"Yet a man who uses an imaginary map, thinking that it is a true one, is likely to be worse off than someone with no map at all; for he will fail to inquire whenever he can, to observe every detail on his way, and to search continuously with all his senses and all his intelligence for indications of where he should go."
-E. F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful
Our world is built on the notion that we can make choices and do things in ways that yield predictable outcomes, according to formulas of the kind you might use to map the trajectory of a cannonball, or a spaceship traveling to the moon. We don’t always know the “true” formula for some things: like education, for example. But it’s an unspoken article of faith that the formula exists - that there exists a best way. Once discovered, it will be predictable, obvious, and repeatable independent of context - a ‘calculus’ of education.
There is evidence for this in the ongoing public dialogue about education itself. Every few years, a new “breakthrough” solution is found which promises to change everything. Currently the talk is about charter schools and breaking up teachers unions. In the early years after the turn of the century, it was about evidence based approaches, and running schools like businesses. The rate at which these solutions are born, adopted, and fall away suggests the desperation of gamblers convinced that they will get lucky the next round, in spite of the evidence that they have been steadily losing for years.
We have good reasons for this kind of thinking: it has allowed us to become fantastically successful in technological realms over the past century. Theories that allow us to predict and control physical outcomes are what made it possible for us to put a man on the moon, among other great (and not so great) achievements of recent history. So when I criticize that kind of thinking, it’s not as if I’m saying it doesn’t work, or is somehow false. It isn’t: those guys really did walk on the moon. What I am saying is that the kind of thinking that got them there and back again will not work to educate our children. A global, context-free calculus of education does not and will not exist. Continuing to search for it is to spend our resources on a fantasy, and distract ourselves from the work of education in context.
Complexity and Context
In his book Making Things Work, Yaneer Bar-Yam suggests that in order to be effective, systems must match their complexity to the scale of the environment in which they are designed to operate. Their ability to perform their function successfully depends on this relationship to their context. A car is designed for relatively large scale movement, and depends on a relatively low complexity environment: a well paved road. As the complexity of the environment increases, the scale at which the car can move decreases. A dirt road is more complex than a paved one, and so the car must move more slowly. A Formula One racecar requires an extremely smooth surface; a jeep can handle greater environmental complexity at the expense of speed.
Let’s imagine two environments: an inner-city, riddled with drugs and a long history of violence, and a suburbia with low crime rates. Like all environments, these influence their inhabitants in essentially Darwinian ways: in large part they determine what actions and ways of thinking are successful, and which are not. Both are human social settings, and therefore necessarily complex. But the stakes are significantly higher for children living in the inner city. Failing to manage the social environment in suburbia may result in hurt feelings and psychological strain. An equivalent failure in the inner city may result in the child being murdered.
Suburban children are like Formula One racecars: they live and operate in environments of lower complexity. There is enough stability and an abundance of resources such that their attention is free to focus on abstract pursuits, without fear of encountering giant potholes or felled trees. Inner city children lack these luxuries: their environment is more complex, and requires greater resilience.
But our system of educational assessment does not take environmental context into account. It’s as though a jeep, designed for resilience in the face of rough terrain, and a Formula One racecar, built for speed on simple terrain, were both judged on the criterion of speed. In assessment circles, this is analogous to “IQ,” or the ability to manage abstract, de-contextualized information. The assessment itself happens in a low-complexity environment: a silent classroom that favors the racecar over the jeep. It would be interesting to administer the same tests to both suburban and inner city children, but in an open-air inner city drug market - a “corner” - and examine the resulting achievement gap.
In general, the American system of public education suffers from a mismatch of complexity and scale of intervention. Curricula are increasingly designed around standardized tests based on the idea that what applies to one child applies to all of them. The assumption is that all children have a relatively low degree of complexity, and that we can therefore intervene with them on a large scale with massive learning programs designed by experts who are removed from the contexts in which the students live. Because this approach works for some students (in some contexts), then if it does not work for others, the system concludes that the failure is due to the student's lack of ability.
So what’s the alternative? I’ll tackle that in the next part...