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

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