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.
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.
“Everything we’ve done points to the fact that there’s not one single message that works. Sometimes swim parallel is great, sometimes it doesn’t work. Same for floating.”
It’s a view that the Surf Life Saving Australia has taken, too. After working with Brander, they’ve updated their messaging. Rips are a complex, dynamic hazard and the multitude of variables—swimming ability, current strength, circulation, wave size—make the threat nearly impossible to solve with one-size-fits-all advice. No single “escape strategy” is appropriate all the time, the group now says, and lifeguards in Australia currently recommend combining the advice from both MacMahan’s circulation concept and traditionalists like Brewster. If you’re not a strong swimmer, stay afloat and signal for help; if you can swim, consider paddling parallel to the beach toward breaking waves—though be mindful of the potential circulating current. “All responses,” the group concedes, “have their pitfalls.” [Bold added]
While this quote may refer to rip tides, I think the concept of dynamic complexity and variability could just as easily apply to schools and school systems. As we’ve explored here before, in the face of complexity, sometimes you’ve just got to try multiple strategies until something sticks. And sometimes, you’ve just got to pick something and stick to it. It is not always so easy to predict what will lead to a breakthrough.
“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.”
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.
Relevance to Schools & Ecosystems: Connects to our prior analysis of schema and the limitations in human perception
In our last post (an analysis of Richard Nisbett’s article, “The Bugs in Our Minds“) we discussed how our perceptions of reality are heavily subjective, based on mental models called schemas, and all too readily misled by stereotypes or heuristics triggered by seemingly inconsequential factors.
There’s an interesting parallel here to a theory of quantum mechanics from Christopher Fuchs called QBism. QBism challenges the notion of an “objective reality,” suggesting instead that reality lies in the eye of the beholder.
The Collapse of a Wave Function Lies in the Eye of the Beholder
In terms of quantum theory, QBism interprets a “wave function’s probabilities as Bayesian probabilities — that is, as subjective degrees of belief about the system.” The act of perceiving is thus akin to that of gambling. “The wave function’s “collapse” is simply the observer updating his or her beliefs after making a measurement.”
We assess and predict each event based upon prior events, and thus our understanding of probability, as suggested by Nisbett’s article, can be easily misled by the “representativeness heuristic”: that events are judged as more likely to occur if they are similar to prior types of events: think of the gambler’s “hot hand.”
As we gain more information, we can update our “bets,” or our schemas, to better reflect that information. But we’re still making a grand bet against the wider chaos of the unknown. Fuchs describes the situation as thus:
“Since the wavefunction doesn’t belong to the system itself, each observer has her own. My wavefunction doesn’t have to align with yours. . . .
Quantum mechanics is not about how the world is without us; instead it’s precisely about us in the world. The subject matter of the theory is not the world or us but us-within-the-world, the interface between the two.”
I wonder, then, if we can hedge our bets when we make a greater effort to understand the subjective experiences of others, as well as the us-within-the-world?
Hedging Our Bets by Assuming Responsibility
What I like about the perspective of QBism is that probability is framed “as a description of uncertainty and ignorance,” rather than as objective certainty. This certainly aligns with our lived experience. Our frail, emotional human existence, defined by our feeble daily fumblings to communicate, can more accurately be described as shots in the dark, rather than that of rational actors responding to and acting upon objective information. While that sounds like a belittling of the human experience, in other ways it is empowering: it means that the greatest of power lies within:
“Usually we think of the universe as this rigid thing that can’t be changed. Instead, methodologically we should assume just the opposite: that the universe is before us so that we can shape it, that it can be changed, and that it will push back on us. We’ll understand our limits by noticing how much it pushes back on us. . . .
Now there’s a spectrum of positions you could take. . . . there’s no reason whatsoever for my probabilities and yours to match, because mine are based on my experience and yours are based on your experience. The best we can do, in that case, if we think of probabilities as gambling attitudes, is try to make all of our personal gambling attitudes internally consistent. I should do that with mine, and you with yours, but that’s the best we can do. . . .
The best you can do is gamble on the consequences of your actions.”
In other words, be true to your subjective experience and understanding of the world, and take ownership of the actions you take—because just as you are shaped by the world, you too are shaping it likewise within each moment that you exist. There’s poetry here:
“. . . the stuff of the world is in the character of what each of us encounters every living moment — stuff that is neither inside nor outside, but prior to the very notion of a cut between the two at all.
If you have it in your heart — and not everyone does — that the real message of quantum mechanics is that the world is loose at the joints, that there really is contingency in the world, that there really can be novelty in the world, then the world is about possibilities all the time, and quantum mechanics ties them together.”
We are the Happenstance Music Makers of our Universe
This touches on a strange dichotomy in our human experience: we are on the one hand mere products of chance and fortune, while on the other hand, we are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams. We would do well, then, to heed Nisbett’s advice on how to mitigate the errors in our perspectives.
Termed a “self-organized criticality” by Danish physicist Per Bak, the gist of the idea is that dynamic systems—such as the brain, a school, or traffic—maintain a semblance of stability by spontaneously transitioning between states of order and disorder. These spontananeous transitions are akin to small avalanches, and the concept is explained most concretely by an analogy to a pile of sand:
Think of sand running from the top of an hourglass to the bottom. Grain by grain, the sand accumulates. Eventually, the growing pile reaches a point where it is so unstable that the next grain to fall may cause it to collapse in an avalanche. When a collapse occurs, the base widens, and the sand starts to pile up again — until the mound once again hits the critical point and founders. It is through this series of avalanches of various sizes that the sand pile — a complex system of millions of tiny elements — maintains overall stability.
For close readers of this blog, this description will bring to mind our exploration of the concept of emergence and thresholds, and indeed, these ideas are interrelated.
How a self-organized criticality factors into the equation lies in the term “self-organized.” As the article explains it:
The precise moment of transition — when the system is halfway between one phase and the other — is called the critical point, or, more colloquially, the “tipping point.”
Classical phase transitions require what is known as precise tuning: in the case of water evaporating into vapor, the critical point can only be reached if the temperature and pressure are just right. But Bak proposed a means by which simple, local interactions between the elements of a system could spontaneously reach that critical point — hence the term self-organized criticality (bold added).
In other words, what appears to the observer as something incredibly complex and based on a fragile and precise set of conditions can be adequately described as an accumulation of small, local interactions. The elegance of this idea lies in the implication that there is an underlying simplicity behind seemingly unintelligible processes, and that such simple mechanisms can be determined in a mathematical sense.
“Self-organized criticality” still remains more of a tantalizing idea than an applicable theory to organizations such as brains and schools, but even still, there is an underlying understanding that we can draw from it now. Let’s return to the article:
A complex system that hovers between “boring randomness and boring regularity” is surprisingly stable overall, said Olaf Sporns, a cognitive neuroscientist at Indiana University. “Boring is bad,” he said, at least for a critical system. In fact, “if you try to avoid ever sparking an avalanche, eventually when one does occur, it is likely to be really large,” said Raissa D’Souza, a complex systems scientist at the University of California, Davis, who simulated just such a generic system last year. “If you spark avalanches all the time, you’ve used up all the fuel, so to speak, and so there is no opportunity for large avalanches.”
This is a wonderful way to describe a high functioning school. In any school or classroom, regularity, rituals, and structure are key to providing a positive learning environment. But educators also know that children also require events and changes that mix it up every now and then. But if there’s too many random and chaotic events, effective teaching and learning is difficult—and I can attest to this, as many other educators can, having worked in a school where schedules were upset so frequently that I walked in each day assuming chaos, and announcements were made over the loudspeaker all throughout the day, interrupting teaching and learning.
In other words, there should be a healthy balance between boring but safe regularity, and taxing randomness.
In this segment of the interview, Soros is describing the completely unexpected—to both Putin and the world—citizen uprising in Ukraine:
Schmitz: How could such a thing happen? How do you explain it?
Soros: It fits right into my human uncertainty principle, but it also reveals a remarkable similarity between human affairs and quantum physics of which I was previously unaware. According to Max Planck, among others, subatomic phenomena have a dual character: they can manifest themselves as particles or waves. Something similar applies to human beings: they are partly freestanding individuals or particles and partly components of larger entities that behave like waves. The impact they make on reality depends on which alternative dominates their behavior. There are potential tipping points from one alternative to the other but it is uncertain when they will occur and the uncertainty can be resolved only in retrospect (bold added).
I found this analogy between human behavior and quantum physics interesting, especially in relation to the perspective of a school as an ecosystem.
Part of the very complexity of a school environment could be described by Soros’ analogy: children and adults in a building exist and act as individuals, but they also can behave in manners influenced by often invisible social and emotional forces and networks. As Soros points out, how a given child or adult may act and for what reason is determinable often only after the act, and thus prediction in the face of this uncertainty is problematic.
I encourage you to read the full interview, as Soros provides a highly interesting macro perspective on political and economic situations in Europe, and his interviewer, Gregor Peter Schmitz, does a great job of pushing him to clarify and elaborate his thinking.
I’ve been talking a bit about the idea that in complex environments, some randomness and disorder can build resilience. In my last post on this idea, we drew in some ideas from research on electrical grids. Now, we can also draw in some ideas from research on vaccines.
What the researchers found was that “A bit of randomness in treatment schedules may actually help manage a disease outbreak.”
“A classic disease model would suggest that every infected person must be isolated and treated before the disease can die out. But complexity theory shows that occasionally, the disease will die out due to random and unpredictable factors.” (bold added)
Note again the point that complex environments (i.e. the real world, economies, or Byzantine networks like school systems) are subject to random and unpredictable factors. Now the conclusion that the researchers make is interesting:
“the researchers conclude that when resources are limited, treatment should be distributed to a larger percentage of the population in a few random, closely distributed pulses, rather than many smaller pulses distributed to fewer people.” (bold added)
Any thoughts on how this might apply to school systems?
If you are interested in learning more about this idea of randomness and how it can be used productively, I recommend this article, “Joys of Noise,” on Nautilus, which examines how noise is used in engineering, cryptography, gambling, and other fields to enhance technologies.