Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Echo Chamber

A couple of things have come up this week:

  • Phil McRae put up a paper today on the Internet's echo chamber in k-12 education.  
  • I watched Jonathan Haidt's recent presentation on the purification of U.S. political parties and I stoked the fires of self-righteousness in one of my online groups by sharing some related ideas.
  • I've been reading "Beyond Toleration: The History of American Religious Pluralism" and have been fascinated how society made it impermissible to even talk about mere toleration of other religious groups.
  • A Marquette philosophy prof was suspended after criticizing a grad student teaching an ethics course for telling a student in a 1-on-1 discussion that censoring non-progressive bigoted examples and counter-examples is appropriate because of offence likelihood.
  • Season 2 of the Newsroom continues to act all anti-hegemony but mostly just reveals Hollywood's ideological purity problem. Media is especially non-diverse in its social-politic spectrum.  They are mono-cultures.

History of religion is an amazing tool in understanding group dynamics in moderately moralized groups.  I'm still amazed that academics let its taboo nature hinder them from investigating the wealth of analyzable case studies it affords.

Take the popular issue raised by Marquette situation and by Newsroom's S02E03 booing of a loaded pro-gay question. The problem revolves around tension between the 1st amendment (free speech) and  14th amendment (equal rights).  Despite what political polarization suggests, good people on both sides of the debate differ as to the balance point.  These people also differ in the time-scale with which their analyses are based: immediate good or long-term good.

According to Haidt's work, people are divided in their primary use a "care/harm" metric or a "loyalty-authority-sanctity" metric.  This division is exceptionally well correlated with current political leanings.  The care/harm metric can be seen to come from analyzing situations on an immediate time-scale: what's good right now.  The loyalty-authority-sanctity metic can be seen to come from analyzing things on a long time-scale: what's good for a large number of similar situations over time?  The care/harm metric can also be seen to prioritize consequences of commission over that of omission.  The loyalty-authority-sanctity metric negates distinctions between commission and omission.  Thus the former is a very individualistic paradigm.  The latter is a very group oriented paradigm.

The emergence of religious liberty during the 18th century faced a very similar quandary to today's progressive purity movement.  The first great religious awakening introduced a tidal wave of ideological diversity. The population underwent a rapid phase change from valuing social-cultural orthodoxy and orthopraxy to valuing diversity.

This change was facilitated by heterogeneity among "New Light" progressives.  "New Lights" valued the universality of shared "awakening" experiences (in modern parlance - born again experiences).  Soon, every religious congregation ended up with a split; some members valued the tradition of orthodoxy and some members valued awakening experiences. Because people of both persuasions interacted regularly polarized eventually minimized, leading to a new, higher level group arrangement.

From an evolutionary perspective the physical "awakening" experience is easy to classify as a feeling of synergy.  This type of synergy is reported by many groups that seem to be coalescing around potentially adaptive functioning.  The degree of felt synergy is probably correlated with the degree to which the new grouping is likely to be strongly or weakly adaptive.  The level of likely group adaptive function is probably correlated with strength of moral purpose.

Thus, what seems to have been happening during the Great Awakenings is that people "felt/experienced" that an alternative, broader, grouping based upon shared intent/spiritual experience was feasible and likely adaptive.  As history attests, this was certainly the case.  A higher group level emerged.  Nationalistic feelings increased and reliance on the rule of law as opposed to the rule of the parish (local community) increased.  Thus the new, higher-level, grouping wasn't so much based on common spiritual experiences as it was based on potential.  Actual embodiement (of purpose and function) was influenced (in an emergent way) on various environmental influences and secondary resonances.

During the emergence of this higher group level, dissent toward toleration was purged.  This happened by:

  1. First considering intolerance purposefully oppressive.  
  2. Then by considering intolerance impolite.  
  3. Then by considering intolerance purposefully rude and reflective of bad character (social suppression of negative position). 
  4. Then by considering any discussion about it purposively divisive (total suppression of the negative position).  
  5. Then by considering failure to support the affirmative position (religious liberty) purposefully divisive.
  6. Then by enshrining religious liberty in law and considering any negative position to not be merely impolite but illegal and punishable.
Now of course this cycle happened more than once.  The second Great Awakening of the early 1800's is the next example.  Indeed one could say that distinctions between the "purely" religious awakenings and cultural awakenings like the 60's and 2000's are pretty arbitrary and largely based on the role of an embodied Big Brother (god figure).  From a science of religion and evolutionary adaptive group position, this distinction is pretty naive (and to be honest likely reflective of fairly superficial and bigoted understandings of religion).


The historical record sheds a great deal of light on the Echo Chamber problem mentioned by Phil and Haidt.  The modern progressive purity movement of gay rights is probably split between step 3 and 5 of the religious toleration change I sketched.  The interesting question is whether the progressive change will result in a universal phase change or a polarized phase change.  

The 1700's and 1800's historical record suggests the need for heterogeneous ideological interactions and a place to dump the pent-up energy such as formation of a superceding (higher) group level.  The progressive movement of the 60's wasn't facilitated by the creation of a superseding group level.  It was facilitated by the unification of the cold war.  This held polarization (and dissolution of the higher group level) in check.

Currently we seem to be in a nasty spot.  There is no real common enemy.  Western civilization's  extremist Islam enemy is rather minor on a physical level and its existential severity is hugely polarized by political affiliation. Heterogeneous ideological interaction is limited by the internet's self-selective echo chamber.  Its also limited by extremely strong political and ideological purifying forces.  It is also weakened by the disappearance of moderate religion.  This latter effect is usually neglected.  However it plays a huge role!

The loss of moderate religion means that there is a large gap in participation in moderately moral groups.  If this participation in moderately moral adaptive groups in an evolved tendency, then there now exists a gap in the expression of a strong proximate genetic force.  Such gaps don't exist for long because they are adaptively unstable.  Thus something will take its place.  This may be an increase in moral purpose of self-selected minor groupings (i.e. my climbing group, my motorcycle group, my environmentalist group, etc.).  Unfortunately many of these groups don't seem well situated to fill a strong adaptive role.  Politics however....

What seems to be happening is that politics is becoming increasingly moralized.  Politics fits the perfect niche vacated by moderate religion.  Thus politics is becoming a huge echo chamber energized by moral energy and purpose.  Numerous environmental resonances are occurring, energizing the whole process in a series of feedback loops.


To me, the picture this paints is rather bleak.  The taboo associated with academic application of the historical religious record and associated science of religion work is, I hate to say, almost naive malpractice. You can't fight evolutionary powerful forces with rationality's weak mitts.  As David Sloan Wilson says,

If there is a trade-off between the two forms of realism, such that our beliefs can become more adaptive only by becoming factually less true, then factual realism will be the loser every time. … Factual realists detached from practical reality were not among our ancestors. It is the person who elevates factual truth above practical truth who must be accused of mental weakness from an evolutionary perspective

One interesting possibility is that alternative large groups, such as education, may fill the moralizing role that politics seems to be sucking up.  I hope so.  However, education is perennially caught between its own tension as a universalizing agent (large group role) and as an academic agent (small, localized group role).

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Competing Superveniences

List & Pettit's arguments in Group Agency are well structured and transparent to follow.  One of their theorems is that holistic supervenience is consistent with robust group rationality (pp. 69).  In simpler terms this means that a group which rationalizes things generally can't make judgements in a piece-wise fashion.  The group's judgments must supercede individual judgements.  For things on which the group speaks, everyone must listen.

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Now if this is the case, then how can education hold competing purposes? For example, how can education vacillate between a focus on things like social equality and a focus on things like the selective academic streamlining*?  Within List & Pettit's logical structure, education can't have a logical split personality.

The following options emerge; well at least they emerge from my deduction.

Social equity & streamlined academics must produce close judgment calls for dominance.  Ebb and flow of group members and environmental factors may cause one or the other to rise or fall in predominance.

The problem with this position is that cultural evolution suggests a fairly strong selection gradient.

The reason is simple: cognitive attractors will rapidly concentrate the cultural variation in a population. Instead of a continuum of cultural variants, most people will hold a representation near an attractor. If there is only one attractor, it will dominate. However, if, as seems likely in most cases, attactors are many, other selective forces will then act to increase the frequency of people holding a representation near one attractor over others. Under such conditions, even weak selective forces (“weak” relative to the strength of the attractors) can determine the final distribution of representations in the population. (Henrich, Boyd, Richerson, 2008)
Thus, one shouldn't really expect to see a long-lasting tension without a fairly explicit organizational structure facilitating the competing memes.

Another option explaining durability of two competing judgment conclusions for a List & Pettit group agent is that individuals form multiple groups, each with their own supervening judgment conclusion.

This fits in incredibly well with multi-level selection theory.  Rather than the aggregate of individual judgments producing competing group conclusions, it is competition between competing holistic superveniences which produce education's competing purposes.  Thus group allegiance tensions most inform education's competing purposes.

Another way you could get two competing judgment conclusions would be to vacillate between premise based judgment aggregator functions.  Put in simpler terms, you change the logic used to take premises to conclusions.

This would seem highly likely to produce more than two stable states.  Now its entirely possible that educational purpose vacillates between more than two states.  While this is true when analyzing things with a precise sense, educational change history really does seem to reveal a pattern of cycling between large group orientation and local group orientations.  While premise function aggregators may only produce two stable outputs, I'll rely on a simple probabilistic argument that this is highly unlikely given the number of premises operating within education.  However, I'll certainly concede that a two state output based on a complex function is theoretically possible.

List & Pettit also mention another way that could explain a scenario of competing purposes.   Conclusions formed by specialized groups dictate all individual attitudes on a given issue.  This places the group agent in the role of rationalizing multiple conclusions.  Rationalization occurs by the laity's formation of a supervening holistic conclusion.  However, a quote seems to baffle this last idea, so I must be missing something:

First for each presumes, the attitudes of some subgroup - the relevant 'specialists - suffice to determine the group attitude on that premise, whereas other individuals' attitudes are not necessary; and the subgroups in question differ across premises.  Second, to determine the group attitudes on the entire agenda of propositions, each individual needs to contribute only a single attitude on a single proposition, namely on the premise he or she 'specializes' on; no contribution on other propositions is needed. (pp. 75)
The statement as written begs the question of formation of a single supra conclusion.  I don't think they would leave this to mysterious "emergentism".  Nor do I think they are unaware of the aggregation problem the quote as written begs.  Therefore, the only thing I can think of is that the gross laity also form a single conclusion for the group agent.  This single conlcusion then has the role of rationalization potentially contradictory multiple specialist conclusions.  It doesn't over-write them, but "vox-splains" them into a coherent narrative.  This narrative is certainly may be logically inconsistent.

However, List & Pettit seem to leave the rationalization act as a very weak form of emergence:
Let a collection of individuals form and act on a single, robustly rational body of attitudes, whether by dint of a joint intention or on some other bases, and it will be an agent. (pp. 75)
As I mentioned, joint intention seems to be the supra conclusion of the laity.  This either minimizes (if the group's conclusion is an attitude) or completely eliminates emergence (if the group's conclusion is an agreed upon structure, or perhaps even an attitudinaless action).  In practice, you end up with specialized groups getting feedback from the group's supra conclusion in a manner potentially describe by social-cognitive theory.

I'd suggest the specialized group explanation is tatamount to my multi-level group explanation.  Difference seems to be the extent to which sub-groups are best considered embedded within the larger group or competing with the larger group.  List & Pettit's specialized group approach seems unstable over time.  If people have a tendency to form groups, then there is little reason why that tendency wouldn't express itself in the autonomization and dissociation of small groups from a large group.

Cognitive dissonance theory may be used as a descriptive approach to when embodies ends and competition begins.  Because I'm more interested in the causal side than descriptive side, cognitive dissonance explanations don't excite me much.  I just chalk it up to "that's down to complex behaviour....".

*While lots of people do mental gymnastics to reconcile how social equity, ensuring people don't get too far apart from each other, and academic streaming, ensuring people get as much acceleration as they can easily be handled, the two are pretty mutually exclusive.  Weak social equity can certainly handle a bit of streamlining.  However, because the have's get accelerated more than the have-nots, the end results reveal the weakness of this cover-up. Addressing student needs at the non-universal level will (eventually) always produce streamlining which challenges social equity.

One purpose to rule them all....

Tweets are nice.  Getting a vibe for where people's thoughts are at is interesting, especially if you aren't working within a vibrant research team.

This tweet (part of an apparently upcoming debate between Pasi Sahlberg, Graham Brown-Martin and George Siemens) is particularly ripe for  deconstruction.

The main thing I find interesting is the possible hidden assumption that education's purpose is 
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1. singular,
2. frameable in noun-like language,
3. stabilizable.

Now obviously I don't think a tweet reveals any of these assumptions.  However, these assumptions do tend to come across in amateur educational discourse, and even at academic level discourse.

1. Singular & 3. Stabilizable
The history of education certainly suggests some sort of cyclical (or perhaps non-deterministic) pattern.  This suggests it is highly unlikely that education will ever tend to a single stable "purpose".  I personally take the view that education's purpose is non-deterministic, rather, I assume that it can be described a a cycle between (two) characterizable states.  I'd also add that there is always a non-zero chance of everything going-to-pot (complex dynamics).

2. Frameable
The other issue I really wonder about is the assumption that education's purpose is frameable in normal language.  By this I don't mean that the process or end-point orientations aren't frameable, just that you can't easily separate out process & state.  This leads to a bit of a conundrum: 
  • is it more effective to take a process approach, giving up a bit on end-point characterization ease and introducing functionalist bias, or
  • take a fully functionalist process approach giving up the ease of talking about "things",
  • take a fully non-functionalist process approach, like multi-level selection theory.
Mixing process & state is certainly unstable and enables intended and un-intended abuse. A fully non-functionalist approach is accurate, but perhaps unsatisfying for those that like descriptors (thing-talk).

Perhaps, when talking about education's purpose, the best we can do with common-language is to adopt the "tension" term.  Thus education's purpose is worded as some sort of tension between large-group orientation and smaller-group orientation.  As can readily be seen, leaving things this vague, while accurate, is unsatisfying.  Thus the fully non-functionalist process approach, while accurate, leaves one striving for more statist (thing-based) descriptions.

Here's a summary some ways to frame educational tension according to the three options to the stated conundrum.

Functionalistic Process Process + State Non-functionalistic Process
social equity ends large-group orientation characterized by behaviour which elevates the value of social equity
expressed dominance of large  group traits
contextualized academic/vocational needs/preferences small-group orientation characterized by behaviour which elevates the value of contextualized needs & preferences
expressed dominance of small group traits
What is obvious is that any process+state combination of explaining education's purpose probably requires more cumbersome language than the simple noun descriptions people seem drawn to.  Similarly people just aren't used to pure process descriptors.  Nor is a process approach economical in this case: there are just lots of (functionalist) sub-processes going on.

So, before debating what "schooling is for", it's probably best to talk about where along the process-state spectrum educational purpose can be adequately characterized for the depth of discourse sought.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Cultural Evolution Piece

This summary of a paper by Henrich, Boyd, and Richardson is exactly what I needed.

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While I have yet jumped very far into the cultural evolution literature, its a piece that is needed to support how (institutionalized) education functions as an adaptive group.


My basic model posits tension in education between group-level orientation and individual-level (or more precisely, smaller group) orientation.  It also posits a slight preference for toleration.  Toleration preference orients the system to group-level inclusivity (i.e. toward a universalist moral position).  This fosters low frequency but sudden phase changes.  Reform resistance emerges due to the weak-to-moderate moral nature of the group.  Reform resistance is therefore governed by the various social factors associated with adaptive groups (i.e. norm variation detection & punishment, costly commitment displays, moral big brother, etc.).

I'm still playing with the notion of whether the end points of large group-orientation and small group-orientation are or are not strange attractors.


That's why this quote from Henrich, Boyd and Richardson is so interesting:
[C]ultural transmission does not involve the accurate replication of discrete, gene-like entities. Nonetheless, we also believe that models which assume discrete replicators that evolve under the influence of natural- selection-like forces can be useful. In fact, we think such models are useful because of the action of strong cognitive attractors during the social learning. 
The reason is simple: cognitive attractors will rapidly concentrate the cultural variation in a population. Instead of a continuum of cultural variants, most people will hold a representation near an attractor. If there is only one attractor, it will dominate. However, if, as seems likely in most cases, attactors are many, other selective forces will then act to increase the frequency of people holding a representation near one attractor over others. Under such conditions, even weak selective forces (“weak” relative to the strength of the attractors) can determine the final distribution of representations in the population.
Furthermore, the summary of their position by is at least as interesting.
A major feature of cognitive attractors is that particulate cognitive information is less costly to hold and transmit than blended information - for example, it's easier to model the moon as either purely a rock in space or purely a conscious entity than some combination of the two.
Education's social equality camp is a cultural attractive well.  Education's academic/contextualized-needs camp is another cultural attractive well.  Intractability in premise or conclusion judgment prevent a stable solution.

Now whether the end-points are or are not strange attractors is a hard question.  Dynamics could be due to the attractors or due to the environment which the attractors lay (i.e. the judgment process).

Monday, December 8, 2014

??? Proposition-Conclusion = Individual-Group ???

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Multi-level selection theory posits tension between group-level interests and individual interests.  In some cases group orientation is more adaptive than an individualistic orientation.  In lieu of worrying about fitness, List & Pettit (2011) take a philosophical (logic-based) approach based on List's judgment aggregation theory.  This is used to filter some of the conditions involved in judgement aggregation, bypassing the impossibility theorem (there is no single way to aggregate a single net-judgement when propositions are interconnected non-trivially with 3+ people)/.

List & Pettit's preferred way out of the impossibility trap,
involves prioritizing some propositions over others and letting the group attitudes on the first set of propositions determine its attitudes on the second. (pp. 56)


Now what strikes me as interesting in this approach is its dyadic nature.  This is eerily similar to the dyadic nature of multi-level selection (which is usually operationalized with a two-level view).  While I may be stretching a bit, a little tidbit from List & Pettit is provocative: suppose the group assigns priority either to premises or conclusions... Further suppose the group delegates responsibility to premises to subject-specialists and to conclusions to the laity.  To me, at least, this roughly parallels multi-level selection's individualist vs. group tension.

In my nascent "Education as an adaptive group theory" I've suggested tension between group orientation and individual orientation models the dynamics of education's reform resistance and a slight preference for tolerance creates a 50 year total reform cycle.  However, observations hint that "individual orientation" as used by evolutionary biology isn't a perfect fit.  In education, the "individual orientation" seems to center around what is appropriate for contextually localized, identifiable small groups.

For example, I'd suggest that in education, an orientation for a system optimized for the small percentage of academically oriented critical thinkers is an "individual orientation".  In multi-level selection theory I currently suspect I have to posit 2 group levels within education: the supra "institution of education group" and the sub "special interests in education groups".  While likely feasible, this isn't exactly parsimonious.


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What is interesting though, is thinking about whether special interest education groups tend to operate via premise or conclusion based judgements, and whether Education operates via premise or conclusions based judgments

Education has a historic tension that, since the mid-1800's has cycled between social equality and academic content progression.  I've tended to view the social equality paradigm as based on an universalist based avoidance gradient: i.e. "Do you really believe this person/group doesn't deserve a proper education?"  On the other hand, I've tended to view the academic paradigm as based on contextualized analyses flavoured by return on investment justifications: i.e.  "Let's do what is best for identifiable groups, making sure we scaffold the system for those smart cookies who'll make a real difference for society."

While my gut feeling suggest the social equality paradigm seems conclusion based and the academic paradigm is principle based, however, I suspect there isn't enough information to go on.  Plus I'm not sure how reasonable it is to try, at this level, to differentiate premises and conclusions.  My gut feeling is pretty much based on the hunch that the academic paradigm seems more granular/contextual, thus at a lower organization level, and thus more likely to be based on components rather than a whole. However, this reduction seems logically unrelated to the proposition-conclusion question.

Interestingly enough, List & Pettit do go on to suggest that group agents can allocate premise based judgments to subject experts while conclusion based judgement can remain with the laity.  While this seems to match up with a common-sense intuition of how groups function in practice, it does nothing to get around the impossibility problem.


List, C. & Pettit, P. (2011).  Group Agency: The Possibility, Design, and Status of Corporate Agents. Oxford University Press

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Defining Group Agents

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While other projects have come up this fall, I thought I'd return to my ongoing challenge supporting the theory that western institutionalized education functions as an adaptive group.

My muse has been strong work in the science of religion by folks such as Atran, Norenzayan and Wilson.  My background in this project has been informed by generalized complexity theory (Prigione, Kauffman, etc.) and social network analysis (Cross & Parker, etc.).  The initial, formal, trajectory was via biology / evolution / multi-level selection theory (Wilson, Okasha, etc.).  Since summer, I've ben trying to rationalize/compare this initial trajectory with social science work, particularly Sawyer's excellent summary work.  I'm finally getting around to the economics perspective via List & Pettit's Group Agency work.

List & Pettit's book excels due to the purposeful transparency of their logical arguments.  Theory frame-work with a philosopher co-author!  They're coming at the group agent question from a joint intention path.  As can be seen below (List, Pettit, 2011), they take some remarkably different approaches from the biology crowd:

But while cultural evolution may plausibly shape existing group agents, just as competition shapes commercial corporations, we are not aware of any examples of new group agents coming into existence among human beings this way.  It is hard to see how individuals, each with his or her own beliefs and desires, could be organized without any joint intention, or continuing intervention, so as to sustain and enact group-level beliefs and desires distinct from their individual ones.

Their conditions for jointly intentioned groups (i.e. their "group-level") are:
  • Shared goal 
  • Individual contribution
  • Interdependence
  • Common awareness.
As an off-the-cuff exercise, let's see how institutionalized education stacks up...

Condition Definition Ed's Fit Reason
Shared Goal They each intend that they, the members of a more or less alien collection, together promote the given goal
Salient goals vacillate between social equality and academic actualization. (note: vocational education straddles my binary).
Individual contribution
They each intend to do their allowed part in a more or less salient plan for achieving that goal.

Teaching is based on extremely high intrinsic motivation. "Doing it for the kids" is a quasi-religious-like mantra
They each form these intentions at least partly because of believing that the others form such intentions too.
2/5 to 5/5

Lot's of uncertainty here.  The disdain of for-profit colleges and private k-12's is telling.  Most educators believe students come first. The degree to which socialization influences intentions vs. self-selection of intentions is uncertain.
Common awareness
Each believing that the first three conditions are met, each believing that others believe this, and so on.

Education is remarkably monolithic in purpose (increase abilities) despite huge differences in goals (equal abilities vs. actualized abilities) and paths (public-private, content knowledge-critical thinking, etc.)

Overall, I'd say education looks like it should fare pretty well in List and Pettit's group agent framework.  While I'm still working my way through the book, I'd say education's crux is liable to be the condition of idea rationalization.

The third front on which a group must organize itself...[is] that whatever beliefs and desires it comes to hold, say on the basis of its members' beliefs and desires, form a coherent whole. (pp. 37)

Now, I'm not too sure why List and Pettit took this road.  People seem quite good at non-rationalization of belief.  In fact the rise of Haidt's social-intuitionist model (and various others), seem  to suggest too much focus on rationalization is a red-herring.  And maybe it's my recent biological bias, but it seems like hard rationality is much harder to defend that an adaptive level of rationality.  But then, I guess it's easy to excuse a philosopher's rational bias when they make theory so clean....


List, C. & Pettit, P. (2011).  Group Agency: The Possibility, Design, and Status of Corporate Agents. Oxford University Press

Friday, December 5, 2014

Tangents - Formative Assessment effect size: Content feedback or Socializer

The second tangent that's crossed my mind during recent research on another topic is about the causality producing formative assessment's high effect size.  Two recent posts over at Larry Cuban's always excellent blog are the muse (socialization & ed reform).

Is formative assessment's rather robust effect size mainly due to content specific feedback causes, or due to social/group dynamic causes?

As per Michele Kerr's post up on Cuban's blog, I don't think the power dynamics in a class which emerge in social interactions should be underestimated.  Formative assessment necessarily establishes the teacher's social presence.  Bandura's Social-Cogntive theory certainly suggests that changing group dynamics and environmental influences alters goals (individuals and group), which thus change performance.

Perhaps an easy way to verify effect sizes would be to compare the difference in formative assessment effect size when formative assessment is provided by

  1. a computer known not to be controlled or influenced in any way with the teacher
  2. written feedback from the teacher
  3. media rich feedback from the teacher
  4. one-way live feedback from the teacher
  5. interactive two-way feedback between teacher and student
Results should be studied on a micro and macro time-scale.  Chances are pretty good that prolonged exposure to 1 or 4/5 will make a significant difference in social dynamics in play during teaching.  Obviously I'd have to done some much better thinking in order to figure out how to control for teacher-student/class sociality with 1.

If anyone knows of studies which have gone down this path, let me know...

Tangents - Rationalization of Instructional Pieces

While working on a research paper about a design-based professional development (PD) initiative a few tangential thoughts have crossed my mind.  Here's the fist.

Alignement/Rationalization of Instructional Pieces

The first was reasonably germane to PD: is effective teaching usually due to alignment/rationalization of various nested instructional pieces? In other words, does having an aligned/rationalized

  1. educational philosophy, 
  2. delivery method, 
  3. instructional process (i.e. assessment, classroom management, mastery expectation, expected student effort, etc.) and,
  4. instructional strategy
correlate with effective practice (as either measured by students or teachers)?

My suspicion is that it certainly does.  The small sample qualitative research I've been doing suggests that instructional process is extremely tacit and opaque.  It also suggests that not many teachers conceive of adjusting, let-a-lone actually adjust, delivery methods.  The Carnegie unit and "bums-in-seats" mentality are robust.  Educational philosophy is generally pretty easy to probe and easy for teachers to describe practically.  Instructional strategies are highly contextualized by experienced teachers.  Changes in instructional strategy really only happen when they align with educational philosophies.  After all, education is loosely coupled, and even the most firmly managed instructional strategy changes quickly become hybridized.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Economically poor, low performing schools

If institutionalized education functions as an adaptive group, one implication is that it should be fairly resistant to change.  Successful adaptive groups typically aren't swayed by potential freeloaders looking to do things that may only be good for themselves or a small sub-set of the population.  Now, this doesn't mean innovative behaviours aren't permitted, only that real, fundamental innovation relating to group function and moral mission is highly unlikely.

A corollary to this is that populations subject to lots of change, especially fundamental changes relating to moral mission, may be on the peripherally of the adaptive group or not part of it at all.

This leads to an interesting point: in the US, it seems like low performing schools in economically disadvantaged areas undergo significant reform efforts.  In practice this often means hopping from one reform flavour to another, often very quickly.  In many schools, such reform practices are mitigated and hybridized.  It seems to me that in these poor school forces exasperate rather than mitigate reform pressure.

Is it therefore reasonable to conclude that such schools and such students are on the periphery of education's adaptive group?  If so, will it take a major phase change back to a state more intolerant of reform experimentation to bring this population back into the adaptive group fold?

In other words, while reform efforts are intended to help out disadvantaged populations, on an evolutionary, do they do the opposite by risking population exclusion from the adaptive group?

One of the cruxes of this idea is whether the changes in poor schools are fundamental to education's moral mission or are merely superficial tactical changes.  I don't know.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Application Test

Over the summer my education reform resistance ground-work seems to have settled down.  At least to me, its seems seems to have come together as a larger framework that I was expecting.  In fact, it is probably best articulated as a full fledged theory: Education as an adaptive group. While there is lots more work to get it constructed as a theory, perhaps it's time to test what utility the dynamical model associated with this idea has….

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently posted a regression of innovation in education system innovation vs. 8th grade math teacher satisfaction.  The results show a moderately strong positive correlation.  A conclusion is that teachers are more satisfied when education systems innovate more.


This research fits with Bogler's (2001) finding that teacher prefer to work with a leader that exhibits transformational behaviour rather than transactional behaviour.  It also fits in with miscellaneous research on human preference for novelty, which certainly seems to be an evolutionary selected trait.  Of interest to me, the OECD finding also fits, tangentially, with Sigmund's & Nowak's (2001) simulation which shows minor preference for tolerance among individuals leads to increasing levels of tolerance leading to cyclical transitions to extreme intolerance.  Of course, to apply Sigmund's work you have to make a rather large leap in assuming increased tolerance also means increased novelty/innovation.  Such a leap is fine for armchair bloggers, but certainly isn't academically sound.  Nonetheless, it seems like the OECD finding is well supported by what I know (but haven't cited) of evolutionary cognitive science research, educational leadership research and teacher preference research.


Education as an adaptive group theory (or the current nascent underpinnings of this potential theory) suggests the institution of education, and those who are considered members of this group, are dynamically torn due to competition of between-group (group) selection and its proximate causes and within-group (individual) selection and its proximate causes.  Weak dominance of one factor over another creates instability (Okasha, 2009) while strong dominance creates stasis.

An adaptive group, such as institutionalized education in rule of law states, is subject to moralization selection. This includes things associated with freeloader detection, norm variation punishment, and transcendental moralization (Atran, 2002; Wilson 2002; Norenzayan 2013; Haidt 2013).  Institutionalized education is a moderate moralized group.

A functionalist interpretation of the education-as-an-adaptive group model postulates a variety of different attractor descriptions for the group end state and for the individual end state.  Each pair of descriptors should be complimentary (i.e. tolerance & intolerance would pair as a dyad, but curiosity & power would not).  Education functions, amongst other things, as a societal coherer that provides significant fitness benefits for its constituents.

A non-functionalist interpretation of the education-as-an-adaptive group model postulates tension between group processes and individual processes.

In both the functionalist and non-functionalist interpretation, group processes/states dominate weakly.  Continued group expansion or maintenance of large group stature leads to increased heterogeneity. This can be envisioned a the rise of individual processes (non-functionalist interpretation) or attraction to the individual state (functionalist interpretation).  This eventually challenges adaptive group function.  A phase change occurs to a homogeneous state/process (adaptive group state).  The cycle repeats.

Education's competitive relationships are fairly stable in scope: its sphere of influence is not rapidly changing.  Group competitors may include such things as homeschooling, private tutor based education, non-institutionalized religious education, religion, some radical outcome-based charter schools, and perhaps political groups.  K-12 competitors differ from post-secondary competitors.


Relevant to the OECD report correlating increased innovation with increased teacher satisfaction, education as an adaptive group theory accurately predicts findings.

  1. Teacher preference for innovation - Homogeneity of the group state is unstable.  Individual process &/or sub-group splintering rises complexly.  Processes that facilitate individualization should be favoured.  Education's moderate moralizing characteristic minimizes the degree to which it favours extreme conservatism.  Education has just the right degree of freedom to facilitate innovation but prevent group implosion.
  2. Education is near or slightly above the average innovation levels of other professional sectors - Institutionalized education has functioned as an adaptive group for 150 years (since the emergence of popular public education).  Education's moderate moralizing characteristic minimizes the degree to which it favours extreme conservatism or extreme progressivism.  Education has just the right degree of freedom to facilitate innovation but prevent group implosion.  


Here are a few predictors I came up with which can't be verified from the data.

  1. 50 year period for innovation preferences - Education as an adaptive group model predicts that teacher preferences for innovation should wax and wane with a major period of 50 years.  Every 50 years one should see a spike in in-tolerance toward divergent practice.  A correlated decrease in innovation preference is likely.
  2. Minor (complex) cycling - Within each country, one should expect to see minor cycling between high and low levels of innovation preference.  Tension between group state and individual state produce complex dynamics.  Greater dominance of group processes or individual processes should produce more stable dynamics.
  3. High moralization facilitates divergence or extreme conservancy - As the severity of education's moralizing character increases one may tend to expect either a shift to extreme conservancy (i.e. religious like behaviour), or the ability to function with increased levels of divergence (i.e. the moral mission is strong enough to unite disparate individuals).  
  4. No moralization leads to unsustainability - As eduction's moralizing character vanishes one may expect to see education not function as an adaptive group (i.e. degrees and accreditation may have little value). One may also see unsustainable institutionalized operation at the group level (i.e. lots of total reforms & co-optation of purpose).


The main finding of the OECD piece, preference for innovation, seem to weakly validate education as an adaptive group theory.  However, there is a fair bit of 'handwaving' involved.  Functionalistic argumentation is very weak. While I've been trying to stay out of the functionalistic trap, it seems likely I'll get caught in it in order to explain why the group operates with a background bias for toleration/innovation.

Sigmund's work shows a slight preference for toleration leads to the cyclical dynamics observed in education.  Wilson's (and others) recent work on altruism will likely provide some ammunition supporting minor preference for inclusivity/tolerance.  However, more work is obviously needed to show that education doesn't function in a highly competitive environment, and thus doesn't require tight norm detection and punishment.  I suspect some of the work on the emergence of universalizing religion would be quite informative here.  For example, Beneke's book on the origins of American pluralism is likely to be quite good.

Additional work on education's role as a large group is needed.  For example, does a large group role require universalizing tendencies such as slight preference for innovation, divergence and tolerance?  Again, this seems to be a likely draw into functionalism.


  • Atran, S.  (2002).  In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion.  Oxford Press.
  • Bogler, R.  (2001).  The influence of leadership style on teacher job satisfaction.  Educational Administration Quarterly37, 662-683.
  • Haidt, J.  (2013).  The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.  Vintage.
  • Leach, C., Zebel, s., Vliek, L, Pennekamp, S., Doosje, B., Zomeren, M. Ouwerkerk, J., Spears, R. (2008).  Group-Level Self-Definition and Self-Investment: A Hierarchical (Mulitcomponent) Model of In-Group Identification.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,  95 (1), 144-165.
  • Norenzayan, A.  (2013).  Big Gods.  How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict.  Princeton University Press.
  • OECD (2014).  Measuring Innovation in Education: A New Perspective, Educational Research and Innovation, OECD Publishing.  Retrieved August 20, 2014 from here.
  • Okasha, S. (2009).  Evolution and the Levels of Selection.  Oxford.
  • Sigmund, K., Nowak, M. (2001).  Tides of Tolerance.  Nature, 414, 403.
  • Wilson, D. (2002).  Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society. University of Chicago. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Quick Summary

Here's a quick summary of my approach to an explanatory model of the education reform problem.

  1. Posit that the institution of education functions as an adaptive level group as characterized by Wilson's multi-level selection theory.
  2. Model the tension (boundary points / attractors) which occurs with between-group selection (group) and within-group selection (individual).  Weak between-group dominance produces the complexity and dynamics of education reform resistance
  3. Interpretation of this modelling can be done within a functionalist paradigm or within a non-functionalist paradigm.
    1. A functionalist interpretation investigates what drives motion to the two complexly competing attractors.  It also investigates possible attractor descriptions.  It assumes  a reductionist paradigm/philosophy.
    2. A non-functionalist interpretation investigates nesting among groupings and competition between groups.  It assumes a process philosophy/paradigm.
One feature that comes out of this model is stochastic complexity characterized by cycling between the group state and the individual state.  Sigmunds (2001) Tides of Tolerance model is a good fit.  This model shows that minor individual preference for tolerance causes a slow but steady rise of tolerance in a modelled population followed by a rapid phase change to intolerance.  Behaviour is cyclical.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Ed Reform Resistance Drivers

Here's an interesting study showing that teachers' satisfaction increases as educational systems innovate more.  This result is interesting because it supports my hypothesis that education reform resistance occurs as in-group tolerance increases until it is so diverse it almost becomes a splinter of individual interests rather than an adaptive group.   Sigmunds (2001) Tides of Tolerance simulation shows a sudden phase change to intolerance when groups of individuals have a slight preference for tolerance over intolerance.  Tolerance spreads gradually until there is a sudden and dramatic phase change back to a state of intolerance. This happens in their simulation when connections back to old tolerant states are lost.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Late night thoughts on multi-level selection theory

I was just re-reading D.S. Wilson's old paper on Multi-level selection theory's implications for psychology.  In relation to education reform resistance, it stirred up a few old thoughts and a few new ones:

  • if our institutionalized education system functions as an adaptive group, according to Wilson, for between group selection to occur it must be competing against some other group or lone individuals.  The only real contenders for competitors are homeschoolers, non-schoolers, radical charter schoolers, and, if the medium hadn't been so hybridized perhaps some online schoolers. This leads to some rather interesting investigations.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Multi-level Selection Theory & Process Philosophy

I love the insight multi-level selection theory offers educational change theory.  Here's one reason why.

Sociology has a long history of struggling with the micro-macro problem. The micro-macro problem tackles transitions between individual properties/behaviours and group properties/behaviours.  During the founding of formal sociology, Durkheim was quite adamant about not trying to reduce the group level (sociology) to the individual level (psychology).  Academics who have tried to bridge these disparate levels have not been successful.  Both the "why" and "how" of cross over remain intractable. (See Sawyer's amazing book on Complex Sociology for solid history applicable to any study involving human dynamics)

Multi-level selection theory avoids the "why" and "how" of micro-macro cross over by taking a ground up reductionist approach leveraging gene fitness/presence as a unit of measure.  In terms of my chosen problem of educational reform resistance, mimicking this strategy makes for a rather elegant and parsimonious approach.  Ignore explanatory reasons for reform resistance by positing some form of dyadic tension (multi-level tension).  A specific dyadic tension will yield a characteristic dynamic curve.  Agent based modelling or equation based modelling filters reasonable dyadic choices based upon observed education reform data. The crux involves finding the right unit of measure.

Such an approach belies a number of philosophical and theoretical assumptions.  Off the top of my head, I can see having to worry about:

  • reductionist vs. non-reductionist theoretical approaches
  • operationalizing a micro-macro dynamic
  • tackling or avoiding driving forces (i.e. functionalism or ant-functionalism)
  • an insightful level of analysis (i.e. large group, small group, individual, genes, etc.)
  • the proper unit of measure (i.e. large group, small group, individual, genes, etc.)

For this post, I'll mainly stick to thinking about operationalizing a micro-macro dynamic.  I'll see how such an operationalizing fits with the other points of worry.


In multi-level selection theory the group and the individual exist in dynamic tension.  Sometimes fitness is increased with more groupish behaviour, sometimes fitness is increased with more individualistic behaviour. If I were a sociologist, I'd be very tempted to think of social behaviour as an emergent property of this dynamic tension.  However, my academic interest involves seeing whether or not this class of dyadic relation can adequately characterize educational reform resistance physics.

As I've thought about multi-level section theory (image on the left), I've been trying to figure out if "group" & "individual" best represent strange attractors (a complexity approach) or boundary characterizations (a process philosophy approach).  Conformity with reductionist or non-reductionist philosophical stances are impacted by such operationalization.


Strange Attractors
A strange attractor operationalization of multi-level selection theory seems like a good fit for interpretation at the level of the individual.

Individuals may be attracted (in a self-interested way) to group participation.  They may also be attracted to narrow (direct) individual self-interest.  In non-funcationalist evolutionary language, do you increase your fitness by constraining immediate self-interest to group norms or not. The individual effect is complex cycling between group orientation and individual orientation.  The interaction of multiple individuals undergoing such tension should produce, in a complex way, emergent social phenomenon.

However, modelling of ed reform resistance as dynamic tension between groupish and individualistic attractors may be unwise.  What is the attraction acting on? Individuals? Groups? Genes? Behaviours? Picking a level of attraction walks you right into the micro-macro problem.  This seems messy and does not fit well with multi-level selection theory*1.

Boundary Labels
Analyzing things in terms of the group leads me to interpret "group" & "individual" as end states/boundary labels. A confluence of groupish processes would suggest I'm in the group state (for a particular aspect of analysis).  A confluence of individualish processes would suggest I'm in the individual state.  In this sense neither "group" nor "individual" are attractors.  They simply represent rough characterizations imposed by the role of an interpreter.

Process philosophy is well suited for non-reductionist questions where we don't really care why you're in a given state, only that such a descriptor is reasonably apt.  Process resists reductionist impetus to drill down. In a process sense, sufficiently complicated underlying dynamics produce multiple competing processes whose aggregate results vary in time.  We don't care what those underlying dynamics are, just that they fit observed characterizations for the time scale of study.  For example, emergent social phenomenon are the result of various combinations of group processes and individual processes. This amalgam is better characterized as social phenomena rather than specific combinations of group states / individual states.

A process approach is a non-reducationist strategy that avoids questions of driving forces.  This comes at the expense of expense of rationalizable/reductionist explanatory power.

Multi-level selection theory seems to have avoided the conundrum of process & reductionism by finding an unambiguous unit of measure (the gene).  Cognitive scientists studying the science of religion seem to have done similar things by finding invariant heuristics (darwin machines as some call them) expressed or not expressed in religious vs. a-religious populations. Is a dynamical study of education reform resistance destined for the the cognitive science heuristic approach?  Probably, but for the moment I'm content to find some plausible physics that constrain the problem.

*1.   Multi-level selection is a non-functionlist theory.  As such, it does not frame things in terms of attractors.  This assumes intent, and D.S. Wilson, the creator of multi-level selection theory, isn't philosophically naive.  Genes are not "attracted" to groupish states or non-groupish states.  They are mind-blind.  Operationally, genes serve as a unit of measure: is a specific gene present/expressed or not.  Different levels can be analyzed, but any level reduces down to the genes.

When exploring functionalistic forces for individual-ishness vs. group-ishness the chances are pretty good that you'll wind up in cognitive psychology or evolutionary psychology land looking for cognitive preference and tendencies.  While this landscape is really, really interesting, I suspect you'll wind up doing cognitive science work for a lot of necessary but not sufficient causes.  You may even be tempted to do some agent modelling to filter plausible causes based upon observed dynamical properties.  Like I say, this sounds pretty fun.  The results, like those emerging from the cognitive sci and evolutionary psych folks doing science of religion work, may even be groundbreaking. However, it just seems like stamp collecting to me…

In his foundational book "In God's we Trust", Scott Atran outlines a bunch of cognitive preferences and heuristics which lead to religious group formation and religious beliefs.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Rationalizing Norm Variation Tolerance in Education-as-an-adaptive-group Theory

Last post I gave some cursory background on the freeloader punishment problem in education.  The basic gist was that:

  • adaptive groups shouldn't survive unless they have adequate freeloader detection and punishment ,
  • education as an institution has a demonstrated history of remarkable coherence,
  • education, generally, doesn't punish freeloaders much nor punish them very overtly.
The conundrum is obvious.  Either:

  1. education (as an institution) doesn't function as an adaptive level group (which is entirely possible) or,
  2. it has some unique hidden norm/freeloader punishment strategies or,
  3. it leverages routine norm variation to strengthen its primary moral mission.


Anyone familiar with complexity theory should remember Bar-Yam's famous quip about wicked problems; "making the problem your solution is the problem."  

For instance Abrahamic faiths and their sub-denominations, have appropriated the problem-of-evil to varying degrees of success.  Mormonism is one denomination (qua-world religion) that successfully leverages the problem of evil for its moral mission.  Evil is necessary for good's emergence: it, like matter, is a fundamental trait of the universe. It is neither a spandrel a useful byproduct, nor a an absence of good.  Contact with evil is necessary for choice to exist.  Choosing good over evil increases one's strength.

So while evil fosters moments of personal decline, on average, it results in personal increase.  This latter result is summed up in the quip, "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."  Mormonism leverages norm variation (evil) to strengthen its moral mission (leveraging the presence of evil for growth experiences).

So, in terms of general phrasing, does education use (to some extent) freeloaders to strengthen its moral mission?  In terms of specific phrasing, does education use its toleration of weak teachers and weak students to strengthen its moral mission?


(Sorry, I just couldn't resist all the opportunities for obscure, obfuscating, puns in the heading….  there were just too many good ones to choose from)

A major argument against the "business model" of teacher regulation is that the conditions necessary to get rid of bad teachers result in a counter-intuitive decreases in actual educational effectiveness.  Thus tolerating some bad apples generally works out best.  This seems to be true in fields, like education, that rely on very high levels of intrinsic motivation.

Standard reasoning is that decrease in motivation that occurs when perceived levels of freedom and risk tolerance is decreased. The research backing this explanation is strong (even though, as far as I know, it still hasn't teased out the limitations associated with "perception" effects)*1.  I don't think there is any doubt that this explanation is correct.  Does it fully explain the causative effect? Probably.  Does it fully explain teachers' resistance? Perhaps in rational choice theory's ivory tower.  In the messy world of human dynamics, I highly doubt it suffices.

My suspicion is that educators respond to a sense that strategies which weed out weak adaptive-group members counter the stability/function of the adaptive-group as a whole.  Now you certainly could have an adaptive-group which functions best when the herd is purged.  Education, however, doesn't have that dynamic.  Instead, it tolerates group members who theoretically lower group effectiveness.

Instead of proof-texting things from the literature, I'll reference my experience as a teacher, teacher trainer, teacher leader, and systemic change designer.  In their broad (n=892) survey of teacher satisfiers/dis-satisifers, Dinham & Scott (2000) found teacher satisfiers usually move from the class level onto the school level and then, in some cases, onto the education-in-general level.  I've found many teachers who operate beyond the class level, rationalize the existence of varied teaching abilities in terms of the-greater-good.  Like teacher reform literature suggests, the teachers I've worked with and studied tend to suggest that discovering bad teaching is, in all but a few extreme cases, extremely subjective, highly complicated, labour intensive, and highly dependent upon the evaluator and frighteningly contingent on the reform flavour of the month (today's awful practice is tomorrow's cutting edge).  However, many of these teachers also suggest teacher variation (including weak performers) resonates with education's larger mission to prepare students for life-in-the-real-world.  Rationalization involves things such as having a bad teacher for a year:

  • forces students to figure out how learn how to learn themselves
  • makes students appreciate effective teachers so their motivation to glean what they can while they can increases
  • forces them to learn how to work with people of varied abilities
  • forces them to respect hierarchy/the-system even when your "boss" is an idiot
  • gives students with different learning styles an increases chance for resonance with a like-minded teacher (that awful PE/math teacher who failed calculus actually works well for some math students!)
  • prevents the school from becoming too obsessive about flavour-of-the-month reforms
  • encourages teachers to explore the "hidden curriculum"(implicit expectations and outcomes)
  • encourages teacher balance by not letting test prep mania overshadow the value of life-lessons and sustainable rhythms.
In sum, these rationalizations suggest, rather counter-intuitively, that education's hyperactivity level/focus toward curricular outcomes, and hence its larger organizational culture, is mediated by toleration of weak group members.  In effect, having weak teachers and weak students, prevents education from becomes streamlined, stratified and subject to splinter group competition.  This strengthens its role as a societal coherer, and hence as an adaptive-level-group.

As an illustrative example, religions tend to exert significant out-group pressure on splinter groups (break-away sects). This drives shadow system competition.  Education on the other hand exerts little out-group pressure on splinter groups (such as a charter schools). As a result, the competition level between schools is much less severe than that between religious sects.*2


If education functions as an adaptive-level-group, then, for it to be sustainable it needs a way to handle the freeloader problem.  Because education doesn't appear to punish freeloaders very much (teachers and students), there's a chance that a decent amount of freeloading can be accepted provided it feeds back into education's moral mission.  While ineffective teaching may be a corollary of fully leveraging highly intrinsically motivated employees, it may also serve to keep education grounded in sustainable practice and focussed on larger-life lessons and its role as a societal coherer.


*1.  While supporting research for the counter-productive effects of business model teacher regulation is  very strong, it is very hard to get around confounding variables related to reform resistance.  The result is a highly contentious, rationally resistive debate.

*2.  The States' current surge in charter schools may be an artifact of people's preferences for those of similar social backgrounds more than it is a sign of emergent competition between competing educational models.  I'd also suspect we're seeing evidence of an imminent educational phase change following education's established 50 year phase change cycle.


Dinham S, Scott, C. (2000). Teachers’ work and the growing influence of societal expectations and pressures. Eric Document No. 446 068