On Failure, Uncertainty, and Risk

I came across this really interesting video shortly after writing about the concept of “explosive networks.” In this overview of his book, Greg Ip provides a comprehensive explanation of how efforts to increase safety and stability can often end up resulting in greater catastrophe (including the efforts in fire prevention). I think his ideas pair well with our broader conversations about the relationship between complex systems and chaos.

Ip asks an interesting question: How can we allow danger to make us safe?

He provides the example of the aviation industry, and how it is now far safer to fly than it is to drive in a car, thanks to the great pressure and transparency generated by any disasters that have occurred. He also frames this in terms of the economy, acknowledging that risk-taking is ultimately what increases wealth.

In the world of education, there has recently been much talk on the importance of failure in learning, and it’s interesting how this parallels broader discussions about complexity and uncertainty within other sectors. For example, if you really want to geek out, you can watch video of the panel of Tyler Cowen, Jared Bernstein and Alex Pollock debating economic principles — what I found interesting was how all of the panelists implicitly concurred on the point that human beings suffer from psychological limitations, which results in greater uncertainty and unpredictability. We have frequently examined this topic here under the banner of “cognitive bias.”

Much of the work that we do in my school’s Support Services department (we’ve decided to rebrand the term “special education) is to try and shift student perceptions of themselves. Often the greatest barrier to student learning is not disability, nor even the content and tasks demanded by rigorous academic subjects, but rather a student’s belief that they are either unable to do the work, or that asking the necessary questions to clarify their understanding is simply not worth the “risk” of appearing “stupid.”

To bring the classroom side of things back to Greg Ip’s question: How can we allow danger to make us safe? I think in a school, we can never completely remove the psychological “dangers” of peer and self-perceptions when challenged by difficult and complex academic content and tasks. The question in a school is not how can we make content easier or ignore the reality that failing in front of others is inherently risky, but rather how can we increase students’ willingness to take the risks necessary for learning? And as Ip suggests about the aviation industry, maybe being transparent about the smaller failures and misconceptions that inevitably do occur along the way can be of greater benefit in the long-run, and prevent much greater disasters from occurring father down the line.

 

 

George Soros: Humans Can Act as Both Particles and Waves

By Thierry Dugnolle (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
In an interview with George Soros on “The Future of Europe,” Soros makes an interesting analogy on human behavior that potentially links to a school ecosystem.

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.