about a school as an ecosystem, we’re pointing to the fundamental importance of relationships. And when we extend that social, societal dimension to include “ecological,” we’re grounding those relationships in a physical space, time, and place. Relationships are shaped by their environments; when we discuss a school as an ecosystem, we’re acknowledging the importance of contexts and content, physical infrastructure and curriculum.

But if you really wanted to geek out and get technical on the definition of “socio-ecological,” here’s a wonderful articulation from Wikipedia.org:

A socio-ecological system can be defined as:

  • A coherent system of biophysical and social factors that regularly interact in a resilient, sustained manner;
  • A system that is defined at several spatial, temporal, and organisational scales, which may be hierarchically linked;
  • A set of critical resources (natural, socioeconomic, and cultural) whose flow and use is regulated by a combination of ecological and social systems; and
  • A perpetually dynamic, and complex system with continuous adaptation.

Yes, all of that.

I’d like to focus this post on the “socio” part of things, drawing from a great post by Kara Finnegan and Alan Daly on Shanker Blog put up just today that very neatly makes the case for the importance of relationships in education.

Let me begin by stating the obvious, in case you don’t work in a school yourself. Relationships are everything in a classroom and school. I work in a middle school, and if there’s something happening with one of my student’s relationships with each other, or with their family, you bet it shows up in my classroom. Middle school kids, especially, are notorious for their focus on the social realm. But it’s just as important to the adults in a school. If there’s something happening between teachers, or a teacher’s relationship with the administration has shifted, you bet it shows up in the hallways, classrooms, and team meetings. It pervades.

Relationships determine the culture of a school.

But they determine much more than that, as Finnegan and Daly point out in their post—they also determine whether policies, instructional practices, and other forms of practice and knowledge are transmitted successfully or left withering at the door. You may think the problem of a failed reform is the information, “but relationships will trump even the best information.”

We wonder whether the current [reform] movement, based upon many of the same premises of standards and accountability that drove off prior reforms, has now created a thousand and one ways for schools to fail rather than changing the course of action and leading to the difficult work of changing the informal structure, norms, and culture described above – i.e., to build the capacity of these systems to bring about change.  Given the limited success of these efforts in most settings, particularly in large urban districts, it is time to shift the policy and reform attention from the school site as the unit of change to zooming out and exploring the systemwide context of reform: the horizontal and vertical social ‘ties’ between and among central offices and site leaders in a district enacting reform. In other words, it’s time to focus at the relational level.

Focus on the contexts and relationships. This is what I mean when I talk about the socio-ecological perspective of a school. If we simply view “fixing” schools as a technical problem, we’re bound to encounter the very same obstacles encountered by any prior reform. Without a shift in the culture and relationships in which any elegant technical fixes and knowledge are proffered, little will change. It’s about how things work together as a system.

Finnegan and Daly then use social network analysis to examine district relationships and sharing of knowledge. They discovered that central office administrators, unsurprisingly, had the most sharing of expertise. Then, interestingly, they found “district and site leaders” over on the other side of the map, which they termed “isolates”:

This means that no one seeks them for expertise, nor do they seek anyone. We see this as lost social capital in the organization, which in the current climate no district can afford. [bold added]

In other words, waste. I’ve written about this sort of waste in education before, when I wrote about why I left my last school on Chalkbeat NY. I said, “I want to be clear about one aspect of that struggling school: It is not struggling because teachers were ineffective or incompetent. In fact, in that school there lies dormant a vast human, social, and even physical capital entirely untapped, and that is what is the greatest of crimes” [bold added].

There’s a wealth of knowledge and expertise that lies untapped and wasted in schools across our nation. The good news is that by focusing on collaboration and building relationships, this network of social and human capital can expand. The social network analysis Finnegan and Daly conducted over time demonstrated that ties increased “when administrators realized information was not being promulgated effectively, [and] they decided to address that problem . . . they succeeded.” However, Finnegan and Daly point to a caveat:

Perhaps most critically, and unfortunately, during the same time period when these educational leaders increased work related ties, they also had a reduction in more affective relationships (e.g. trust).  These more “emotionally” laden relationships are important as they indicate something about the “quality” of the ties. Our own work as well as others suggests that these types of relationships are critical in supporting change. Absent these ties, in which individuals can engage in risk taking and exposing vulnerabilities, deeper work and the changes in practice may be inhibited.

We’ve discussed the importance of connections on this blog before, and we uncovered a relevant ecological principle from Bill Mollison: it is not simply the quantity of connections that matters, it’s the quality of those connections.

Wrapping up, Finnegan and Daly conclude that while talking about quality relationships sounds simple enough, it’s much more difficult to put into practice:

. . . in the current climate of pressure and distrust, educational leaders and practitioners at all levels of the system have formidable challenges ahead if complex and authentic reform – and not just political rhetoric – is really desired in our educational system.

Indeed.