Sunday, May 22, 2016

Why the "quasi-sacred" part of this blog?

Here's an old post from about 10 years ago.  My thinking has obviously matured since then, but I think it still captures why biological approaches to the science of religion inform educational change questions so neatly.

The post is based on D.S. Wilson's excellent book "Darwin's Cathedral".  At the time, it was an excellent and refreshing escape from the sloppy evangelical approach of the New Atheists (who at that time had reached peak popularity).

Darwin’s Cathedral and Organizational Management in Education

One of the challenges with educational change is the resiliency of old beliefs.  Many change theories propose ways through the walls of stakeholder resistance. Some are idealistic in nature, relying on full transformation and  universal adoption.  Others rely on slippery slope adoption in what amounts to hidden coercion.  The fundamental nature of each change initiative really gets revealed in the way it expects to change the masses.  The high intrinsic motivation of formal educators means there are always a few experimentally minded groups that can be located to make change initiatives initially successful.  However scaling is the true crux of educational change.  Wilson’s ideas in Darwin’s Cathedral yield a new perspective to some of the quandaries and circular problems of educational change.

Formal education is a highly moralistic endeavor.  Education maintains many of the deeply shared common values of society.  Formal education and its hidden curriculums (unstated expectations) provide a grammar that is useful for maintaining cohesion, or at least intelligible cultural communication, in diversified societies.  Now, by this I don’t mean the specific knowledge and language: rather, I mean implicitly understood assumptions of the way society works.  Specifically, I refer to the fuzzily understood morals and ethics around which society and its groups are expected to operate.

In this light, Wilson’s multi-level (group) selection approach to religion is very insightful.  Education’s central position as a cultural pillar has grown to be protected by very robust defense mechanisms.  The adaptive function of religious tendencies should enable group dynamic theories to leverage, rather than blindly fight, evolutionary predispositions.

Wilson shows that religious tendencies are adaptive solutions to group level dynamics.  He also shows that the free-rider problem of group selection is solved through morally enforced norms which are well controlled by specific religious characteristics.  People a normally distributed range of genetically evolved predispositions that work to counter balance free-riding.  In terms of the quasi-religious role of educational systems, this means that educational change may have to fight innate tendencies that protect moral understandings.  Change dynamics may be hindered by our own tacit reluctance to change the foundational understandings upon which the larger groups involved in education operate.  Thus while change initiatives may be fully rationale, they may not be adaptive.

Several implications emerge from this shift of perspective. 

1.     Educational change theorists may benefit from looking at how large scale religions adapt, evolve and change. 
2.     Re-interpretation rather than reform may be appropriate for some levels of change.  Factioning and full schisms may be the only solutions for other levels of change.
3.     For changes to be successful they may need to show solutions to the free-rider problem (in education this is probably participating in the process without ever getting “educated” – at least in the right way)
4.     There needs to be a balance between factual and practical realism.  As Wilson (2002, pp. 228) states, “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.  To paraphrase evolutionary psychologists, factual realists detached from practical reality were not among our ancestors.”  And just so this doesn’t sound as if I, or he is advocating flying spaghetti monsters, “the proper and intellectually respectful way to approach factual and practical realism is as a trade-off… However, it appears that factual knowledge is not always sufficient by itself to motivate adaptive behavior.  At times a symbolic belief system that departs from factual reality fares better.  In addition the effectiveness of some symbolic systems evidently requires believing that they are factually correct.” (Wilson, 2008, pp. 229).

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Judgment Aggregation Theory & Why Education Forces Multi-level Alignment

The Alberta Teacher's Association is having its annual convention this weekend.  A post by the always insightful Phil McRae caught my eye

which ties in the union/profession's official comments,

with a bit more context by the union,

So what I'm going to do today is explain why these types of dynamics happen.  I'll do this from judgment aggregation theory (List & Pettit's formulation).   I'll then reference this back to Argyris' old theory-in-action work (which I'm sad never caught on as well as it would now - the theoretical support tools just weren't there when he wrote it).

The basic tenet behind judgment aggregation theory is that individual judgments when aggregated on a multi-step issue can create paradoxical results.

For example, in a court case you may need to evaluate two separate premises before reaching a conclusion. Each position may be based on "majority wins".  In Kornhauser & Sager's (1993) classic example below, both premises are true, yet the aggregate decision is false.  This is the paradox.  Do you evaluate down each premise then aggregate across (a true/guilty conclusion)? Or do you evaluate across each individual conclusion then aggregate down (a false/innocent conclusion)?

See Pettit's paper for a deeper technical presentation using formal logic conventions.


List & Pettit (2011) have taken judgment aggregation further by endogenizing group agency.  This is REALLY good work.  Here's a quote:
Individuals may form a group agent in virtue of evolutionary selection or cleverly designed incentives to act as required for group agency, perhaps within independent cells.  here the individuals contribute to the group agent's performance, but do not explicitly authorize the group agent, the need not even be aware of its existence. (p. 36)
One of the challenges is how to make a Turing machine aggregator "rational".  They take a fairly generous approach here simply saying that the aggregate needs to :
  1. respond to its surroundings (be rational & responsive), and
  2. rationalize its positions (beliefs & desires)
They also add in the need for binary attitudes (but that is more to tie up details associated with a rigorous formal logical approach).

On a whole, this boils down to something like the Turing test.  The aggregator is rational if people ascribe intentionality to it.

While their work has tonnes of depth and fascinating detail,  I'll resist tangent-temptations and pull another quote.
The supervenient relation between the members' attitudes and actions and those of the group can be so complex that the group agent may sometimes think or do something that few, if any, members individually support.  And secondly, the supervenient of the group's attitudes and actions on those of its members is entirely consistent with some individuals being systematically overruled on issues that matter to them a lot.  Accordingly, the kind of control that individual members must be able to exercise in order to enjoy effective protection has to be stronger.  It is not enough for individuals to be able to contribute to what the group thinks or does on the issues that particularly matter to them.  They must be individually decisive on those issues.  Roughly speaking, we say that an individual is 'decisive' on a particular issue if he or she is able to determine fully -  and not merely in conjunction with other individuals - how this issue is to be settled. (p. 130)

This leads to a very interesting (and rigorously argued) conclusion: group agents 'control' individual actors via attitude biasing.  This is in stark contrast to usual definitions of control which assume the application or threat of application of formal power.  Here's another quote on this:
Since our definition of control has taken the group's attitudes, rather than its actions themselves, to be the targets of the individuals' control - the reason being that the group's actions are usually mediated by its attitudes - we can focus, once more on the part of the organizational structure that is easiest to model theoretically: its underlying aggregation function. (p. 136)
As mentioned the aggregation function is based in attitude biasing.  More specially it is a type of espoused, and complexly aggregated, morality.  Here are a few more quotes to take us to the end.
To be a person is to have the capacity to perform as a person.  An to perform as a person is to be party to a system of accepted conventions, such as a system of law, under which one contracts obligations to others... In particular it is to be a knowledgeable and competent party to such a system of obligations.  One knows what is owed to one, and what one owes to others, and one is able and willing to pay one's debts or to recognize that censure and sanction are reasonable in cases of failure... But non-persons cannot be moved by being made aware of obligations they owe to others. (p. 173)
To be sure, group agents are not flesh-and-blood persons.  They are pachydermic and inflexible in various ways, and lack the perceptions and emotions of human individuals.  But they nonetheless have the basic prerequisites of personhood.  Not only do they form and enact a single mind, displaying beliefs and acting on their basis.  They can speak for that mind in a way that enables them to function within the space of mutual recognized obligations. (p.176)

Viewing institutionalized education as a group agent is fairly easy.  Education operates on multiple organizational levels just as judgment aggregation and judgment aggregator agents do.  What we want to find out is how this informs the conflict coming to a head in some parts of the Alberta educational system?

The conflict is largely between different philosophical approaches and the relative benefit of secondary feed-back effects on students, teachers, and the system itself.  The actors are:
  • the superintendent / government class who increasingly appear as managerial achievement optimizers, and 
  • the teacher / union class who are perennial individualizing optimizers.
  • Students are the units of analysis (and the ultimate beneficiaries or casualties of the fight).
  • Influenceable teachers who are the unit of leverage (and the source of capital).

Judgment aggregation theory suggests the conflict might be framed as fight for different aggregation methods: do you aggregate down each premise or across the whole?  I suspect technocrats favour the premise based approach.  I suspect social scientists favour conclusion based aggregation.

However, this simplistic view isn't what is of interest (after all, how do you really falsify such sociology?).  Rather what's of real interest in what List & Pettit found in the process of judgment aggregation....

Remember that List & Pettit found that the group agent exerted control by biasing the actions of actors and their judgment aggregation processes via a single (ill constrained) "morality" or "intentionality".  In simpler terms, what the "group" was seen as wanting tended to bias individual actors.

The history of former decisions and actions was essential in anthropomorphizing this intention (see also Atran's Big Gods for some good work on anthropomorphizing Big Brother agents).  The history of individuals' asquiesences was also informative.

The conclusions are quite stark.

Individual premises, no matter how wise they may be, don't control judgment aggregation.  Any single level within education which deviates from past histories and intentionalities, is almost certain to get clawed back.  The larger the system, the less disruptive any single level or agent can be.  The longer the system's history, the less disruptive any single level or agent can be.  The more morally-imbued the system is, the less disruptive any single level or agent can be.

The system doesn't "average" each level's conclusions.

The conclusions suggest that institutionalized education is a behemoth.  Railing against it just burns up capital.  Nonetheless, the system as a whole moves as a net result of endless waves of such expenditures (see Tyack & Cuban's surface wave analogy to ed reform).  However any single level acting on its own is unlikely to be productive.  Rather, the degree of any level's variance to aggregrate intentionality correlates with the degree of pushback it is likely to get.

Incremental change is the purview of morally-infused organizations.  Radical change is not.

Radical change can, however, occur when one part of the system breaks off from the rest.  The result is between-group competition (or multi-level selection type 2 reproduction).

All-in-all, dust ups between unions and senior managers is never productive for students.  Nor is it productive for teachers as a whole, even though individual loci may show gains.  In education, thinking you're right may be noble.  Forcing other levels in the system to act on your nobility is... naive.

Next post - Argyris' espoused vs. theory-in-use perspective.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Teacher Norms: The ideology of Ever-Increasing Standards

There are a couple of trains of thought with regard to teacher professional development.  I'm going to focus on two standards-based approaches. The intent is to deconstruct the assumptions and feedback loops in these approaches.  In this post, I'll introduce some background and explore the increasing-standards train of thought.


Best practice in teacher professional development points to the need for embededness, collaboration, and decision space (the ability to make decisions that are not undercut).  Fullan and Hargreaves approach the question a bit more broadly. Their professional capital take on things frames steady state solutions to teacher professional development dynamics (and steady state teacher standards dynamics) in terms of professional capacity.  Professional capacity is operationalized as a function of:
  • decision capital - the power & ability to make meaningful decisions (including structural ones)
  • social capital - effective networks of practice which are frequent, collaborative, and sufficiently skilled
  • human capital - the skills & resources (including energy & motivation) necessary to be effective.
On a loose-tight managerial spectrum, there are a couple of paths standards based professional development can go:

  • A loose systems approach - no real minimums (except for obviously egregious malpractice) and a high focus on differentiation and individualization.  You could also call this a strong union approach.
  • A tight system approach - perpetually increasing standards, minimal differentiation, often with a focus on economies of scale (one size fits many solutions).  Many people call this the business approach to education.
  • A mixed approach - varying minimums and with commensurately varying levels of differentiation (in an inverse relationship).  Differentiation usually operates near the school unit of analysis (it typically ranges from between a couple of schools down to the level of a few teachers).  K-12 education usually operates here.
Like any categorization, this one is obviously arbitrary (heck, it doesn't even have an ANOVA table to give it that false air of social-scientific authority!). However, as I've discussed before, education is a complex system that tends to operate between strange attractors.  From an organizational lens, these attractors are: 
  • system looseness (basically a small group orientation), and,
  • system tightness (basically a large group orientation). 
The middle is complex.  Emergent patterns ebb and flow with perennial actor changes and societal feedback.  While some steady states in the middle may be stable on moderate time frames, brevity requires omitting this discussion....


The eternal rounds of the mobius strip
The business camp of education tends to see standards as a moveable bar used to push performance to higher levels.  In this sense standards aren't true professional minimums.  Rather, standards are (~lower quartile) normative performance goals.  If enough people meet a standard, evaluators simply bump up expectations.

Some people try to sell this as "life-long learning".  If you don't see the linguistical con here, I've got some beachfront property in Nebraska to sell you...

Other people try to sell ever-increasing standards as "real professionalism".  This is cherry-picked mis-contextualization.  Practices whose professional standards improve frequently tend to be those standards related to technological and highly quantifiable measures (which metal composite to use).  Practices whose professional standards change infrequently, but do so ubiquitously, tend to be those with zero error tolerance (blood transfusion process).  Education this is not.

The Dufours have generated a good example of a fully developed "increasing standards" approach.

Dufour styled professional learning communities (PLC's) are based on a dogma of "increasing standards".  This is operationalized via inclusive ideological assumptions.  Inclusive educational ideologies posit "all students can learn".  This leads to the conclusion that achievement (the controllable aspect at least) is best framed as an exclusive function of teacher input.  Student capacity, freedom, and teacher inspired student transformations are exogenous.

PLC's unit of achievement is the number of students surpassing an arbitrary performance standard. In an ideal world standards are set by collaborative teacher groups.  In the real world, standards are set by the state.  Exceptions occur when a PLC's results are far above expectation.  At this level of performance actors finally become autonomous - at least in theory.

In practice the educational sustainability literature suggests successive waves of administrator turn-over results in near stochastic certainty that autonomous PLC's will, over time, get called out for being different or for rejecting the newest mandated reform.  Autonomy has bounds and educational success can't escape the politics of shifting values.  As many a tightly coupled school division would say, you are always free to do whatever is reasonable -as long as it agrees with what we're asking.  Like any utopian solution, fidelity is paramount.

Philosophical assumptions of increasing standards are humanistic toward students (in a PLC model) and machine oriented toward teachers.  In education's highly nested organizational hierarchy, this produces a system which, on a whole, has an uncertain philosophical orientation.  Tension between humanistic assumptions for teacher-student interactions but mechanistic assumptions for teacher-leader interactions suggest organizational actors may complexly oscillate between the polarized dogmas of loose-coupled humanism and tightly-coupled machination.

Increasing standards can of course be applied both to teacher and students.  KIPP schools are an excellent example of this.  In this case, philosophical assumptions are entirely machine oriented and all actors in the system (except for elite decision makers) are cogs in a machine.

Humanist approaches can also be applied to both teachers and students.  In this sense, an increasing standards approach may mirror a structural-marxist philosophy (caveat emptor - I know bunk about marxism....): revolution is constant, the bottom matters most, equality is utopian, and self-sacrifice is essential.

In a simpler sense, the focus on those who don't succeed represents the gist of modern feminism and social justice.  While it may seem odd to associate "leftist" philosophies/ideologies with a business oriented approach, tolitalitarianism makes strange bedfellows....

It's easy to deduce that the focus of the ever increasing standards approach is students/teachers who do not meet standards.  This provides an obvious resonance with inclusion which takes for granted that system improvement comes from focussing on the bottom.

The contribution of heroic actors (who typically grate against tight-coupling's contextual blindness) is offset by net improvements.  Losses at the top of the pyramid are more than offset by gains at the bottom.  (For what looks to be a reasonable discussion on inclusion, see Rethinking Inclusive Education: The Philosophers of Difference in Practice.)

In terms of students this means 20% grade point improvements for F students more than make up 2% losses for A students. In terms of teachers, this means improving poor practitioners' teaching capacity yields better net results than continued empowerment of heroic actors.  The business label is apropos.

History shows multiple cases where this trade-off has been successful.  The most obvious case is conflict between large farming societies and small hunter-gather societies.  Farmers tend to be less proficient warriors than hunters.  But sheer numbers dominate in the long run.  The US civil war is just one among hundreds of examples.  A multi-level selection theory (or any strain of group selection) is informative here.

In-group trade-offs certainly are not virtuous practice (in the technical sense of the phrase).  Pure group level considerations are naive to the individual and the individual's effect on the group.  Pure individual considerations are naive to the group and the group's effect on the individual.

Simplistic good-bad dichotomies are problematic.  Good outcomes are simply those we like (including secondary effects).  Bad outcomes are simply those we don't like (including secondary effects).  Power dynamics can't be escaped.  Tension between primary effects' short-term impact vs secondary effects' long-term impact may be seen as yet another set of strange (educational) attractors.

Feedback Loops
Inspection suggest increasing-standards is dissonant with:
  • Most teacher unions - Teacher unions tend to reflect education's over-arching moral mission to improve each person as much as possible.  Their focus is on the whole, not the bottom. Public education resists balkanized niches.
  • Academically oriented education - Academic orientation is less concerned about standards and more considered with ordinal based performance.  The bottom is less a focus than the top. Streamlining is expected.  It is thus individually oriented.  Focus is on the maximum standards possible for adequate filtering.
  • Equity / fairness - Increasing-standards is focussed on equality (everyone up to standard) more than equity (each person getting what they need).
  • Social justice - Standards are blind to the reasons or contexts of different performance. (Note: norming is certainly possible.  In this case, allowances for social justice is possible but is dependent on the quality of norming methods.)

Increasing-standards is somewhat dissonant with:
  • Assessment for learning - While Dufour PLC's and formative assessment are both based on continual data analysis, clear standards, and timely interventions, their philosophies and unit of analysis are different. Assessment for learning is based on differentiated assumptions and the smallest unit of analysis possible.
  • Outcome based curriculum - The unchanging nature of outcomes make little room for increasing standards. While PLC's are based upon increasing standards, it's disingenuous to say the process can't be bastardized.  Divergence happens one "everyone" is meeting the mark.

Inspection also suggests increasing standards is resonant with:
  • Inclusion - Both worry about the bottom of the ladder more than the top.
  • Teacher proofing - While high yield instructional strategies can build capacity for everyone, history suggests teacher proofing is the stable equilibrium point systems reach in regard to low performers.
  • Vocational education - This is mainly about acquiring the skills necessary for specific types of employment.  A standards approach thrives here.  A finite set of job types to train for means vocational education can be group oriented.
  • Business oriented education systems 
  • PLC's
  • Outcome based reporting - grades are disaggregated into multiple standards.  Achievement may be pass or fail but is often more graduated.


The ever-increasing standards approach must eventually eat-its-own.  Exponential achievement increase is a logical phallacy (pun intended).  At some point, things have to level off.  What do you do then?

In practice, PLC's & increasing-standards approaches reach the point where incremental improvements on the same old questions sap more and more human capital and motivation.  Even perpetually worthwhile goals like "student achievement" or "lifelong learning" are sensitive to synergistic demands. Growth and change are fundamental aspects of human group behaviour.  They aren't mere add-ons.  Machine philosophies neglect this at their own peril.

Luckily, education always has new problems to tackle. But, as mentioned before, are those new problems allowable? Are they mandated & non-constructive?  Or do inevitable system level directional changes provide a perpetual source of refocus and thus a continual option for synergy?

Perhaps.  But the answer is largely determined by the system in which any single school division resides.  Education's strong moral mission creates strong background pressure for complete system alignment, not to specific practices but to general morality.  See List & Pettit's work on judgement aggregation theory for a fairly rigorous modelling of why this is the case.