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.