22 January 2012

If you say "scale up," you don't understand humanity

The entire "educational reform" "movement" is based on an impossibility. But it is an impossibility which is, sadly, foundational to both British and American social thought. Which is why it is so difficult to explain to those in power in either British-formed or American-formed societies why they are wrong about "everything."

British society and the American society which sprung from it, assume that all relations between humans are based in two mutually exclusive concepts: Exceptionalism - Anglos, and particularly "our" Anglos, Brits in Britain, Americans in America - are 'by birthright' better than everyone else on the planet, and Replication - everyone on the planet can be converted into a copy of an Anglo. This comes from the common "Liberal Ideal" in which it is the duty of those who have achieved rational perfection, "The last best hope of earth," to convert all others to the same rational ideal so that the world becomes a safe and good place for a benign capitalism.

São Paulo, Brasil
In order to do this, we need replication. Parliament must look the same in New Delhi, Johannesburg, Nairobi as it does in Westminster. Language must be the same in Jamaica, Zambia, and Hong Kong. Walmart must be the same in Topeka, Brasilia, Shanghai. Scaling up, we take the "ideal" and we replicate it everywhere.

Of course "ideal" is a perfection designed to match a particular vision: If this be government it is represented by a structured, limited form of "two-party," prescribed choice, "representative democracy" - a very conservative system designed to make change extremely difficult. In retailing it is the low-cost, high-profit, globalized sameness whether Lipton Tea or Walmart. In education, this is the test-prep academy model, preparing students for lives of compliance.

In all of these this replication has different forms for the powerful, so both Rupert Murdoch and Mitt Romney have different relationships with their governments, since they pay people to write laws, they shop at different stores, and they send their children to different schools.

Terroir and "scaling across"

Googling "Flat World"
"Scaling Up" fails because it imagines, in the language of right-wing New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, that "the world is flat." To imagine that 520 years after the voyage of Columbus we'd love the phrase "flat world" is both highly amusing and deeply saddening, but it represents the desperation for sameness which has long characterized British and American imperial thought.

This idea would have never come out of French culture, or even German culture, where notions of difference are embedded. Hamburg, Berlin, Munich have very little in common. Saigon, Algiers, Martinique (to name three French colonial capitals) in no way operated along the same lines.

Though British colonialists always ate the same foods, drank the same tea, played the same games of Cricket, and Americans carried Hiltons and Holiday Inns around the world with them along with their hamburgers, French cuisine and culture "went native" - in the British term - everywhere. Victoria, British Columbia might be "little London," but Montreal and Hanoi could never be called Parisian. It is perhaps inconceivable that Heart of Darkness could have been written by a French author.

Tea in Victoria, British Columbia
This is a conceptual difference with vast implications. And it may begin with the word "terroir," a word I've known for a long time but which was re-imagined for me by the brilliant book Walk Out Walk Onby Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze. Terroir, in French, means something like, "a sense of the place," and is used most often to describe why the same grape vine will produce different grapes depending on where it is planted. Terroir is not simply a "natural" phenomenon. The French vinoculture understands that it isn't just the weather, the unflat world slope, or the soil which causes variation, but the way that the farmers themselves function, how they care for the vines, how they pick the grapes. So, it is presumed in France that every wine, from every year, from every different place, will be different. This is quite a different concept from the T-test which lies behind both Anglo-style brewing and American education.

"French" food in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietna
"The t-statistic was introduced in 1908 by William Sealy Gosset, a chemist working for the Guinness brewery in Dublin, Ireland ("Student" was his pen name). Gosset had been hired due to Claude Guinness's policy of recruiting the best graduates from Oxford and Cambridge to apply biochemistry and statistics to Guinness's industrial processes. Gosset devised the t-test as a way to cheaply monitor the quality [consistency] of stout."

The world, apparently, is as flat as we choose to see it.

A few years ago I sat in a session at a comparative education conference and heard people working with Intel Education describe their intention of doing the exact same thing in every school, whether that school was in San Jose, California or rural India. After the session I asked one of the presenters if he really thought that there were no differences across the planet. "Well, sure," replied, "but for the sake of this project we've chosen to ignore that."

Which describes the "flat world" cultural concept perfectly, and makes "scaling up" possible. If the world is all the same, we can find the model which works in Oklahoma City and replicate it exactly in Lagos. If this is how math is taught in Beijing, we will teach it this way in Newark.

I see this all the time when I speak to young men and women who have scored badly on community college placement tests. If they lack the proper "Anglo" stylistics in their writing, that is, if their narratives are not expressed in the straight-line form expected in British and American writing, they are deemed to be less intelligent, just as African-American children are likely to be deemed both "disabled" and "defiant."

"...it smells like victory." The Apocalypse Now version of Heart of Darkness expresses a significant
difference between American (above) and French (below) colonialism
, despite the brutality of both.
"It is the French plantation sequence that gives me the most pause. It is long enough, I think, that is distracts from the overall arc of the movie. The river journey sets the rhythm of the film, and too much time on the banks interrupts it (there is the same problem with the feuding families in Huckleberry Finn). Yet the sequence is effective and provoking. It helps me to understand it when Coppola explains that he sees the French like ghosts; I questioned how they had survived in their little enclave, and accept his feeling that their spirits survive as a cautionary specter for the Americans." - Roger Ebert
Seeding and "Scaling Across"

No two children are the same. No two teachers are the same. No two communities are the same. No two ecosystems are the same. But these facts dispute the rationalism and science of the last 300 years of "Western" thought. The entire goal of statistics is to create "norming," so that, for example, one looks at the North Atlantic and the South Pacific and says, "ocean," about both. In educational terms, Arne Duncan looks at any two children who are six-years-old and says, "first grade." It makes life so much easier if we can imagine the world this way. You barely have to look to be sure you know. Which is why Arne Duncan, and The New York Times, know a failing school, even if he or they have never seen it.

If you believe in that rational, flat world, everything can be scaled up. You define a "best practice" or a "successful design" and you just repeat and repeat.

But if you don't see humans that way, you need a different path. That different path accepts that the surfaces tell us a lot less than we think, and that no matter how much the global economic engine tries, whether that's Benjamin Disraeli/William Gladstone or JP Morgan Chase/Apple Corporation, the world will always be a stubbornly diverse place.

So instead of modeling, scaling up, building replicas, we seed, and watch ideas take root in many soils and grow in many ways. This, according to the authors of Walk Out Walk On, is "scaling across." A human representation of Cotton Mather's observations regarding the hybridization of corn.

Monocultures require constant interference with nature in order to hold,
nature diversifies and hybridizes at every opportunity (
Cradling Wheat, Thomas Hart Benton)
The trick to sharing "best practices" is to stop doing that. Instead, share "our practices" and let ideas meet, collide, mix, and take root differently in each place. The trick to "scaling up" is the same - stop trying. If BMW has to "Americanize" their cars in order to sell them in the United States (adding cup holders, etc), what makes people like Intel or the KIPP or TFA foundations so arrogant as to imagine that they can replicate themselves among vastly different communities?

Instead we imagine, attempt, describe, converse. We pass along concepts, not plans. We share observations, not blueprints. We accept that whether it is a child or a school, we can not evaluate anything with a checklist or a score, but only with very human description.

That's a less rational world which requires more humane effort, and it contains troubling mountains and deep valleys because it is not flat. But it is the world in which we actually live.

- Ira Socol


Mike Kaechele said...


I have not read Freidman's book, but my impression was that it was more about how "flat" the connections of the world are now. Not necessarily that everywhere is the same, but that the world is intricately and instantly connected. Anyway, not my main point.

I agree in general that school should be personalized to local settings, but shouldn't some general principles be universal? For example my PBL school is part of New Tech Network of around 80 schools.

New Tech protects its brand by requiring certain things small schools with teacher:student ratio no more than 25:1, 1:1 computers, follow PBL process, 21st Century skills (yeah I hate the title, but concepts are important). So these are the "requirements" and we have coaches who come and evaluate us by their rubrics on how we are implementing PBL and such in our schools.

I don't have a problem with this because I visit and talk to other teachers in our network I find that our schools are not identical or cookie cutter. Our school coach gave me what I considered to be a great compliment telling me that I do not follow the PBL protocol but don't change anything because I have personalized the process.

That to me is the key. Have over-all themes such as student-centered and constructionism but allow teachers to customize what it looks like at the local school level.

David said...

If you've done so already Ira, I recommend seeing Schooling the World, which adds to your argument.