Friday, December 18, 2015

Lessons from the Rise of Religious Toleration

In the mid 1700's the rise of religious toleration had become firmly entrenched.  However full operationalization of religious liberty had not yet occurred.  Those familiar with today's progressive debates will recognize parallel issues of trust, power dynamics and linguistic misinterpretation.

Anglican's wanted to increase their organizational level by getting a Bishop for the country.  Presbyterians did not want to concede the implied Anglican universality this could entail.  According to Beneke,
neither side could frame their arguments in the traditional language of toleration, nor yet fully concede to their opponents the religious liberty that they desired for themselves. (pp. 126)
Bennett goes on to say, "with the rise of religious liberty, there might be no more innocent words."

This scenario sounds eerily familiar to today's culture wars.  The battles around literal fact vs. perceived intent also parallel what is happening today.  Today something can be factually accurate, but still be speech which is banned (or de-facto banned): just think about the sociology vs. science of race & culture.  In the 1700's the tension surrounded labels of sinful behaviour/belief thrown from one religious tradition onto a different religious tradition.  While such accusations were technically correct, the intent of such messaging and the likelyhood of offence overwhelmed technical considerations.  Tolerance wasn't just about accepting others, it was about minimizing friction on non-essential issues.

In 1700's America, the key to eventually overcoming this conundrum was purposeful statements from both sides that they did not want to change the other: that they were both part of a larger national body.  The rise of religious migrants (converts from one sect from another) enabled deep insight into a given creed's hidden messages and agendas.  People became so sensitive about hidden agendas that trust broke down.  Society started to fracture.  It was saved by a heterogeneity.

Heterogenous interaction enabled people to see that their neighbour from another sect wasn't really the spawn of Satan, like perhaps their over zealous minister was suggesting. A large group oriented society had benefits that surpassed that offered by within-group purity.  A new cultural group level emerged.


So how would the evolution outlined by Beneke above play out for a resolution of today's culture wars?  The first step would involve both sides truly accepting the internal logic and internal value of opposite positions.

Opposites need not be seen as "right".  They do, however, need to be seen as plausible (within the assumptions of an alternative paradigm).  Large group moves to universalism generally require a commensurate surge to the value placed on commonalities.  In the progressive battles of today, this could mean a surge in nationalism or a surge in "human right" type thought.  I suspect"human right" universalism opens the gate to wide for large group survivability.  However, this will likely raise existentialist hackles. The end game of true universalism is the loss of the UN styled nation state.

What to Watch For

Costly display rituals/tests are an adaptive way of seeing who is and is not a group freeloader.  Acts which go against your own individual level self interest are unlikely to be done by group members who function on the group's periphery.  Neither are they likely to be done by those who are not very committed to group function.  Thus seemingly counter-adaptive acts actually function adaptively provided they purify group membership and strengthen group function.

Current examples of self-hate of privilege (i.e. upper middle class white people saying people like themselves deserve to be targeted by oppressed ethnic groups due to their inherit privilege) are hard to rationalize with anything other that costly display commitments against one group (a socio-economic group) and for another group (ideological based group).

This becomes very interesting when you look at the changes in adaptive grouping and group levels which are occurring.

The Ed Reform Scale-up Problem

Scale is one of the major challenges in educational reform. Extending localized successes has proved to be an intractable problem.  Broad reforms can sometimes change superficial institutional structures (i.e. principals as instructional leaders rather than business managers).  Usually, however, reforms simply change the practice of small clusters of teachers, perhaps even the practices within a few schools or charter school-networks.

Elmore in his insightful School Reform from the Inside Out book says,

The good news about existing reform strategies is that they tend to galvanize commitment among the already motivated by concentrating them in small groups of true believers who reinforce each other.  The bad news is that these small groups of self-selected reformers apparently seldom influence their peers.

It's hard not to interpret ideas like this in terms of multi-level selection theory: people tend to be drawn to self-reinforcing, adaptive groups which have evolved protection from freeloader and dictatorial abuse.

What Elmore is getting at is that educational reforms can delve into core practice change at a small-group level but can only broach superficial change at the large-group level.  The large-group level of education is a juggernaught.

Saturday, October 10, 2015


Peter Turchin has a good (albeit old) blog  series on mass shootings / rampages, that is unfortunately very timely this week.  Instead of commenting directly on that series, here's a quote that sent me off on some tangents.

The only difference between a rampage shooter and a terrorist bomber (such as Timothy McVeigh) is in the weapon used to kill. Both aim not at individual people but at groups, social or political institutions, or entire societies. 

The thing that strikes me as important is the loner vs. group dynamic.  One thing that is certainly happening in western societies is the concerted engineering of more multicultural societies.  While there are certainly many reasons why this (and it's associated resistance) is occurring, I suspect the multi-level selection lens is a fairly productive paradigm from which to look for deep causes.

Multi-level selection can posit that western moves to broader multi-culturalism reflect an evolutionary drift to large group orientations.  Large group orientations can be adaptive.  For example pluralistic societies tend to have lower levels of inter-state warfare.  Some of this comes from their focus on rule of law.  Some of it comes from increased propensities to see other state's citizens as "non-others".

An increase in group level can be very advantageous.  For example the brotherhood of Western Civilization certainly has the potential to minimize strifes between internal parties; after all we're linked by common values.  While the evolution to nation state sized groups certainly isn't finalized, the nation state group level has a fairly robust adaptiveness with a strong history of outcompeting lower levels.

The next level up, pan-national state groups (such as the Eurozone, NAFTA zone, etc.), haven't settled into robust adaptive group roles.  However, the seed is obviously on the table (& science fiction writers always fantasize about the inevitability of regional mega-states).

Fringe multiculturalism may portend even grander experiments.  Just what does western propensity for fanatically broad multicultural truly facilitate (from the multi-level selection lens).  The 1st millennial rise of universalist religion presents one potential parallel trajectory.  Larger group orientation may be signalling the attempted rise of an alternative world universalizing religion; however this one operates under the banner of secular progressivism/humanism rather than the quaint flying spaghetti monster mold.  But every (religious) push creates its own demons...

Which brings me rather circuitously to Peter Turchin's blog series on rampages.  If there is a felt push to higher adaptive group levels (which by definition outcompete lower group levels), then it seems natural to have blowback against this.  I'd suggest some of the surge in rampages may be due to non-group loners raging against the machine of groupishness.  Not only is there too much groupishness, current formulations amorphously portray everyone embracing everything.  This absolutely smothers the maladjusted lone rampager. Groupishness explicitly says you have to belong.  There is no safe space for non-belonging because everything is (amorphously) accepted/owned.  You absolutely will be part of our group.

Most, but certainly not all mass shootings/attacks seem focussed on venues and populations that portray strong group attenuations.  Has the pressure for groupishness become so substantial and pervasive that socially maladjusted loners vent their nihilism purely to destroy sacrosanct groupings? Purely to destroy group adaptiveness in order to save space for the loners that can't function at any group level?  I'd strongly suggest that the rise in rampages is tied to a rage against groupishness by those for whom groupishness will never work.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Summer Reading

This summer I got away for four weeks down to Belize and Mexico.  Unfortunately I don't think well in the heat: I go into survival/suffer mode. This trip was no different.  However, I did pick my way through a good biography of Mao.  He was so atrocious I had to digest it in bits (and I normally consider myself a fairly jaded fatalist!).  I'm just no good with sociopathic bullies.

It was interesting to learn a bit about the context of the Korean war (Mao wanted to sucker US into an engagement to get Russian arms, tech and industry into the country).  It was also interesting to see the group dynamics Mao relied on in his road to tyranny.  My main lesson was that in conditions of scarcity (mental or physical) people's response to group dynamics tend to bifurcate: sheeple vs. rebels.  This makes it easy for tyrants to suss out purges.  You also want to desensitize system responses and leverage the power of "big brothers".

I also made it through a number of educational reform history books.  The only one that stands out is Larry Cuban's How Teachers Taught.  He grabbed primary sources to record snapshots of observed teaching practices from 1880 to 1990.  I think I appreciated the primary data in this book more than I do the overarching observations in his Tinkering to Utopia book (based on the insights from the How Teachers Taught data).  Tinkering to Utopia, is however a must read for anyone needing to situate the problems of ed reform.

My big take-away from Cuban's book was to re-elevate the hybridization problem of ed reform.  The basic issue is that most every reform (large or small) gets hybridized.  50 year phase transitions, while  pervasive, are not fully so.

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.

Monday, March 2, 2015


I've just been reading this paper on evolutionary fitness with regard to time scale factors.  I was pleasantly surprised to find the infamous complexity theorist Bar-Yam as a co-author on the paper.

The main point they're resolving is how to treat scenarios where fitness measures on a short time scale fail to account for long time scale counter-fitness.  Their example is a pathogen.  If it is too transmissible, it dies out because of loss of suitable hosts.  If it is not transmissible enough, it also dies out.  They use equation based agent modelling as their methodology.

This leads to some possibly interesting analogies.  For instance, consider group collectives as a parasitic invader.

  1. If the parasite is too virulent, the host dies out.  
  2. If it is not virulent enough the parasite doesn't survive.  
  3. If the parasite has the right balance of virulence its population stabilizes.  

The corollary for group collectives goes as follows:

  1. If a group collective is too virulent, individualism dies out.
  2. If a group collective is not virulent enough, group collectives don't survive.
  3. If a group collective has the right balance of virulence, the prevalence of groups stabilize.
Now obviously parasites or group collectives have no awareness of "the right balance".  It's probably safe to assume virulence is normally distributed with selective pressure cutting off the tails.  So what causes virulent group collectives from taking over and eliminating individualism?  Do we just not have enough generational cycles to see this happening in humans?  

My thinking is that the freeloader problem is key.  Because individuals can dupe the group, there is selective pressure away from all powerful groups.  Trepidation is wise and signal sensitivity for freeloaders and non-adaptive groups are highly adaptive.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Charter Schools: The Large Group Orientation

This post is a follow-up from a previous through experiment applying education as an adaptive group theory to charter schools.

Part 1 - Framing the situation
Part 2 - Large group orientation
Part 3 - Small group orientation
Part 4 - Equivalent orientations
Part 5 - Evaluating other approaches


Education-as-an-adaptive group theory specifies two competing orientations within education: a large group orientation and a individualistic (small group) orientation.  Tension between orientations of similar strength produces complex behaviour. The large group orientation is embodied by institutionalized education.  The small group orientation is, in this test, embodied by charter schools or charter school systems.

Operationalization of these orientations is not straightforward.  Fortunately, I've ported ontological assumptions from multi-level selection theory, a productive and increasingly mature study area.  This means that adaptive group emergence is ontologically* based on fitness covariance: a group level only exists when fitness is not adequately explained at a lower (individual) level.  This yields a bottom-up social theory.  Ed-as-an-adaptive group focusses on the small-group-large-group interface.

However, in practice many social constructs are not present long enough to produce valid fitness measures.  This means social researches can:
  1. find comparative groups operating across long time spans, or,
  2. deal with behavioural expressions highly correlated (in an exclusive way) to adaptive group function, or, 
  3. deal with propensities for participation in group classes which are probabilistically correlated to adaptive group function.  
Option 3 is several steps removed from hard fitness measures.  Error propagation is disconcertingly significant.  I tend to apply option 2, limiting my study to adaptive groups with a strong to moderately strong moral mission.  I've found this filters out a lot of noise.  Plus, the religious like dynamics associated with strong moral missions correlate (qualitatively right now) extremely well with the presence of an adaptive group. It also enables study of social structures which, while not stable (i.e. many generations), are moderately so (say on the order of decades).  Institutionalized education in North America fits this time range (~180y**) as do many instantiations of specific charter school practices (~10y+). 

*Note: Technical debates exist on whether group levels are ontologically significant in the greater than equal to case (>), or only in the greater than case (>).  Multi-level selection theory (MLS2) takes the greater equal case(via strong altruism).  Selfish gene theories take the greater than case (via weak altruism).  Although Okasha has specified boundary conditions for this dicothemy, in practice, parsimony's significance is at least the great as computational precision.  This is because measurement fuzziness challenges precision's exclusivity.  While it's easy to get bogged down in technicalities, the main take-away is that fitness differences are the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes an adaptive group.

**Note: 180y or about 5-9 generations is probably pushing the limit for fitness measures.  10y is not enough time to even produce 1 generation.  Therefore hard fitness measures are not possible in this time range.  However group commitment on 10y spans do imply a fair bit of stability toward a specific group rather than just a series of similar classes of ephemeral groups.


Following the outlined methodology, an actor's large-group orientation is characterized by their engagement in group directed actions that have individual fitness costs (probabilistically).  In an adaptive group, on average, large-group provided fitness bumps offset individual commitment costs.  Give-and-take means that within a group some people get taken for a ride (losing fitness), many people come out even or a bit ahead, and some people get a big bump***.  Once too many people get taken for a ride, the group loses its adaptive function (via lowering the mean fitness bump provided by the group, so mean costs exceed mean benefits).  Orientations may remain, but are counter-adaptive.  Hence the evolution of sophisticated norm variance detection heuristics and the emergence of otherwise illogical sacred values (for spotting commitment levels and binding groups via costly commitment displays, ritual, and embodiment of moral big brothers).

Freeloaders within an adaptive group are positioned to reap significant windfalls: superficial compliance costs little and you really only suffer a fitness loss if you get caught.  Those who know how to "play" the system are positioned to gain even more.  They can adjust group operation to benefit themselves or other freeloaders.  However, this comes at greater risk of detection and punishment.  It's also why adaptive groups, like religions and cultures and highly resistant to planned reforms****.

***Note:  Obviously these measures are most meaningful on long time scales which span numerous generations.  Give and take occurs both on short terms and long terms.  Fitness measures are always probabilistic.

****Note:  Why we lie is a decent starter on the freeloader topic.  It posits that self-rationalization of norm variance lowers the risk of detection.  If you can convince yourself that your freeloading is actually helpful (or fairly neutral) to the group, then you're more likely to exhibit group compliant signals and less likely to express a cheater's tell.  The net result is cognitive dissonance surrounding group commitment: most people don't want to consciously abuse the group (due to evolutionary selection - group success is good for creating selective pressure for groupishness) but they also don't want to avoid doing what's in their own self-interest (from game theory, the best specific spot is for you to be a cheater and everyone else to be altruists).


image from

While education-as-an-adaptive-group theory, like its parent multi-level selection theory, posits two competing fitness orientations; large-group (competition between groups) & small group (competition within a large-group), as with multi-level selection theory, nesting among groups is permissible.  Thus theory operationalization suggests many types of orientational tensions are possible (even if many are unlikely).  Here's a sample:
  • large-group orientation vs. small-group orientation
  • small-group orientation vs. individual orientation
  • medium-group orientation vs. small-group orientation 
  • etc.  
Covairance, rather than informed speculation determines whether or not an additional (usually higher) group level is required (or useful) to explain fitness contributions. The complicated social dynamics people engage in mean that many nesting options are ephemeral. The ephemeralness of many nesting options means that associated fitness enhancements are extremely probabilistic (and only start to become meaningful with large n's).

In education, three group levels seem to emerge (although no measurements have yet been taken to verify that these levels are indeed what the fitness co-variance actually produces).  These levels are:
  1. the large group embodied by institutionalized education
  2. various small groups embodied by identifiable sub-populations which have collective adaptive function
  3. an individual person 
Small group orientation introduces the most source of framing error.  How many sub-sizings and sub-nestings are possible for "small groups"?  As with regression analysis, over-fitting is as much a problem as under-fitting.  Without hard data, limiting things to specific charter schools and charter school systems "feels right" (hence current avoidance of rigid small-group definitions).  This means when we deal with charter schools we get a couple of different possible orientational tensions.  
  1. institutional education vs. a charter school
  2. institutional education vs. a charter school system
  3. a charter school system vs. a charter school
  4. charter school vs. individual
  5. charter school system vs. individual
The effect size of each orientational tension obviously requires investigation (fitness based studies in education have a lot of work cut out for them).  From a methodological perspective, narrowing down which orientational tensions are and are not at play is analogous to standard factor analysis studies.  The distinction is that education-as-an-adaptive group theory specifies how these options emerge via first principles rather than from (expertly informed) dogma.


The chosen test study was framed around individual charter schools.  Because of this, analysis from the charter school system perspective is out of scope.  Thus three relevant orientational tensions emerge:
  1. institutional education vs. a charter school
  2. a charter school system vs. a charter school
  3. charter school vs. individual
These orientations seem to match common sense: a charter school can either become like a regular school, pool resources with others, go it alone, or get taken-in by a self-serving leader.  The distinction is that these options emerge from first principles.

Because this post is about charter schools' large group orientations, only the first two tensions will be discussed.  


image from

In terms of charter schools, corollaries from existing research (Atran, Wilson, List & Pettit) suggest a groupish orientation involves:
  1. sacrificing some autonomy, 
  2. rationalizing behaviour and intentions according to the group's "moral big brother", 
  3. normalized behaviour,
  4. costly commitment display, 
  5. rituals,
  6. freeloader detection & punishment.
List & Pettit's work on group agents (2014) shows that groups don't need to micro-manage individual orientations.  Group agent autonomy simply requires acquiescence to the group's collective judgment orientation.  Science of religion literature uses the term "moral big brother" instead or collective judgment.  In layman's terms it means respecting the group's central (moral) mission or purpose.  List & Pettit show that biasing effects from the group to the individual are sufficient to eschew the need for acquiescence to group morals on every issue.

In addition, Haidt's work on ex post facto rationalization (and the cognitive science literature on group influence) illustrate the degree to which rationalization to a group is pretty much inevitable.  Further work is needed to tease out the degree of group rationalization which occurs within adaptive groups compared to non-adaptive groups.  Obviously the level of rationalization is proportional to the degree of an individual's commitment to that group.  As an aside, identity fusion strikes me as a productive approach to this sub-topic.


Institutional Education Dominance
Education-as-an-adaptive group suggests charter school and average actors within them will do a number of unique things when oriented toward a large-group (embodied by institutionalized i.e. public education).

  • The most obvious thing is the rationalization of moral judgment.  Moral rationalization is based on institutionalized education's mores.  The charter school accedes to institutionalized  education's moral judgment. As per List & Pettit, education's moral judgement is based on a rationalized aggregate of the laity's morals. The charter school is free to pursue individual judgements that may or may not conflict with institutionalized education's morality.  When judgements in these areas differ, again following List and Pettit's work, a process of rationalization should occur.  Cognitive dissonance theory may be informative in these scenarios.  Ex post facto judgment rationalization is highly likely.  This means actors' emotional "tails" will wag their rational "dogs".  In effect, there will be an inherit emotional attachment to education's social equity tendencies (or whatever education's moral mission turns out to be).  This attachment will supercede rational attempts to re-order zero-sum resources for the charter school's target population.  In other words, if high-needs students on the fringe of the charter school's target demography are present, instructional practices will be moderated to serve these fringe needs at the expense of target demographic specialization and benefit.  These acts will probably be (ex post facto) rationalized as ethical practice, mandated expectation, reputationally important, of minor cost but high return, etc.
    • Falsifiability test - use Haidt's disgust research tests to look for the orientational direction of ex post facto rationalization.  Compare this with behaviour which favours the general population or the charter school's target population.
    From the 2013 CREDO study of Charter School effects

  • Instructional practice will tend to be normalized.  This doesn't mean innovation won't happen, only that it will be biased to consider general demographics rather than the specific demographics possible within a charter school.  The standard deviation of innovative practice should increase (as individual actors distribute across orientational continuum).  Actors and the school will feel "pressure" to engage in practice which maintains an entry point for the general population.  i.e. a student transferring into the school may need to get-up-to speed on innovative practice, but practice isn't so innovative that its only reachable to a specific demography, it's history and it's learning style. 
    • Falsifiability test - compare direction & severity of rationalization to degree of normalized practice.
    • Falsifiability test - compare direction & severity of rationalization to the CREDO graph above.  Large group oriented charter schools should have low variance in"catch-up" time and a small slope (they're the same as the public system!).  Small-group oriented charter schools which should have high variance in "catch-up time" and a steep slope (learning dip adapting to new norms for some & learning spike from great fit to new norms for others).  
    • Falsifiability test - Students deviating from the charter school's target demographic should suffer more in a small-group oriented charter school than in a large-group oriented charter school or large-group oriented public school.

  • Actors within the school and the school itself will continue to do things that are costly for their target population.  This may be maintaining a Carnegie unit, resourcing special needs students, maintaining education's bureaucratic structures, maintaining extra-curricular activities that don't serve the target population, etc.  In education I've found distinctions between ritual and costly commitment displays are hard to tease out.
    • Falsifiability test - research costly commitment displays in education and see how levels match up with school orientation (as measured by the first falsifiability test)

  • Freeloading is directed to the small-group.  Actors are committed to a large group orientation but still play lip service to the small-group orientation.  In a charter school this would be embodied by teachers committed to larger social equity concerns but framing this behaviour as if it was in the best interest of the school's filtered target population.  It could involve connecting with lower performing schools for optics rather than for student benefits.  School branding PR would be very important, because in reality, the charter school is minimally different from any branded public school attenuating to institutionalized education. 
    • Falsifiability test - actors state orientation to the large-group but measure small-group orientation (via Haidt's disgust styled tests) and commit small-group orientation acts.

In general a large-group orientation for a charter school is characterized by putting the needs of (public) institutionalized education before the needs of the school's target demographic.  Charter schools in this orientation may certainly have unique and innovative practices, however, these practices are framed as being for the greater good of all students.  This framing happens by rationalizing that public education benefits from a certain degree of niche optimization.  When push comes to shove, the needs of the general population or outsiders entering the charter school are given priority over exclusionary practice optimized for the school's target population.  Academic effects would be due to population self-selection which could be mimicked in the public school setting by gerrymandering boundaries or facilitating socio-economic streaming via scheduling options.


Most of the previous discussion ports over to charter schools which orient toward a charter-school-system.  

  • Autonomy should be sacrificed toward the charter school system.  Because charter school systems are smaller than public education, an individual charter school should have more influence on the large group's judgment.

  • A system of charter schools need not be an adaptive group; it could simply operate as quid-pro-quo collaborators (the theory specifies that institutionalized education is an adaptive group). Should it function adaptively, the charter school system should have an identifiable morality.

  • Costly commitment displays should be directed to the charter school system.  Rituals should bind the charter schools together (i.e. something like cricket tournaments in an North American charter school system - talk about a painful ritual!  School uniforms could also meet this standard.)

  • Freeloader detection and punishment is likely to be more important and harsher in a small system.  Group adaptiveness is more severely threatened by a single freeloader in group of 10 than in a group of 100.  Small adaptive charter school systems also haven't had the time to stabilize like institutionalized education.  Nor are they likely to have developed the same universalizing mission less they compete directly with the established beast.


So what would a large-group orientation look like in a charter school?  Chances are you'd mainly see superficial differences with mainstream practice.  You'd probably also see some schools starting to break with public education's mores and traditions.  Practices will start to diverge.  Divergence will accelerate as major norms, like bums-in-seats, percentage grades, externally selected curriculum, and social normalization via the hidden curriculum, etc. are eschewed.  This further filters the population and may draw in other people poorly served via public education but who fit well with the new practices and population.

Divergence may result in a go-it-alone orientation,  connections with other like-minded schools and systems, or reproduction for greater strength and anti-fragility.  In all these events, charter schools either risk confrontation with institutionalized education or they risk norm variation pressure and/or freeloader punishment.

Education-as-an-adaptive-group theory establishes multiple scenarios for Charter school tensions via first principle reasoning.  While common sense reproduces many lines of thought, the value of a theoretical base shouldn't be underestimated.  Testable hypothesis are produced and central issues are illuminated.  Tension is a key component of this theory.  As such, it highlights searches for cognitive dissonance, orientational vacillation and moral rationalization.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Scale free

Since Christmas my free reading time has been spent on a back-log of New Scientists and Steven Pinker's book on the history of violence, "The Better Angels of Our Nature".  

So far I've found one nice tidbit (from New Scientist) and once nice tangential idea (from Pinker).

Tidbit - Integrated information theory.  Uses network analysis tools to calculate measures of consciousness.  It takes a top down approach to the micro-macro divide problem.  It also specifies that groups of people can not function as a collective conscious.

Tangent - Investigate whether school organization follow a scale free pattern (i.e. power law).  If the fit is pretty good, investigate negative discrepancies to see if non-obvious actors are consider and consider themselves part of the group.  Investigate positive discrepancies to see if actors tend to freeload or weakly consider themselves part of the group.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Charter School Application

Image from 
I've spent the fall getting up-to-speed on how sociology approaches the field of large group dynamics.  However, over the last month or so I've jumped back into the technical ontology of multi-level selection theory.  It's been a real pleasure returning to an approach that values falsifiability.  While descriptive approaches work well to give you a "sense of how to think about a topic", nothing beats a good objective test and the inability to wiggle out of hidden surprises.  With that in mind, I suspect its time for another thought experiment.


Canadian & US charter school prevalence is increasing (DC figures, US figures & news report, NY,  Alberta, Canada) Some charter schools simply replicate traditional public educational practice on self-selected populations; some do not.  Population self-selection has often occurred via simple socio-economic filtering.  However, a growing number of charter schools are tending to resonate around radical instructional practices: filtering is therefore emerging as a nexus of innovative practice, branding and social caste. (K-12 blended learning research gives a good feel for specific innovation types).

Feedback within the nexus produces innovative practices optimized for specific social caste sub-sets and a sub-population with unique learning preferences.  Individual social-cognitive tendencies produce an emergent structure which casually effects the social-congitive tendencies associated with said structure's production.  This type of resonant feedback epitomizes sociology's intractable micro-macro divide problem: it strongly resists models which try to work up through the divide and then back down.  So how does ed-as-an-adaptive group broach the micro-macro divide with respect to charter school analysis?


First a bit of context is probably needed to adequately situate the charter school test.  In many cases charter schools act as independent school districts.  This means the amount of interaction they have with the public school system can be quite minimal.  On the other hand, some charter schools operate as simply another school in a public division; albeit one with a unique culture, and sometimes a unique population.  Some charter schools have a single campus.  Other charter schools have dozens or, hundreds of campuses.  Thus charter schools range from one-off wonders, to branded magnet-schools within a traditional school district, to fully independent state-spanning independent school districts.

Hargreaves' 8 year longitudinal study of innovative schools from the late 90's and early 00's suggested that traditional practice has a tendency to claw back the uniqueness of innovative school practice. Perceptions of innovation may remain, but actually practice becomes increasingly normalized.  Suggested reasons for re-normalization include:
  1. an inability to fully enculture new teachers before others arrived (eventually swamping moral missions), 
  2. repeated transfer of leaders, resulting in repeated directional changes (producing demotivation and contrived compliance to change)
  3. ostricization by peers (teachers, other schools, district leaders, etc)
  4. shifting student demographics
  5. waves of never-ending reforms and the ebb & flow of resources
Hargreaves and Goodson suggested that professional learning communities and activist orientations minimize innovation claw back. However, caveat size may have been underplayed.

Talk with academic research colleagues suggest, as of late, numerous innovative charter schools have not had their practices re-normalized - even over the decade length time scale Hargreaves' study pinpoints as critically characteristic.  Many charter schools do, however, exhibit quasi-complex tension between orientation toward placid conventional practice and radical innovation.  How does "Ed-as-an-adaptive-group theory" explain re-normalization, and more importantly what does it say about the larger educational tensions in which charter schools operate?


Education-as-an-adaptive-group makes a number of informative predictions in regard to the charter school situation.  To re-cap the basics, education-as-an-adaptive-group theory says:
  1. The institution of education (in functioning rule of law societies like Canada or the United States) operates as an adaptive group.
    1. Adaptive groups emerge by fitness selection. (For example, altruistic sacrifice within an adaptive group increases rather than decreases individual fitness.)
    2. Individuals within an adaptive group express behavioural traits which have been evolutionary selected to sustain adaptive group function (when such expression is individually adaptive).
    3. The ontological reality of adaptive groups is determined by unique fitness contributions, inter-group competition, group reproduction, and emergent group rationality.
  2. Education exists in a tension between two competing fitness orientations: a large group (or groupish) orientation and a small group (or individualistic) orientation.
    1. Competing orientations with similar fitness levels produce complex orientational behaviour. Large fitness differences between orientations produce a steady state orientation.
Thus ed-as-an-adaptive-group theory attempts to broach the micro-macro divide by specifying two competing biologically selected orientations: one above the divide, and one below the divide.
Note: Because fitness is a probabilistic measure of reproductive success, ephemeral groups existing on short time scales resist robust forward predictions about fitness.  They can however, be described and differentiated from non-adaptive groups.  While I'm making progress on this front, I'm still rationalizing the philosophical and ontological end of things.  This means precision varies too much to warrant discussion about non-stable constructs.


Education-as-an-adaptive-group theory frames the charter school situation in the following way:
  • Charter schools exist in tension between a large group orientation and a small group orientation.
    • The large group is embodied by the institute of public education.  This includes people, practice, norms, missions etc.  
    • The small group is embodied by the charter school's (self-selected) population.  This includes people, practice, norms, missions etc. 
    • Orientation to the large group is characterized by actions which favour the needs of the large group over those of the small group. (i.e. meeting social equity concerns, within-large-group altruism, maintaining large group norms, exposing and punishing freeloaders within the large group, etc.)
    • Orientation to the small group is characterized by actions which favour the needs of the small group over those of the large group (i.e. meeting localized needs, within-small-group altruism, maintaining small group norms, exposing and punishing freeloaders within the small group, etc.)
  • While actors are (usually) not explicitly aware of fitness differences between orientations, they are responsive to cues which signal adaptive group function and sustenance.  (i.e. costly commitment displays, individual benefits, moral big brother, ritual & routine, norm variation punishment, etc.)
  • Minor fitness differences between the large-group-small-group orientation produces complex orientational shifts.  Uncertainty in actors' evaluation (explicit or implicit) of relative adaptiveness increases the complexity of orientational shifts.
The theory naturally highlights a couple of areas for investigation with respect to renormalization and tension:
  1. What cues are actors implicitly and explicitly responding to during orientational competition?
  2. What internal moral issues arise when actors are embedded in two moderately moralistic but competing nestable groups whose functions and norms overlap to such an extent that freeloading and norm variations are hard to detect and punish?
  3. How does an individual's sensitivity to norm variation and freeloading correlate with 1) how deeply they orient toward a group before starting to hedge their bets or engage in radically mutually exclusive behaviour, 2) the extent to which they express cognitive dissonance symptoms. 

The basic insight from ed-as-an-adaptive-group theory is that charter schools (or indeed any innovative school, teacher or district) face a conundrum:
  1. orient toward a special interest (group) at the expense other special or general interests and at the risk of violating larger group norms, morals, needs and commitments, or
  2. orient toward general interests by purposefully neglecting special interests and at the risk of alienating populations and enabling competition or critique.
A general interest (large-group) orientation can be rationalized by citing social equity missions, zero-sum resourcing, student re-integration concerns, playing ball with funding and accreditation strings, etc.

A special interest (small-group) orientation can be rationalized by citing the educational value of specialization, experimentation, meeting unfulfilled needs, through cost-benefit calculations, etc.


Space requires saving the specifics of charter school large-group and small-group orientations for my next couple of posts.  However, even the simple framing just completed suggests that ed-as-an-adaptive-group theory highlights some interesting aspects of charter school tension.  It suggests that the tensions in which charter schools and charter school leaders operate within aren't simple issues of fulfilling or not fulfilling potential.  Stresses extend down into people's genes and deal with the fundamental social dynamics associated with adaptive group function, participation and freeloading.  

My suspicion is that freeloading guilt plays an under-appreciated role in charter school tension with institutionalized education and normative practice.  Having been on the ground in this exact game for a good decade, there's a definite hesitancy to come across as purposefully exclusionary. It's one thing to focus on a target population; it can be rationalized with institutionalized education's need for differentiation and, more importantly, has a high benefit-to-variance ratio.  However, it's another thing to purposefully engage in practice which is good for your target population but harmful for your fringes.  Purposeful failure to worry about negative impacts on the fringes is generally a-moral within education.  This is especially true when such negligence is rationalized because those on the wrong side of the fringe aren't "your group".

Re-normalization isn't just about external factors as per Hargreaves. It has a significant internal component.  Nor are the internal components just about conventional organizational change factors or achievement goal orientations.  The slippery slope toward exclusionary independence takes kahoonas to see to its logical end. This is because its logical conclusion requires eschewing the large-group orientation embodied by institutionalized education for the potential benefits of small group orientation.  This risks direct confrontation with institutionalized education's behemoth.  It also risks  freeloader punishment by the same.  However, institutionalized education has a universalizing moral function (tolerational tendency) that luckily tends to:
  • not confront minor or major variants, 
  • minimally punish freeloaders, and, 
  • co-opt success. 
In essence, it's a happy-go-lucky Borg that since the 1830's has absorbed almost everyone during successive waves of ~50 year expansion cycles.  It's so successful in fact that its hard to imagine that institutionalized education is as much an emergent social structure as the nation state.  According to implications from ed-as-an-adaptive-group theory, institutionalized education emerged through between-group selective pressure just like cultural evolutionists suggest chiefdoms, kings and nation states did.

Education-as-an-adaptive group therefore suggests that while stable social structures like institutionalized educations are unlikely to disappear, they do face competition from 1) other groups operating in the same ecological niche (I'd suggest big groups operating with the same moderate moral mission level), 2) offspring or splinter groups.  I'll save implications of the first option for another blog post analyzing theory implications concerning between-group competition.  The second option is exactly the type of thing the educational department in the Christensen Institute theorizes about via their disruptive innovation toolset.