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. 

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