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

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Rule of Law or Education facilitated coherence

In his exceptional book "Big Gods", Norenzayan not only explains the causal arrow between the evolution of religion and the evolution of society/civilization, he also correlates rise in the rule of law with decrease in the practice of religion.  As he suggests, an effective rule of law is likely to fulfill many adaptive function of religion.  This includes:

  • norm enforcement which maintains group (national) coherence
  • guaranteed norm enforcement ('freeloader') punishment
  • commonly understood norms
  • a potential moral 'Big Brother' (for those whose existential views require one)
While this makes sense to me, some points are weaker than others.  For instance, would a permeant welfare recipient be considered a freeloader? They get individual benefit without always putting much into the group, and they aren't criminalized like those who directly take things from others.  Or would they fall into the same category as little children or the aged: part of the group despite minimal immediate group contributions?

Norenzayan's inferred intent is to suggest that rule of law acts as a norm creator & enforcer.  This frees people up from relying on religion to create and enforce norms necessary for societal stability/emergence.  

When I look back at history it appears that at some point hard and soft norms were distinguished: civil society tended to take over clear cut negative norms (you killed, you stole, etc) and religion tended to take over fuzzy negative norms (you weren't nice, etc.) and positive norms (be nice, virtuous, etc). Religion kept the moral 'Big Brother'.  However, in the last few decades people in many rule of law states either no longer require religion's moral Big Brother or no longer require religion.  Here are some possible reasons off the top of my head.
  1. Trust in the rule of law's longevity has become strong enough to obviate the need for a moral 'Big Brother'
  2. A sufficiently strong moral Big Brother has emerged (at the individual level) in other institutions or social groups.  i.e. the Democrat party is my moral Big Brother.
  3. Moral Big Brother's role has diffused (for individuals) between multiple institutions and social groups. i.e. I get some morals from my online minecraft group, some morals from my friends, and some from my political party, etc.
The evolutionary need for a Moral Big brother hasn't been established.  While it is certainly critical in religion and quasi-religion formation/sustenance, this doesn't mean it is an evolutionary proximate cause, nor an evolutionary tendency.  It certainly may be, but research has yet to reach this question.  (My suspicion is that given a normal distribution of people, we'd expect some to fall in case 1, some in case 2 and most in case 3.  However, I wouldn't be surprised if case 2 ended up as the mode rather than case 3).

My study of education as an adaptive moralized (sometimes even transcendental) group mean, at least for me, cases 2 and 3 are the most interesting.  In this vein, I wonder if the 'r' between atheism and education as a reform resistant institution would be similar to Norenzayan's 'r' between atheism and the rule of law? If so, Norenzayan's expectation of causation may be unfounded: education's role as a societal coherer, which manifests itself through adaptive level group characteristics such as reform resistance, may be what enables societal stability without religion.  If this is the case then a moral Big Brother may take second seat to institutionalized coherence creation.... Or it may not….

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Freeloader Punishment Problem in Education-as-an-adaptive-group Theory

If a societal level group, like the institution of education, functions as an adaptive group, then multi-level selection theory suggests adequate freeloader detection and punishment is required for long-term group survival/coherence.

While it is unlikely that education is a strong grouping (compared to religion, political party, family, etc.), I certainly take the view, that the institution of education functions at the level of an adaptive group.  As such it is subject to:

  • cultural evolution,
  • individual vs. group strange attractor dynamics, 
  • group maintenance processes (at the proximate cause level) and 
  • complex growth/decay dynamics.
Because the institution of education has survived remarkably well as a societal level group, examining possible ways the freeloader problem is handled is important.  


Without freeloader detection and punishment, one would expect to see swamping by disruptive shadow systems.  On this point a few facts provide context.
  • For the last 150 to 200 years education tends to follow a 50 year disruptive (phase change) cycle (Tyack & Cuban, 1995).
  • Despite clear phase changes every 50 years or so, education's coherence with larger societal shifts and limited population focus (ages 5-25) minimize the severity with which the general population perceives major disruptions (Tyack & Cuban, 1995).  In other words, the growing bifurcation is only noticed by a few 'long-in-the-tooth' teachers who've had feet in both paradigms.
  • Charter schools, online/blended schools, and home schools represent significant shadow systems to education's traditional institutionalization (Christensen, 2014; Basham, 2001; Bielect, Changler, Broughman, 2002).
  • Teacher regulation is a perennial issue in North America.

My reading and perspectives here seem to mirror Larry Cuban's: education has a significant tendency to hybridize reforms.  Other institutions like various religious denominations and moral based social groups rarely hybridize their splinter groups.

Off-the-cuff thinking suggests many religious denominations and moral based social group tend toward balkanization.  One plausible explanation for balkanization and splinter-group vs. main group competition is a steep gradient for norm variation punishment.  In other words, you leave a religion or moral social group with a fair bit of momentum.  i.e you're punted out the door.

Education seems to have a softer gradient for norm variants.  While you can still get punted out, there seems to be significant liberalness with regard to orthodoxy and certainly tremendous tolerance with regard to orthopraxy.  This suggests adaptive level groups such as religion and moral based social groups have stronger 'freeloader' punishment tendencies than education (as an adaptive level institutionalized group does).  Why?


Universalist religions tend to have well developed systems to teach and encourage norm compliance.  Often a hard-to-fake show of intent submission is a good enough group entry point (Evangelicals = public redeemer confessions, Mormon = gaining a testimony, etc.).  Novel offshoot splinter groups tend to be much more concerned about current, rather than future, norm adherence.

I've already done a bit of speculation about norm variation punishment in education (online courses  & homeschooling ). For a more grounded perspective, Izhak Berkovich's research on teacher reform resistance in the 64 day 2007 Israeli teacher strike.  His work reveals teacher attempts to combat  the 'freeloader' perception problem.
This attempt to undermine the public’s perception of teachers as "freeloaders" enjoying public funds for little work was found to be a central theme in teachers' rational appeals. (pp. 13)
 Analysis also reveals teacher attempts to frame 'freeloader' issues in terms of group member (education's direct participants) benefits.
The analysis reveals a tendency to tie the present struggle and resistance to reform with a broader struggle over public recognition of the importance of education. The teachers continued to claim that the struggle was not only about teachers' salaries and work conditions, but that they are fighting against the reform because it did not answer to the real needs of students or the problems of the educational system. (pp. 14)
In making these arguments it was found that many educators employed an in-group vs. out-group strategy.  The following example from a school website framing the argument for the public is illustrative:
This reform does not center around education and pupil welfare. This is an economically driven reform and so budgetary efficiency is at the center. More teaching work hours means less expenses, but more students per teacher, less time to invest in any of the children and advance a significant educational process. The teachers also want reform! But first and foremost a pedagogically driven one that will promote the public education. (pp. 14)
So freeloader concerns certainly crop up in education.  In-group binding within education seems to centre on an orthodoxical attitudes concerning students' best interests.  (the dynamics of short-term vs. long-term interests will have to be delayed for another post).  But how are freeloaders punished?


I think there are at least two insightful ways of looking at the freeloader problem in education:

  1. Dig into punishment moderators (in religion, the repentant sinner problem)
  2. Rationalize norm variant toleration  (in religion, the uber-classic problem of evil)

Largely because I'm biased toward the dynamics that can emerge from tolerance-intolerance, I favour the second approach, and will expand on that in my next post….

Part 2: Rationalizing Norm Variation Tolerance in Education-as-an-adaptive-group Theory


Berkovich, I. (2011). No we won't! Teachers' resistance to educational reform. Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 49(5), 563 - 578.

Basham, P. (2001). Home-schooling: From the extreme to the mainstream. Public Policy Sources, 51, 3-18.
Bielick, S., Chandler, K., & Broughman, S. P. (2002). Homeschooling in the United States: 1999. Education Statistics Quarterly, 1-12. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Autonomous Response or Ultimate Cause ?

This week I'm realizing how much I need to tidy-up my rather limited knowledge of ultimate vs. proximate causes.

This article by Ariew is proving pretty interesting.  Here's a quote explaining proximate causes.

"For example, to study how warblers migrate, one cites either the operation of the warbler’s physiology or the external conditions that trigger it. Mayr calls the former cause of warbler migration the ‘‘intrinsic physiological cause’’: ‘‘The warbler flew south because its migration is tied in with photoperiodicity. It responds to the decrease in day length and is ready to migrate as soon as the number of hours of daylight have dropped below a certain level’’ (p. 1503). Mayr calls the ‘‘triggering’’ cause of warbler migration the ‘‘extrinsic physiological cause’’: ‘‘the warbler migrated on the 25th of August because a cold air mass, with northerly winds, passed over our area on that day. The sudden drop in temperature and the associated weather conditions affected the bird, already in a general physiological readiness for migration, so that it actually took off on that particular day’’ (p. 1503) "
Ariew goes onto illustrate two different types of questions that could be answered while remaining within Mayr's proximate cause zone.
There is a difference between the study of functional morphology and the study of development. Functional morphologists answer questions like ‘‘how does something operate?’’, e.g. ‘‘how do hearts contribute to circulation?’’, while developmental biologists ask questions like ‘‘how does something come to be?’’, e.g. ‘‘how do hearts come to develop out of embryonic cells?’’. These questions get distinct answers because the causal processes to which they refer are distinct; physiological causation is distinct from developmental causation. 
While Ariew wades right into dreaded functionalistic terrain, which if I read things correctly Mayr was trying to avoid, Ariew comes out with the following conclusion:

Proximate explanations answer causal questions of individuals and the ultimate explanations answer questions about the prevalence and maintenance of traits in a population. 

Monday, July 14, 2014


Now that I'm getting closer to a working model for Ed reform resistance….

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Ed Reformers - Missing the proximate cause level

While driving down to the mountains last week, I had some time to ponder why most educational reformers' efforts fail (Tyack & Cuban, 1995; Giles & Hargreaves, 2006; Goodson, Moores & Hargreaves, 2006).  Even hybridizing reforms tend to fair poorly: only grabbing real traction when they resonate with larger societal currents (Tyack & Cuban, 1995).


Reformers who push total reform visions seem captured by utopian myopia.  Transformational leadership easily falls into the trap of solving emergent "skeletons" by increasing levels of transformational effort (Briskin 2001; Mulford & Moreno, 2006). It therefore becomes very tempting to view human problems as mere transformational targets.  This approach becomes drastically over-extended when it tackles symptoms and misses proximate genetic causes.  Missing these levels of insight while assuming a transformational paradigm creates utopian myopia.


Professional Learning Community Implementation
Over-extension of Dufours' professional learning community (PLC) theory is a solid example of myopic utopia. Dufours' argument goes that if all teachers just bought into
  1. a belief that all students can learn, and,
  2. that collaboration is the most effective way of directing teacher effect,
then education effectiveness would be radically transformed.  As many authors point out, this totally misses the effects of micro-politics (see annotated bibliography) and the whole field of human dynamics.  The PLC solution attempts to transform the symptoms of a proximate state:
  1. Feeling good about individual effort vs. feeling good about collective effort, 
  2. Feeling good about effort vs. feeling good about results.
However, Dufour's PLC theory into practice has no real solution for the proximate causes producing the symptoms it hopes to change.  As such it is a classic example of utopian myopia.  It neglects the underlying physics and applies band-aid type solutions to fundamental tendencies/problems.

Thomas Jefferson Education
An example closer to my direct sphere of practice are homeschoolers who overgeneralize radical humanistic pedagogies.  A Thomas Jefferson Education (TJED) provides the framework I encounter  most.

TJED is a modern utopian based educational philosophy.  It's pedagogy is based on idealized, circular humanistic principles:
  1. all students want to learn, 
  2. learning what you want is motivating, 
  3. rich topics produce additional depth whenever revisited.  New knowledge isn't always needed, just 'classical' literature which continually enable novel interpretation and hence novel inquiry (think - Bible study as an enabler of multiple levels of insight)
  4. therefore because classical literature is available, mentoring students through their personal interests creates a feedback loop of near limitless depth.  
Pedagogical applicability is hugely limited by this instructional processes' strong humanistic assumptions.  In practice, few students meet attitudinal requisites, and the source of depth is likely obfuscated.  However, universality is still pushed: attitudinal problems are considered transformational problems solved by "un-schooling" and program buy-in.


The problem with these and a great many other total reformer approaches is failure to distinguish proximate causes and superficial symptoms.  In the Dufour case, there is a critical failure to accept the strange attractor dynamics associated with individual level vs. group level selection.  Thus, non-rational human dynamics emerging from these and other attractors are marginalized.   Proximate causes of group dynamics are therefore ignored either by omission or design.

In terms of current promoted PLC implementation strategies team collaboration is pushed at the expense of large group (education as an institution level) coherence.  The result is an attempt to change group membership classes with little demonstrated awareness of the ultimate significance and causes such moves strive against.  Therefore education's role as a societal level moral coherer (Tyack & Cuban, 1995) is fought in the name of collaboration!  In simpler words, if you're inclined to PLC groupings then the reform works: if you're not so inclined then you and your history needs reprogramming regardless of your history's value or purpose.

TJED is, unfortunately, blind to both proximate causes and some obvious superficial symptoms of these causes.  TJED assumes universality despite its obviously narrow entry point.  Its rhetorical apologetics which minimize the 'buy in' problem mimic Dufour PLC's utopian strategy: both present the 'buy in' issue as superficial concern rather than a fundamental flaw.


Applying a transformation approach to educational reform sets up a challenge of deciding what things can and can't be changed.  Some superficial things can be.  Some things that appear superficial can only be changed within a set of people already inclined to such changes.  Some things that appear superficial can only be changed with great coercive effort for limited times.  Myopic utopian reforms fail to properly identify which crucial elements are really just superficial symptoms and which are actually symptoms arising from deeply ingrained proximate causes.  The result is the infamous 'skeleton in the closet' problem which stymies total reform.


I'm viewing proximate causes in education as something like the immediate direct benefits that come from going to school.  Examples might include: hanging out with friends, minimizing social stigma, social progression, knowledge & skills, fulfilling others' promises that it will be good for you, etc.

I'm viewing ultimate causes in education on the level of evolutionary selected traits and behaviours. Examples might include coherence with a group, participation in a group that has a high probability of providing individual benefit.


Ariew, A. (2003).  Ernst Mayr's 'ultimate/proximate' distinction reconsidered and revisited.  Biology and Philosophy, 18, 553-565.
Briskin, A. (2001).  The stirring of soul in the workplace.  San Franciso: Jossey-Bass.

Mulford, B., Moreno, J. M. (2006).  Sinking ships, Emerging leadership: A true story of sustainability, The Educational Forum70(3), 204-214.

Goodson, I., Moores, S., Hargreaves, A. (2006).  Teacher nostalgia and the sustainability of reform:  the generation and degeneration of teachers’ missions, memory and meaning, Educational Administration Quarterly, 42(1), 42-61.

Giles, C., & Hargreaves, A.  (2006).  The sustainability of innovative schools as learning organizations and professional learning communities during standardized reform, Educational Administration Quarterly, 42(1), 124-156.

Tyak & Cuban (1995) Tinkering toward utopia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.