Externalities

We’re familiar with the externalities of industrial production and consumption. They’re fairly predictable, and often visible. Even air pollution, the silent killer, is usually visible when it happens, before the poison spreads. It’s a perfect example of a negative externality – something put into the world that everyonepays for, not just the producer or the consumer.

What are the externalities of your project, program or product? What invisible outputs do you have?

  • What does your way of working with users, customers or clients say that your words leave out? How do they see you seeing them? Do they leave feeling smaller, more pressured, less competent – or with a greater belief in their ability to get better and to make a difference? (As you teach that vital knowledge and share those crucial skills, what else are you teaching?)

  • As you manage your team, how do they feel when they leave the office? What do they take home with them? What are your externalities for their families, friends and neighbourhoods?

    • What about your suppliers – the people who serve you as you serve others. What externalities do you have for the people in the photocopy shop, the electrician who comes to the office, or for your cleaners?

  • What about your suppliers – the people who serve you as you serve others. What externalities do you have for the people in the photocopy shop, the electrician who comes to the office, or for your cleaners?

Not polluting – ‘do no evil’ – isn’t nearly enough.

Education for the future: Key tools

Here are some tools that don’t go out of date:

  • Tools for thinking, learning and understanding (the tools that help you acquire new tools);
  • Tools for communicating and teaching (the tools that help you find and enlist others in your work, and help them to learn new tools);
  • Tools for planning, organising and leading (tools that enable you to work effectively with others);
  • Tools for making new tools (all of these tools fall into this category, but it applies to more technical skills too, from using a hammer to building a website).

Machine. Ecosystem. (8) – classrooms as complex adaptive systems

Planning is essential in education, but it’s easy to fall into the habit of treating your session plan or presentation as a set of inputs for a machine: “If I do these things, and introduce this content, and prescribe this activity, this learning will result.”

But we know that groups of people, and especially groups of children, don’t work so predictably. The ‘perfect’ lesson plan a classroom is a Russian doll of one set of complex adaptive systems inside another inside another:

  • The rapidly developing minds of children or teenagers…
  • Nested in expectations and the social structures and groups-within-groups of kids-at-school culture…
  • In the classroom culture shaped by a particular teacher – who is themselves a complex adaptive system of body, thoughts and emotions…
  • Interacting with the wider culture of the school…
  • All interacting with cultures local, national and international…
  • And influenced by what’s going on at home, the weather, what they had for lunch…

In the face of this complexity, the first thing to do is recognise that what happens in our classroom is beyond our control, at least in the mechanistic sense of the word. Trying to impose precise control – of learning outcomes, of students’ behaviour – is a recipe for frustration and disappointment, if not damage.

The second thing is to start thinking about teaching and classroom management in terms of disposition and influence (and teachers can have a lot of influence):

  • How can I make it more likely that the people I teach arrive on time and ready to learn?
  • How I can I increase their disposition to be kind to each other, or to love this subject and to work hard?
  • How can I make it more likely that they’ll do X, rather than Y?

Go to work. Take responsibility. Do the hard work of building a classroom culture that gets your students where they want to go (hint: you might have to start by showing them where it’s possible to go).

But don’t beat yourself up the next time it snows, and the lesson plan goes out the window as the kids pile up against the window to watch the world turn white.

A butterfly must have flapped its wings in New York.

Cutting edge – learning and change

The edge on a knife is important – it’s the sharp end (okay, side) where the cutting actually takes place. It needs to stay sharp, and keeping it sharp takes care and regular maintenance because it dulls quickly from use and corrosion.

The other parts of the knife – spine and heel, bolster, tang, handle – receive less attention. They change more slowly and require less maintenance but are more important in the long run: a sharp edge on a bad knife doesn’t last for long.

The person using the knife is more important again. They decide the important things: what and where and when to cut, and who or what we cut for. They keep the knife sharp or let it rust.

These things are true of most of the tools we use, and of our skills.

Cutting-edge skills – using the latest technology or media, understanding the thing that’s on everybody’s mind – will help you cut, but they’ll change relatively quickly, meaning that you’ll need to work on them regularly to keep them sharp.

Deeper skills last longer. Critical among these are structural literacy of the world in general and your field in particular, an understanding of systems and people, and communication and leadership skills. These skills – alloyed with curiosity and a commitment to learning – allow you to keep the cutting edge sharp and to help others to do the same. Without them you’ll have – at best – a sharp edge on a cheap knife.

Deeper still, ask questions of the person holding these tools: what will you use them to achieve, where, when, and who or what for? A good knife is worse than a bad one in the wrong hands, or in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It might help to work backwards from the cutting edge:

  1. Which skills do I feel pressured to acquire? Which activities do I feel the world is pushing me to do?
  2. How do these fit into the bigger picture and broader trends? If I don’t have it already, where can I acquire the structural literacy to be able to answer that question?
  3. Is this even a game I want to be in in the first place? How does it square with my values? What’s the hard and important part of the work that I do, and will this technology make a difference to that – is it signal or noise?

Tim O’Reilly on structural literacy

Access to an unlimited world of information is a powerful augmentation of human capability, but it still has prerequisites. Before she could make an exquisite dessert by watching a YouTube video, my stepdaughter had to know how to use an iPad. She had to know how to search on YouTube. She had to know that a world of content was there for the taking. At O’Reilly, we call this structural literacy.

Users without structural literacy about how to use computers struggle to use them. They learn by rote. Going from an iPhone to Android, or the reverse, or from PC to Mac, or even from one version of software to another, is difficult for them. These same people have no trouble getting into a strange car and orientating themselves. “Where is that darned lever to open the gas cap?” they ask. They know it’s got to be there somewhere. Someone with structural literacy knows what to look for. They have a functional map of how things ought to work. Those lacking that map are helpless.

The level and type of structural literacy required differs with the type of work you do. Today’s startups, increasingly embedding software and services into devices, require foundational skills in electrical and mechanical engineering, and even “trade” skills such as soldering… Teachers are far more effective if they are broadly familiar with the culture and context of their students.

Tim O’Reilly – WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us

Struggle

Honest love is born from the struggle / it’s lived in the valley as much as the hill

Mark Stone

I saw a young man driving a supercar in Vancouver – he was too young, I thought, to have earned it – and I thought “poor guy.”

In giving him the world on the plate, I realised, his parents had rendered his life weightless: too light winning makes the prize light. His wealth had robbed him of something priceless.

This raises all sorts of questions about the good starts, leg-ups and help we give to others.* Looking back, how much struggle would you have chosen? How much would have been good for you?

*Education and training, community development and parenting are the first three areas that spring to mind.

Debt to society

If you want to talk about our debt to society – the question of what we owe the other people who share our culture, and share the planet with us – it’s helpful to start with this: without other people, you’d be dead. Even if you’d somehow managed to be born on your own, without other people you’d never have made it.

But ‘debt to society’ is the wrong way to frame it. It helps to think less about giving-up-what-is-rightfully-ours because of what we owe (though we do), or because we feel guilty or obliged (though perhaps we should), or because we’re afraid of what will happen if we don’t (though there might be good reason for this).

What do we want?

Let’s talk instead about contributing towards what we want, and the benefits we might expect to enjoy if we lived in a kinder, more generous society. A society – just for example – in which as many people as possible get a leg-up when they’re just starting out (by being born, or starting school, or starting their careers), and the hand-up that makes all the difference when they’re down. We know that these things don’t just make it better for other people’s kids, but for our kids.* A better society is better for all of us: no-one wants unhealthy, poorly educated, tormented neighbours. (And no-one wants selfish neighbours either).

We all do want human flourishing, and most of us want it for everyone. We don’t even disagree that much about what it looks like, just about how to achieve it** and sustain it. And most people want to contribute towards achieving it.

Better

If we focus on “better”, if we say the words and describe it, it becomes much easier for people who usually disagree with us to say, “Actually, I want that too – but I think we’ll get it by doing this...” And it becomes easier for us to agree to try one way, then the other – or to find a different, better way.

And focusing on contribution towards building something better is a great story. We can feel good about what we’re giving, a part of what we’re building, and hopeful about what we’re moving towards.

*And at the end of the day, they’re all our kids.
**Perhaps particularly about whether a
flourishing life is something that can be given.

How tools spread

How do tools – ideas and understandings, practices, and real physical tools – get to the people who need them?

Some tools may only need to be seen to by copied and spread. A tool will spread if it is:

  • Visible – people need to see it (or hear, or read about it)
  • Beneficial – people need to see that the tool brings benefits too
  • Acceptable – isn’t in some way taboo*
  • Doable – simple enough to understand and apply
  • Accessible – people can get hold of what they need to start using it
  • Affordable – in terms of the physical, mental and emotional resources** and time needed to learn or use the tool

Further reading:

*Taboos may prevent one or both of the first two from happening
**”Can I afford the social or emotional costs of using this tool? Is it worth it?”
***The copyright section of which reads as follows:

You have permission to post this, email this, print this and pass it along for free to anyone you like, as long as you make no changes or edits to its contents or digital format. In fact, I’d love it if you’d make lots and lots of copies. The right to bind this and sell it as a book, however, is strictly reserved.

Scrapbook: Niall Ferguson on culture, text-for-profit, libraries, search and literacy

Niall Ferguson was speaking at the Long Now Foundation, responding to a question from Stewart Brand about how ads and the profit-motive influenced the nature of search and the internet echo-chamber.

Google and Facebook in particular are platforms driven by user-engagement and time-on-platform (the source of their ad revenue) and as a result tend to give us more of what we like or agree with already, filtering out sources that might challenge our views. 

If you look back on the way the printing press developed, there was a for profit wing that ultimately did finance itself by selling ads, and it evolved into newspapers and magazines.

But that was only a fraction of all the printed content that was out there. Most printed content was accessible free through things called libraries, and libraries were non profit.

Public libraries gradually began to spread in the protestant realms because remember, Protestantism insisted on literacy. A country like mine, Scotland, went from very low literacy to very high literacy because of the reformation. Schools had libraries. Books were regarded as a public good. And this meant that most printed content was not provided by profit making institutions. It was essentially free, and crucially, catalogued in increasingly effective and – I’ll call them objective – ways.

Anybody who’s spent time in one of the great libraries of the world, say the Cambridge University Library, knows that the books are sorted in such a way that you find the book that you’re after, and next to it are books on similar topics. This is an incredibly valuable thing if you’re doing serious research. 

Google is not like that. You may think that Google is like that, but you’re wrong, because that is not how search works…

Niall Ferguson – The Long Now Foundation – Networks and Power