Planning the improbable

The human brain is wired to interpret events in a narrative fashion. Events unfold and the brain seeks patterns and pieces things together to make meaning. In his book, “The Black Swan”, Nassim Nicholas Taleb points out that this property of the brain leads us to believe that history unfolds linearly. If “a” is a currently the accepted mode of thinking, we will likely go along believing that “a” will continue with its dominance. We see this in sports when a team looks a dynasty in the making and all prognosticators will groupthink and pick that team to win before the season starts.

Taleb’s book contends that life is largely shaped by black swan events rather than by straight lines or consistent timelines.  As Taleb says, “History does not crawl, it jumps.”  A black swan is an event, positive or negative, that is deemed improbable yet causes massive consequences. For example, the Chicago Bulls were a seemingly unstoppable dynasty with no end in sight until out of the blue, Michael Jordan decided to retire (for the first time) in the prime of his career to play baseball in the Chicago White Sox system. In his absence, a mini-dynasty for the Houston Rockets sprung up, only to be curtailed by the return of Jordan almost two seasons later. In both cases, an improbable act radically altered the NBA landscape.

There are countless examples from countless disciplines and aspects of life highlighting the power of black swans. We don’t see these highly improbable events coming because of the manner in which our brain is hardwired. We place way too much emphasis on past events as a predictor of things to come. After the Cold War was officially dead and buried during the Clinton era, Francis Fukuyama famously stated that: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Great line for selling books but the rapid rise of China and 9/11 radically undermined his sweeping statement.

Black swans don’t necessarily have to be improbable or unforeseen. I believe that we can manufacture them (kinda). Predicting the unpredictable is a tautology but we can set the framework and create the circumstances that might create educational black swans. Any successful organization, be it business, sports, technology or any other sort is able to create the conditions for success. These conditions allow for flexibility, rapid iteration, disruptive innovation, systems learning and creative resource management. While Steve Jobs was most definitely an unmatched visionary, he was not a psychic. There was no way that he could have predicted the iPod or the iPad back in the day but he was able to design the conditions that would allow for such a disruptive device to happen.

In education, we need to start doing a better job of creating the conditions that will foster black swans from our students, teachers, administrators and system leaders. Connective technology will help us to extend our reach and aid in greater knowledge creation. Approaching professional and student learning from an inquiry stance creates a mindset that is open to possibilities. We need to start thinking less about definitive outcomes and a lot more about positive structures.

The educational landscape will most definitely not remain status quo in the coming years. Do we know exactly what it will look like in the near or distant future? Not really to the first and no to the second. We need to stop trying to create packaged or canned views of the future and start fostering a love of learning and a desire to be life-long learners. This will allow our students and us as educators to be adaptive and flexible enough to meet whatever conditions we are to face. That’s why I love the quote in the feature image to this post. When we build connections and look to share more regularly, we impact others and the ripples keep growing.

5 thoughts on “Planning the improbable

  1. Great post, Kevin. I wonder if the idea of ‘black swans’ applies to our personal and professional lives as well. Imagine all the improbable and ‘insignificant’ events that have shaped each of us as professionals and people over our lifetimes.
    Will those who shape the education system in Ontario be prepared for the uncertainty that comes with adaptation and flexibility? We suffer from our status as a political entity in that our discourse now makes every change a negative for at least one political persuasion (and thus a liability for another).
    Teachers and administrators can only hope to influence the population from the ground up until politicians have no choice but to embrace change. Projects like TCDSB21C at their best, can give us the courage to take on that daunting task.

    • I’m not big flowery metaphor guy but I really like the ripple analogy. We need to harness the power of connectivity and link seemingly unconnected ideas and events together to create more ripples. Yesterday the TCDSB/MOE meeting at the CEC Lori, Mike and Peter dropped some serious knowledge on the room by revealing that last year at this time there 6000 devices connected to our network but that number has now jumped to 20000. That’s a staggering revelation. That alone is a game-changer;not top down programming but rather a structural element that created organic change. I keep coming back to the Eric Shinseki quote, “If you dislike change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.” Once we reach certain tipping points, change will happen because there is no choice but the change. The bottom is going to change the top, not because of any morality necessity but simply because it is now possible. The best part of the TCDSB21C is that is collaborative and open. The very fact that the rubrics used in the document are creative commons and thus open-sourced speaks volumes. Exciting times, we must develop that sense of efficacy in all teachers that they have the power to make huge change…no more waiting.

  2. Simply WOW! A well written and researched piece that puts the need for inquiry based learning into a great context and perspective. This should be required reading for anyone asking themselves the question: “Why Inquiry based learning?”

    • Much appreciated but without sounding like a brown-noser, I really feel that the work you, Lori and Peter have embarked upon is that kind of structural accelerator of innovation. The “neXt lesson” is not prescriptive; it informs but it empowers as well. Structural elements need to be in place to allow for multiple paths.

  3. Kevin,
    I guess it comes down to whether we want to be governed by love or fear: the latter leaves us paralyzed in the status quo; embracing the former would create veritable flocks of black swans!

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