Diversity Mitigates Cognitive Bias

“When surrounded by people “like ourselves,” we are easily influenced, more likely to fall for wrong ideas. Diversity prompts better, critical thinking. It contributes to error detection. It keeps us from drifting toward miscalculation.

Our findings suggest that racial and ethnic diversity matter for learning, the core purpose of a university. Increasing diversity is not only a way to let the historically disadvantaged into college, but also to promote sharper thinking for everyone.”

–“Diversity Makes You Brighter” http://nzzl.us/yzjF6tR

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.

Guilds and Diversity in Schools & Ecosystems

By Nhobgood Nick Hobgood (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I did a small interview a while back that I’d randomly discovered was posted when I did a search for schools and ecosystems. The interviewer had been especially interested in an idea I’d brought up a while back, based on an idea from Permaculture: guilds.

To review, a guild can be explained as “a group of animals and plants that co-evolve in a mutually beneficial (or “symbiotic“) manner. Such examples of guilds can be found in nature, but also can be developed intentionally by humans. A traditional example is the Three Sisters, squash, maize, and beans, cultivated successfully in Mesoamerica for thousands of years.”

In the interview, I give an example of how this could apply to a school:

“I think this applies to schools, because we magnify differences too much,” Anderson said. That fact keeps students from learning about the real communities they will live and work in, where people have authentic differences from one another.

“Traditionally, we are looking [sic] at special education as excluding, but it is also denying,” Anderson said. “We should be trying to seek to include these students in average classes.”

“It’s not about being stupid or not being able to do things,” he said. “Kids have a good understanding of these things: That we all have strengths and weaknesses.”

Human beings, of course, don’t fall into such easily definable categories as squash, maize, and beans, but when you have students on the spectrum of autism, students with a language processing delay, and so on . . . well, you have students that act and learn just a tad bit differently. But like I said, I think we magnify these differences overmuch. At the end of the day, some of us are good at some things, and others not so good, but we all get better by working together with one another.

The Sound of Schools: to Catch the Light

An article on Nautil.us* by Brandon Keim, “Decoding Nature’s Soundtrack,” introduces us to a fascinating new area of ecological study called biophony—the soundscapes of living organisms. Bernie Krause introduced scientists to the field through his recordings of ecosystems.

You can listen to one of Krause’s soothing recordings as you read this post:

In each spectrogram, Krause points something out: No matter how sonically dense they become, sounds don’t tend to overlap. Each animal occupies a unique frequency bandwidth, fitting into available auditory space like pieces in an exquisitely precise puzzle. It’s a simple but striking phenomenon, and Krause was the first to notice it. He named it biophony, the sound of living organisms, and to him it wasn’t merely aesthetic. It signified a coevolution of species across deep biological time and in a particular place. As life becomes richer, the symphony’s players find a sonic niche to play without interference.

“The biophony is the pure expression of life, of the given organisms in a habitat,” he says. “When you’re in a healthy habitat, all the species are able to find bandwidth where their voices fit.” He puts an ancient Borneo rain forest onto the speakers. At the top of the spectrogram are bats, their echolocation a bare hint of a sound to human ears; below them are cicadas, a plenitude of insects, one chestnut-winged babbler and nightjars and the booms of gibbons, each in its own place [bold added].

The mathematically spaced variation of leaves to capture the light.

Diversity & Structure

This passage struck me because it connects to a quality I love observing in nature—the way leaves so economically layer, space, and position themselves so as to maximize the capturing of sunlight. They don’t overzealously overlap so much as lushly occupy niches. How beautiful that this same vibrant variation may occur in the sounds of living organisms.

This suggests two ecological principles that also make sense in terms of a school ecosystem. Healthy ecosystems can be said to have these two main qualities: they are diverse, and they are structured.

One area of biophony research is to test if the health of an ecosystem can be measured by its sound. This area holds promise, though there’s not yet enough research to apply it.

Imagine if we could measure the health of a school ecosystem via sound! Though the so-called Losado ratio of positive to negative language has been debunked, I imagine that the sound of a healthy school would trend towards greater positive language use. I also think that you’d hear greater instances of the use of precise academic language.

Rapacity Results in Silence

Another interesting—and disquieting—facet of biophony research is the detrimental impact of human activity on natural soundscapes.

When the patterns of birdsong in those forests are analyzed and turned into mathematical measures of complexity, says Pieretti, the symphonies of communities subject to road-building and intrusion indeed seem to be less structured. Birds call louder and repeat themselves, perhaps to be heard above vehicular din; there’s more noise, but not more information [bold added].

More noise, but not more information. Again, think about a school in which the conditions are toxic. There’s less structure. You’ll hear kids bullying one another in the hallways and classrooms. You’ll hear adults complaining in the teacher’s lounge and office.

Let’s continue with the metaphor. Think of this healthy ecosystem that is both structured and diverse, then think about the policy and political clime of public education. Then think of the voices of parents, children, and teachers being drowned out and silenced.

Although sound indexes of ecological health may be years away, pending rigorous testing, calibration, and codification, Krause says he doesn’t need to wait for the results. He estimates that nearly half of the habitats he’s recorded are now compromised or rendered silent, primarily by human development and insatiable appetites that relegate most non-human interests to irrelevance. Krause requires no scientifically validated tools to hear that feedback. “If you know how to listen to it, then it’s really clear what’s happening,” he says. “As the natural world becomes more silent over time, the question is: Is that what we want?” [bold added]

Indeed. As we attempt to shape school systems into the ideal image of what we value, what other voices do we attempt to silence? And is their silence really what we want?

Barrenness is the end result of a lack of diversity and structure. We all want to catch a piece of the light.

Perhaps we need a new area of study. Eduphony. You heard it hear here first, folks.


* I find the pieces put out by Nautil.us so fascinating that I’ve subscribed to their print magazine—something I haven’t done for any other publication in years. I’m looking for an education research journal to subscribe to, but haven’t yet found one I find compelling (if you have any suggestions, especially one on special education, please let me know).

Anxiety and Normality: Coping with Autism

By Wes Washington (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
To gain insight in the complex world of “disabilities” and “special education” can be difficult, and it seems rare that clear perspectives to help us navigate these treacherous waters is published. Thankfully, every now and then such a perspective comes along: here’s an insightful interview on autism, entitled “A First-Person Perspective on Anxiety and Autism” by Dr. Dan Peters on Psychology Today.

What I found particularly insightful in this interview of an adult on the spectrum, Dr. Catharine Alvarez, is her articulation of the link between anxiety and autism. She frames this as an issue of the disjoint created between a societal conception of “normality” and the demand for conformity:

Promoting acceptance means looking for ways that society can include autistic people as they are instead of trying to fit autistic people into society by insisting that they be “less autistic.”

As she notes, our society is well aware of autism these days, so the issue for advocacy is less of building awareness, and more about including people with autism as they are.

Going back to the idea of anxiety and its link to autism, she notes that:

…anxiety can be secondary to autism because sensory overwhelm and negative social experiences can lead us to develop anxiety about certain environments and situations, but the interaction goes the other way as well. Anxiety can lead to avoidance of experiences that could be social learning opportunities for children and adults on the autism spectrum, and anxiety can make autistic people more rigid, more dependent on routine, and can make it more difficult to regulate our emotions.

What fascinates me about this is that she points to a clear opportunity for improvement of learning environments, whether for those with autism or otherwise: seek to reduce anxiety by creating environments of psychological and physical safety.

In noting the increase in rates of diagnosis of autism, Alvarez points to the commonality between the experiences of those with autism and those who are “normal”:

I see the increase in diagnosis as a result of describing autism as a set of behaviors that are actually common coping behaviors that any human being will exhibit under stress.  Social withdrawal, low eye contact, rigid insistence on routine, repetitive behaviors…all of these are basic human attempts to cope with an overwhelming environment (Bold added).

I can relate well to this, having been painfully shy and self-conscious for many of my formative years. I still have to consciously force myself to meet other people’s eyes in social situations, as I can get easily overwhelmed in unstructured environments or situations, especially ones with a lot of noise.

However, as Alvarez points out in this next quote, by making such a personal connection, I must also be aware of the reality that no matter how difficult certain situations or environments may be for me, I am not someone with autism, and that what I may consider to be “normal” may be unfathomably difficult for someone else:

Acceptance requires people to acknowledge that a situation can be extremely anxiety provoking for an autistic person even if it would not be a problem for most people. Acceptance means understanding that behaviors like harmless stims, reduced eye contact, and a need for routine are ways that autistic people cope with anxiety. I think your recommendation to honor the needs of autistic kids is so helpful because it allows them to take the lead in managing what they can handle. All children need a zone of safety that they can retreat to and then venture out again to explore and learn when they are feeling calm and open to learning (Bold added).

This is an incredible insight. It made me think of a student with autism I currently work with. He doesn’t exhibit the extreme stereotypical behaviors of autism, but has a few subtle signs of repetitive behavior in the classroom. And this little insight made me realize that those moments when he is exhibiting those behaviors could be pointing to moments of anxiety—an anxiety that I can help alleviate if I can determine its source.

That was a tangible insight that aided me in understanding someone with autism. Here’s another great insight:

For any child who is a literal thinker, clear facts and explanations may be a better choice. For example, it would have helped me very much to learn early on about emotions and the sensations they cause in our bodies. For a long time, I was not even reliably able to discern when I was experiencing anxiety. I thought there was something physically wrong with me. Using emotion words, talking about how emotions feel in our bodies, and encouraging children to notice and talk about these sensations and feelings can go a long way toward developing social skills and cognitive empathy skills.

We often neglect to teach children how to become self-aware of things we might take for granted, even though it can be evident that even many adults aren’t aware of them. For example, are you aware when you are getting angry? What signs notify you that you have been triggered? I know that I get visibly tense, my shoulders get tight, and I look down. By becoming aware of this, I am more likely to be able to control my anger and make a conscious choice about how I react and cope with it. But how many adults have you known who fly off the handle and have difficulty restraining themselves, damaging relationships and their own well-being in the process? Teaching children this self-awareness and the language to discuss their emotions is critical.

We have to understand ourselves before we can begin to understand others.

I think acceptance of autism can go a long way toward alleviating some of the anxiety because when we feel accepted as we are, we worry less about trying to pass for normal. Acceptance is permission to do what we need to do in order to feel comfortable expanding the range of where we can go and what we can do. (Bold added)

What does it mean to be “normal”? When we expand our notions of what normality means, perhaps we might find that we can better understand people with different manners of coping with anxiety. By accepting these differences, we can include these others rather than exclude them.

If that sounds vague, let me bring it back to the classroom. Every now and then a middle school teacher may encounter a child who copes with anxiety by crawling around on the floor or making strange sounds or talking to herself. While this can seem strange at that age, consider what that child may be coping with. By accepting that she is attempting to make a comfortable space for herself, maybe we can begin to understand what she might be feeling anxious about, and then—only then—maybe we can begin to help her.