Cultural Connectedness As a Buffer Against Chaos

“In the Midwestern U.S., psychologist Teresa LaFromboise and her colleagues found that American-Indian adolescents who were heavily involved in activities focused on their traditional language and traditions did better at school and had fewer behavior problems than kids who were less connected to their traditional cultures—in fact, cultural connectedness buffered them against adolescent problems more than having a warm and nurturing mother.

—Julie Sedivy, “The Strange Persistence of First Languages” on Nautilus

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.

Grim Reminder of Thresholds Crossed

By Philip Sclater (The Book of Antelopes) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A grim reminder that we never know when invisible ecological thresholds may be crossed: more than half of an endangered antelope species in Central Asia died off within a month.

We are entering an era of increasing turbulence due to factors related to climate change, of which the saiga antelope is one casualty.

Check out this post for more on the concept of thresholds.

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

An Editorial on Societal Culpability for Have-Nots

Graham Horn [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
A couple of years ago, I’d mentioned a study by Harvard Public School of Health which suggested that people with more education had greater resiliency against cognitive damage from toxic solvents.

A recent Danish study builds upon this theme, suggesting that greater amounts of education (as well as more cognitively demanding work) counters the deleterious effects of aging.

Developing our cognitive capacity through education can empower us to become more resilient against toxic chemicals and enables us to thrive well into older age. It also potentially shields us against perceptual illusions.

Education is that important. And cognitively challenging and engaging work is that important. But these studies also point to a darker side to this story.

The truism that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” bears tragic relevance here. If your brain rarely has the opportunity to develop resiliency and rich interconnections due to toxic or barren environments, then you are even yet more susceptible to the cruel vagaries of existence.

Think of those of our nation’s children growing up in environments of acute and chronic stress, some of whom will not graduate high school or will drop out of college. They are caught in a terrible catch-22. Those children desperately need to develop deep and robust reserves of social, emotional, and cognitive capital, yet may have little opportunity to develop anything but survival skills to meet daily exigencies.

It’s frequently suggested within the field of education that we can control little beyond the small confines of our school. And we often throw up our hands in the face of the utter devastation our children sometimes can face in their daily lives. We triage the psychological and physical needs of our students each day as best we can, but . . . they must go home at the end of the school day, and so must we. Often on the opposite sides of our societally staked fences. Because the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. So it goes.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can control the environments our children are raised within. We can design and structure our urban spaces and architecture to include greater access to greenery, commerce, and fresh air. We can develop policies for housing and transportation that prioritize the needs of the many, rather than the few. We can provide greater access to nutritious food sources.

Or we can keep telling ourselves that we will save the world within the confined spaces of our classrooms while our society’s more fortunate further segregate their lives into enclaves of ever increasing serendipity, and our society’s less fortunate live desperate half-lives on the outskirts of their happenstance pity.

If we truly want our children who struggle the most to gain access to the greatest of opportunities, then we must move beyond pity, beyond blame, and into shared living spaces and implement systems of collaborative decision-making and problem-solving. Shared, because so long as we don’t experience and live our lives in shared environments, then we will have little impetus to change systems nor environments. Collaborative decision-making and problem-solving, because diversity leads to better decisions.

What began as a post in reference to an article on aging has morphed into a fulmination against the strictures of our society. But as irrational and vague as my flight of rhetoric might be, the undeniable reality is that we can do better. Our system of capitalism can be much more robust and equitable, our democratic republic can be much more inclusive and effective, and our state mechanisms for deliverance of public services can be much, much better.

Over and out. Back to writing lessons for the classroom.