Experience is Relational and Subjective

Because neither ‘memory banks’ nor ‘representations’ of stimuli exist in the brain, and because all that is required for us to function in the world is for the brain to change in an orderly way as a result of our experiences, there is no reason to believe that any two of us are changed the same way by the same experience. If you and I attend the same concert, the changes that occur in my brain when I listen to Beethoven’s 5th will almost certainly be completely different from the changes that occur in your brain. Those changes, whatever they are, are built on the unique neural structure that already exists, each structure having developed over a lifetime of unique experiences. (Bold added)

–Robert Epstein, “The Empty Brain” on Aeon

Epstein’s challenge to the “information processing” model is highly relevant to education and worth considering the implications of. I would pair this reading with the quantum theory of QBism: QBism challenges the notion of an “objective reality,” suggesting instead that reality lies in the eye of the beholder.

Advertisements

On Venture Capital and Education

By Jim Gordon [CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
If you care about education, it’s worth paying close attention to what’s going down in Silicon Valley. The hyperdrive capitalism of venture investment, with its raw focus on the rapid scale of the highest performing and rapid failure of all the rest, parallels and in some ways informs edtech and charter models.

There’s certainly a healthy and necessary space in education for a private marketplace of rapid iteration, scale, and fail. But there’s also a necessity for the less efficient but robust, slow-growth, long-term models of public schools.

In The New Yorker there is an interesting piece on Y-Combinator’s Sam Altman relevant to this. It’s interesting purely as a biopic, but scattered throughout are insights into the driving mindsets and ethics of Silicon Valley. Let’s take a closer look at some quotes from the article with the frame of education in mind.

Altman, as he nursed a negroni after dinner, had his own warning for the timid: “Democracy only works in a growing economy. Without a return to economic growth, the democratic experiment will fail. And I have to think that YC is hugely important to that growth.”

Democracy needs a heck of a lot more than just a viable economy. It needs strong civic institutions and an active citizenry that has a shared understanding of how to engage with those institutions and of their purpose. Public education should serve the public in cultivating shared civic knowledge and values.

. . . In his book “Hackers & Painters,” Graham calculated that smart hackers at a startup could get 36x more work done than the average office drone—and that they would, therefore, eventually blow up employment as we know it. He made this sound patriotic and fun; how could an oligarchic technocracy go wrong?

Indeed? How could a focus solely on only the most productive and efficient members of society go wrong? In education, imagine if we only invested in the most gifted and talented. The rest would be herded into service professions or unskilled labor. A meritocracy! Wait. Isn’t that more or less how things used to be before the advent of a public education . . .

. . . And he told me, “It’s bad for the companies and bad for Silicon Valley if companies can stay alive just because they’re [associated with Y-Combinator]. It’s better for everyone if bad companies die quickly.”

This is a driving philosophy of venture capital and rapid scale that Silicon Valley pursues. Scale the few most successful ventures rapidly, and fail the remainder. With schools, we could only invest in and scale the ones that demonstrated strong academic performance — all the rest we would close. Sounds good, right? Kids should only be in schools that have demonstrated their worth.

But there’s a problem with rapid scale in terms of sustainability:

. . .The truth is that rapid growth over a long period is rare, that the repeated innovation required to sustain it is nearly impossible, and that certain kinds of uncontrollable growth turn out to be cancers. . . Every great startup—Facebook, Airbnb—has no idea why it’s growing at first, and has to figure that out before the growth stalls. Growth masks all problems.”

A school could be high performing, but not such a great place to be.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for markets in the education system. A market doesn’t have to mean Silicon Valley style scale and fail.

A more sustainable model can be seen in an article in the NY Times about MailChimp.

…it’s possible to create a huge tech company without taking venture capital, and without spending far beyond your means. It’s possible, in other words, to start a tech company that runs more like a normal business than a debt-fueled rocket ship careening out of control. Believe it or not, start-ups don’t even have to be headquartered in San Francisco or Silicon Valley.

. . . You can simply start a business, run it to serve your customers, and forget about outside investors and growth at any cost.

Schools that do this work are the ones that get better: they put their focus on service to their students and families and adapt accordingly.

But there’s other ways that those who abide by the scale and fail model are investing in, recognizing the limitations of a brick and mortar approach.  Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen (you may have heard of AltSchools?) lays out the long-game for software and tech in the education industry in this Vox interview:

Primary education in the US is a monopoly. It’s a public sector monopoly with very little competition. Even the charter schools end up under sustained attack for violating the monopoly. You see this most recently in New York with De Blasio trying to shut them down. A government-sponsored monopoly is not easy to move.

. . . New technologies tend to vaporize on impact with those institutions. The last thing a unionized public school wants to do is to fundamentally change how they operate. Of course they don’t want to adopt new technology. It’s antithetical to the philosophy.

So the solution? Software!

Look, there’s great potential for technology in the education sphere, and I think experiments like AltSchools and Udacity are well worth making. But Andreessen’s premise here is false. Having worked in NYC public schools for even the short length of time that I have, I’ve seen so many tech fads get readily embraced by educators and districts that it’s become ridiculous. Rather than “vaporizing on impact,” new tech fads rather seem to become desperately embraced and then just as hurriedly discarded. Harried educators and administrators would love it if a SMART Board or data system or robot would magically and rapidly improve the outcomes for their kids!

But I do think Andreessen makes a more balanced analysis and point here:

We can’t revamp the entire system. Nobody can. But I think more and more, there are gaps in what the current system can accommodate compared to what people actually want. There are opportunities to build on the edges, around the sides, parallel systems. And at the very least introduce choice. In the best-case scenario, it becomes a real challenger to the status quo.

I fully agree that there are massive gaps and many opportunities to better serve our nation’s students, and I for one welcome the evolution of edtech and tools and software, as well as the vibrant niches of effective charter models and networks. But we’re on a quixotic mission if we’re shooting for supplanting public education systems, rather than supplementing them.

The argument for why this is so can be viewed in statements that Barack Obama and Vox’s Ezra Klein have made about the function of public institutions vs. private ones (I’ve posted this before):

President Barack Obama at the White House Frontiers Conference:

The final thing I’ll say is that government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.

. . . sometimes we get, I think, in the scientific community, the tech community, the entrepreneurial community, the sense of we just have to blow up the system, or create this parallel society and culture because government is inherently wrecked. No, it’s not inherently wrecked; it’s just government has to care for, for example, veterans who come home. That’s not on your balance sheet, that’s on our collective balance sheet, because we have a sacred duty to take care of those veterans. And that’s hard and it’s messy, and we’re building up legacy systems that we can’t just blow up.

Ezra Klein in an interview with Tyler Cowen:

I will say one thing about both government and private-sector production, which is something that I do think is important is there is an advantage to being willing to do kludgy, difficult, somewhat unpleasant things.

. . . As you say, there’s an attraction — recognizing the government is inefficient — to just saying, “Well, let’s just do cash transfer for everything. Let’s go UBI for everything.” But there is a lot that government does, often not that well, that somebody needs to be doing, because a lot of the people you want to help are actually really difficult to help. This is something . . . this is one of the things I believe strongly in policy that we underrate.

A lot of what we’re trying to do in government is not help people who want “free stuff,” but is help people who are actually very, very difficult to help. This is particularly true in health care.

And particularly true in education. The work of education is a slow, complicated, incremental process that will benefit from new technologies, software, and schools, but that will not rapidly scale, and provides a public service that makes rapid failure of massive amounts of schools or students a nonviable option.

Bureaucracy has it’s place

President Barack Obama at the White House Frontiers Conference:

“The final thing I’ll say is that government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.

“. . . sometimes we get, I think, in the scientific community, the tech community, the entrepreneurial community, the sense of we just have to blow up the system, or create this parallel society and culture because government is inherently wrecked. No, it’s not inherently wrecked; it’s just government has to care for, for example, veterans who come home. That’s not on your balance sheet, that’s on our collective balance sheet, because we have a sacred duty to take care of those veterans. And that’s hard and it’s messy, and we’re building up legacy systems that we can’t just blow up.”

Ezra Klein in an interview with Tyler Cowen:

“I will say one thing about both government and private-sector production, which is something that I do think is important is there is an advantage to being willing to do kludgy, difficult, somewhat unpleasant things.

. . . As you say, there’s an attraction — recognizing the government is inefficient — to just saying, “Well, let’s just do cash transfer for everything. Let’s go UBI for everything.” But there is a lot that government does, often not that well, that somebody needs to be doing, because a lot of the people you want to help are actually really difficult to help. This is something . . . this is one of the things I believe strongly in policy that we underrate.

A lot of what we’re trying to do in government is not help people who want “free stuff,” but is help people who are actually very, very difficult to help. This is particularly true in health care.”

Loop Networks and Anastomosis

By Rosino (vascular) [CC-BY-SA-2.0
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D,
via Wikimedia Commons

In my last post, we looked at the geometric features of resiliency, which included diversity, web-network structures, distribution across a range of scales, and the capacity to self-adapt and self-organize.

We can learn more about the characteristics of web-network structures in a fascinating article in Quanta Magazine, “In Natural Networks, Strength in Loops” by Emily Singer.

The article describes how complex networks form into an architecture of a random series of interconnected, hierarchically nested loops. Such nested loops increase the resiliency and robustness of networks. This resilient architecture can be seen in leaves, insect wings, cerebral vasculature, fungi networks, and the Eiffel Tower.

The cheapest network to operate is a simple branching tree structure, which is employed by some ancient plants. Though efficient, this structure is not very resilient. When a link is damaged, parts of the system suffer loss of fluid and die.”

This is a theme that you can also hear reverberating throughout business and management literature. What seems to be most efficient on the surface—simple hierarchies with clearly delineated pathways of power and resources—is also most fragile.

“[Researchers] found that an architecture of hierarchically nested loops — meaning loops within loops within loops — is most resistant to damage. “Loops make the network redundant.””

“The researchers also found that loop networks can better handle fluctuations in fluid flow as environmental conditions change.”

The world we live in today is increasingly volatile. Communities, markets, and states are increasingly subject to external or internal turbulence. This is why modern leaders increasingly talk about agility and adaptiveness, rather than domination and control.

“In a paper published in Nature Neuroscience in July, the researchers showed that the capillaries form a continuous network. “This means that the microvessels — capillaries — are fully connected among each other,” said Kleinfeld. “There are no regions of isolated vessels, no gated communities in real estate terms.””

Isolation increases fragility. This principle made me think of another excellent article, “The Social Life of Genes” by David Dobbs, which I will dive into further in a future post. In his discussion of researcher Steve Cole, he explores the idea that loneliness and social isolation results in greater illness and premature death. As Cole puts it, “Social isolation is the best-established, most robust social or psychological risk factor for disease out there. Nothing can compete.”
So how can we apply the principles of naturally resilient networks to man-made structures, such as school communities?
Let’s consider of how an architecture of nested loops can apply to leadership, curriculum, and infrastructure. We must seek opportunities to build connections between:
  • Distributed leadership throughout every department and grade level team (teams here equating with “loops”)
  • Interdisciplinary practices and content
  • Learning spaces that create varied opportunities for social interaction and solitary study
There’s a great term that we can use here which a commentator introduced on the original article: anastomosis. Anastomosis refers to connections made between adjacent channels in a network. Anastomosis is what we want to create in a school community. By seeking opportunities for anastomosis in our curriculum, infrastructure, and teacher teams, we can create more resilient schools.

Defining "Waste" in Public Education

One of the most common criticisms of public school systems is that they are filled with waste and inefficiency. Certainly, few who have worked for the Department of Education would describe it as “efficient.” But efficiency, as I pointed out in a recent article for Jacobin, is not an absolute concept. Neither is “waste”: one man’s trash, as we know, is another man’s treasure.

So what is “waste,” from a Schools as Ecosystems perspective? Certainly, I think we have a lot of ideas about what waste isn’t. Waste is not offering courses in arts, foreign languages, music or other “nonessential” subjects, though many cities have drastically cut such offerings. Waste is not employing support staff to help teachers and administrators with book distribution, event supervision, test administration, and other essential school functions, yet again, school districts across the country have laid off thousands of support staff in recent years. Extracurricular programs, special education paraprofessionals, teacher reimbursement for necessary school supplies: none of these are waste, from our perspective, yet all of these appear to be waste as far as the Department of Education is concerned.

I know what wasted time is. When a native Spanish speaker has to take high school Spanish because her school doesn’t have the resources to provide any other foreign languages, that’s waste. When high school seniors have a free period in the middle of the day because the funding for their Advanced Placement class was cut, that’s waste. It’s waste when a student with a speech impairment hides in the back of the class, afraid to talk, because her district fails to provide a speech therapist.

Whatever waste is or isn’t, it’s pretty clear that this is an area where we need clarity. Much of what policy-makers treat as waste, educators view as essential resources. So, how would you define waste?