Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Classification Problems

This summer I'm back trying to find suitable experimental methods to prove/disprove Education-as-an-adaptive-group theory.  In that vein, some possible approaches involve trying to code individual orientations (small-group/individual vs. large-group/institutional).  There are a ton of problems with this class of approach.  Foundational, its far-removed from multi-level selection theory's ontology (MLS): MLS measures are based on fitness not orientation!

Here's an example that highlights some of practical problems with an orientational approach.  It comes from the New American School's large whole-school reform initiative of the late 90's.  It comes from a teacher in a lower-socioeconomic school who was part of a whole school reform design.

She stated that many [students] came from unstructured home environments and thus needed more orderly classroom experiences. 
[I]t would work probably better with a group of kids that are on grade level, that have a lot of self-control...If the come from a home where there is no structure, [and] they come into a classroom where there is no structure...that's the problem.  But I really feel, and I might be wrong, that this works with a different population much better than what it has worked with our students. 
Teachers at a CON [specific reform design type] school stated that their design units had to be "modified" to address their student's basic skill needs. (Berends, et. al. 2002, pp. 114)
So, does this represent a small-group orientation which is concerned about customizing/optimizing things for the contexts of a particular group - say the disadvantaged students in the class.  Or, does it represent a large-group orientation which is concerned about the hidden curriculum of institutionalized education - say student should learn the value of order and structure?

Obviously such dichotomous questions are ill-formed.  First off, intentions matter much less than behaviour.  Behaviour matters much less than fitness.  Short-term fitness matters much less than long-term fitness which incorporates anti-fragility concerns.


Berends, M., Bodilly, S., Kirby, S. (2002).  Facing the Challenges of Whole-School Reform: New American Schools After a Decade.  RAND, Santa Monica California.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Ruling Things Out

If education is sensitive to the adaptive group contexts, then it stands to reason that you wouldn't see "total" reforms working in groups lacking characteristics of a strong coherent (adaptive) group.  Thus one should see total reforms working in conditions where groups have strong norms, strong leaders, strong sense of purpose, etc.

Indeed this is what one finds.   The large, ambitious New American School Reform project of the late 90's found that total reform depth was correlated with strong principals and high levels of teacher self-efficacy (I feel I can succeed with any student).

This fits with what would expect from a multi-level selective perspective.  While this is certainly not evidence of the necessity of multi-level selective framing, it does show that yet another small piece of  the empirical world doesn't negate such framing.

Friday, July 24, 2015


A nice, fairly concise summary of the ontology of multi-level selection theory which touches on the slippery slope issues surrounding MLS1 vs. MLS2 approaches (Michod & Roze, 2000)

The basic problem in an evolutionary transition is how and under what conditions a group becomes a new kind of individual. Initially, group fitness is taken to be the average of the component lower level units, but as the evolutionary transition proceeds, group fitness becomes decoupled from the fitness of its members. Indeed, the essence of an evolutionary transition is that the lower level units must in some sense “relinquish” their “claim” to fitness, that is to flourish and multiply, in favor of the new higher level. This transfer of fitness from lower to higher levels occurs through the evolution of cooperation and conflict modifiers that restrict the opportunity for within group change and enhance the opportunity for between group change. Until eventually, the group becomes an evolutionary individual in the sense of having heritable variation in fitness at its level of organization and in the sense of being protected from the ravages of within group change by adaptations that restrict the opportunity for non-cooperative behaviors. 

On the sociology side, this begs the question how robust specific aspects of human groups need to be in order to be well-interpreted as units of selection rather than sets of individuals.


Michod, R. E., & Roze, D. (2000). A Multi-level Selection Theory of Evolutionary Transitions in Individuality. In Artificial Life 7 Workshop Proceedings ed. Maley, CC and Boudreau, E.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Approaches to Reform

Here's a rather long quote from Elmore in his book School Reform from the Inside Out (2007, p. 73),

Many well-intentioned reformers argue that large-scale improvement of schools can be accomplished by recruiting, rewarding, and retaining good people and releasing them from the bonds of bureaucracy to do what they know how to do.  Schools get better, in this view , by attracting and empowering good people.  It’s not hard to see why this view is so widely held among educators.  it accords well with the existing institutional structure….  To the minds of these reformers the job of the system is to stay out of the business of the gifted practitioners who work in it and to keep the outside world at bay….  We know that this proportion seldom grows larger than about one-quarter or one-third of the total population of classrooms, schools, or systems. What’s missing in this view is any recognition that improvement is more a function of learning to do the right things in the setting where you work than it is of what you know when you start to do the work.  Improvement at scale is largely a property of organizations, not of the preexisting traits of the individuals who work in them.  Organizations that improve do so because they create and nurture agreement on what is worth achieving, and they set in motion the internal processes by which people progressively learn how to do what they need to do in order to achieve what is worthwhile. Improvement occurs through organized social learning, not through the idiosyncratic experimentation and discovery of variously talented individuals.  Experimentation and discovery can be harnessed to social learning by connecting people with new ideas to each other in an environment in which the ideas are subjected to scrutiny, measured against the collective purposes of the organization, and tested by the history of what has already been learned and is known. The idea of learning to do the right thing-collectively, progressively, cumulatively over time-is at the core of the theory of standards-based reform.

The conundrum highlights two competing approaches to educational reform*: 

  1. organizational approaches which favour net (aggregate collective) improvement, and,
  2. institutional approaches which favour empowering conditions for localized improvements.

In a nutshell, this argument states that it is possible, indeed practically imperative, for institutions to learn to change massively in their surface structures while at the same time changing little at their core.  Institutions use their structures to buffer and assimilate the changing demands of a political and social order that is constantly in flux-they add new programs, they develop highly visible initiatives that respond to prevailing opinions in the community, they open new units in the organization to accommodate new clients, they mobilize and organize public opinion by creating new governance structures.  But the gap between these institutional structures and the core patterns of schooling is slippery and elusive: The core of schooling remains relatively stable in the face of often massive changes in the structure around it.
Organizational approaches face massive micro-political challenges.  Exceptionally talented individualistically-oriented teachers resist mediocritization (at fairly high rates).  The situation is fairly analogous to inter-group warfare between agrarian societies and hunter-gather societies.

Agrarian societies are more adaptive if their mediocre individual fighting talents are offset with the scale related benefits.  Hunter-gather societies may be able to field a number of exceptionally talented warriors, but, at some point, the various benefits of scale become trump, and they are out-competed by the mediocre horde.

This is quite clearly a case of multi-level selection in action.  Similarly it is hard not to see the tension between organizational and institutional approaches to educational change as an analogous expression of multi-level selection theory.  While similar social physics don't necessitate equivalence, they do suggest the parsimoniousness of the foundational theory.

*Obviously it should be noted that there are more than two basic theories of educational reform.  Nonetheless, this rough dichotomization seems apt to capture most of the major approaches.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Cultural Evolution of Ed Reform Resitance

Sociology's reliance on self-referential proof texting is the anti-thesis of hard-science's experimental methods.  Modern tools like multi-level selection theory, cliodynamics and cognitive evolutionary neuro-science provide those who are interested a chance for rigor and non-circular tests.  

In my field (education reform) if you insert multi-level selection theory into educational change problems you wind up with a model for the cultural evolution of educational reform resistance.  The formulation is superficially simple: the grouping(s) of institutionalized education has coalesced with a strong enough moral mission, robust enough rituals/practices, and successful-enough freeloader solutions, etc. to function as an adaptive group.  The large-group orientation is characterized by universalizing tendencies and out-group inclusion.  This is often represented by the social equity side of education.  The small-group orientation is characterized context/demographic specific foci.  This is often represented by the academic & vocational side of (charter/private) education. 

Tension between these two orientations is complex due to similar adaptive benefits for each orientation.  Social equity/justice wins for a time as the problems of inequality rise in importance.  At other times academic/vocational specialization wins out:  Sometimes niche solutions are both easy to envision and locally implement!

Reform resistance is a fundamental character of adaptive groups.  In education, it is also a spandrel of  high frequency large-group - small-group orientation cycling.  Context-invariance is a natural byproduct of in highly dynamic (high-pressure) selective environments.  Thus, educational groups have evolved traits which survives orientational changes.  The reproduction, refinement and expression of these traits represents the education's cultural evolution.