Can Schools Tame the Chaos of the Mind?

By W. Goeree (http://www.iscra.nl/myc2003.htm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
We’ve investigated the concepts of randomness, disorder, and chaos and how they might relate to complex and dynamic systems here before. The obvious connection to a school, in case you’ve never worked in one, is that you can never quite anticipate what’s going to happen on any given day. Schools are complex systems rife with social and emotional and cultural and political and psychological interdependencies and turbulence. Yet it is this very complexity that makes working within them so very compelling.

An interesting article on Nautilus by Kelly Clancy, “Your Brain Is On the Brink of Chaos,” the concept of chaos is examined in its relation to the brain. Clark lays out some principles worth exploring further. For example, she lays out the following definition of chaos:

Chaos is not the same as disorder. While disordered systems cannot be predicted, chaos is actually deterministic: The present state of the system determines its future. Yet even so, its behavior is only predictable on short time scales: Tiny differences in inputs result in vastly different outcomes. Chaotic systems can also exhibit stable patterns called “attractors” that emerge to the patient observer. Over time, chaotic trajectories will gravitate toward them. Because chaos can be controlled, it strikes a fine balance between reliability and exploration. Yet because it’s unpredictable, it’s a strong candidate for the dynamical substrate of free will [bold added].

This made sense to me based on some other ideas on chaos we’ve examined before. For example, in a quote from Simple Really: From Simplicity to Complexity — And Back Again by John D. Barrow, an essay within a compilation of essays on the Royal Society, Seeing Further: Ideas, Endeavours, Discoveries and Disputes — The Story of Science Through 350 Years of the Royal Societyedited by Bill Bryson, Barrow states the following:

An important feature of chaotic systems is that, although they become unpredictable when you try to determine the future from a particular uncertain starting value, there may be a particular stable statistical spread of outcomes after a long time, regardless of how you started out. The most important thing to appreciate about these stable statistical distributions of events is that they often have very stable and predictable average behaviors. . .[bold added].

So through careful observation and analysis, chaotic systems can be predictable, even if they are quite unpredictable on an immediate basis. I thought Clancy’s explication of chaos as actually deterministic was also enlightening. This idea that it’s present state determines its future also lines up with what we’ve examined in terms of the possibility of an underlying mathematical simplicity of complex systems.

In that post, “A Self-Organizing Criticality, Somewhere Between Boredom and Chaos,” we also examined Per Bak’s concept of a “self-organized criticality,” in which complex systems spontaneously transition between states of order and disorder, which Clancy echoes in the following quote about the brain:

The critical state can be quite useful for the brain, allowing it to exploit both order and disorder in its computations—employing a redundant network with rich, rapid chaotic dynamics, and an orderly readout function to stably map the network state to outputs. The critical state would be maintained not by temperature, but the balance of neural excitation and inhibition. If the balance is tipped in favor of more inhibition, the brain is “frozen” and nothing happens. If there is too much excitation, it will descend into chaos. The critical point is analogous to an attractor.

This notion that a complex system hovers somewhere in the balance between chaos and order is a fascinating one, especially when you connect it to the idea of a school. It reminds me of a joyous classroom of students engaged in meaningful and challenging work. There’s a warm buzz of controlled but spontaneous activity and creativity. Students can very easily go off the rails, and it’s the teacher’s job to hold them in that “hinterland between the inflexibilities of determinism and the vagaries of chaos,” as Barrow eloquently phrased it.

Order and disorder enjoy a symbiotic relationship, and a neuron’s firing may wander chaotically until a memory or perception propels it into an attractor. Sensory input would then serve to “stabilize” chaos. Indeed, the presentation of a stimulus reduces variability in neuronal firing across a surprising number of different species and systems, as if a high-dimensional chaotic trajectory fell into an attractor. By “taming” chaos, attractors may represent a strategy for maintaining reliability in a sensitive system. Recent theoretical and experimental studies of large networks of independent oscillators have also shown that order and chaos can co-exist in surprising harmony, in so-called chimera states.

This idea of attractors is also fascinating to me. As I read this passage on the subway on the way to class this morning on my little smartphone screen, I thought back to the idea of perceptual illusions and their relation to powerlessness. I also thought about the effect of isolation on the brain. And I wondered if this concept of “sensory input” stabilizing chaos that Clancy just outlined can be taken almost literally, as in how the loving touch of a mother has been shown to be important in brain development. And how beyond touch, the tone and manner in how adults and students speak to one another, the colors displayed on the wall, and all the other contextual factors of the environment can be so fundamental to “taming” the chaos that lies both in extreme isolation (ever been alone in the wilderness? Your mind goes nuts) or in overcrowded, confined spaces (the ghetto). Schools can provide that stabilizing influence.

Again, we find echoes of this idea of harmony and symbiosis in Barrow:

. . . Chaos and order have been found to coexist in a curious symbiosis. . . . At a microscopic level, the fall of sand is chaotic, yet the result in the presence of a force like gravity is large-scale organisation.  . . Order develops on a large scale through the combination of many independent chaotic small-scale events that hover on the brink of instability. Complex adaptive systems thrive in the hinterland between the inflexibilities of determinism and the vagaries of chaos. There, they get the best of both worlds: out of chaos springs a wealth of alternatives for natural selection to sift; while the rudder of determinism sets a clear average course towards islands of stability.” (Bold added)

Now that I’ve geeked out on chaos, back to work . . .

 

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Will chaos be good for the children of Newark?

Mark and I like to keep things on this blog pretty practical, but every now and then we get into a little theory. Today, I’d like to look at a new theory that’s gaining traction in the upper offices of the New Jersey government. The theory seems to be that the best way to help students learn is to make their lives at school more chaotic and unpredictable. While this educational chaos theory seems completely crazy to me, recent events have shown us that New Jersey’s government is nothing if not crazy.

For those who haven’t heard about what’s happening in New Jersey, Bob Braun reports:

“The state administration of the Newark Public Schools (NPS) is expected to lay off hundreds of experienced city teachers and replace many  with new hires, including more than 300 members of Teach for America (TFA). The report comes from union sources but is supported both by the latest version of the state’s “One Newark” plan and by the Walton Family Foundation website. The foundation is expected to subsidize the hiring of the new teachers.”

Before I continue, I have to admit that this plan makes me extremely angry. Part of me just wants to use this post to highlight TFA’s myriad shortcomings and the Walton Family Foundation’s awful educational program. The idea that the owners of a corporation as aggressively exploitative as Wal-Mart might actually have the best interests of Newark’s children in mind is so laughable that it’s not worth discussing. So let’s talk about ecosystems.

In particular, I’d like to talk about old growth forests. Like veteran public school teachers, these forests have been rapidly disappearing from our nation’s landscape. This makes some of us feel a twinge of sentimental, Loraxy sadness , but does it really matter? We know that experienced teachers are better than new teachers, but are old forests better than new ones?

In many ways, they are. Old forests do a better job absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide than young forests. Old trees are far more effective at sustaining diverse flora and fauna than young trees. And of course, old forests are far better than young forests at producing positive forest outcomes.

Do you see what happens when people like the Walton family and the government of New Jersey declare war on schools,  students, and cities? Teachers like me go crazy and begin comparing old forests and new forests as though they’re actually in conflict. The truth is that we need old forests and new forests; only the lumber industry, seeking ever greater profits from the destruction of ecosystems old and new, would argue otherwise.

And no sane educator would ever argue that only young teachers are bad, or that only veteran teachers are good. I’m not arguing that. I’m arguing that replacing hundreds of veteran teachers with novices is such an obviously bad idea that the people proposing it must not really be interested in improving Newark’s public schools. Like the folks in charge of the lumber industry, these education reformers must see some profit in pitting old and new against each other, and letting the teachers and students on the ground deal with the mess they leave behind.