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“Well, what is truth?” she said to me from across the table. Our beers bubbled in front of us, the light from the window accentuating the amber hues of my lager. I took a deep breath and rolled my eyes.

“Oh, you’re one of those,” I said to her, already pushing away what she about to say.

I can’t remember how we got into this conversation, or how it had converged to this very point, but nonetheless, I’ll remember it forever. While I wasn’t ready to change my thinking about truth in that moment, I was ready to let the idea of truth as a non-existence construct bubble beneath the surface of my conscious psyche.

It’s interesting. This idea of an entirely objective truth stunned the world just a couple of hundred years ago and revolutionized humans’ ways of being, thinking, and interacting. The DesCartes-led “Age of Reason” pushed the world into a time of the scientific method, variable isolation, and the extraction of objective fact through observation, experimentation, and iteration. And to a certain extent, this method for finding truths has served us well. It has, in some ways, created a bottom-up view of the world, one where data can prove almost anything, where power is given to reason, and where bias takes a backseat to observable truths.

Top-Down or Bottom-Up?

I’m now at a point where I’ve been in schools that have these two opposing mentalities to management. I’ve been in settings where top-down governance rules most decision-making, and I’ve been in settings where bottom-up autonomy frees up educators to channel their creativity and capitalize on their independence. But there are consequences to each of these management styles, leaving me to wonder if either-or should be adopted fully in an educational setting.

Top-down environments, while they breed a consistency of expectations and patterns of action in response to various situations, they don’t make room for experimentation or serendipitous innovation. Conversely, bottom-up environments, while they fill in the gaps of a top-down management system, do not always manage complexity in a way that is consistent and scalable.

In recent educational policy, it may even seem that we’ve tried to take on this bottom-up approach by using data – by using objective reasoning and observable truth – to shape the decisions we make systemically. Look at the classrooms and schools that have the high test scores, we say, and let’s see what we can learn from them. While this is significantly improved from the era preceding – the one where anything and everything went – I can’t be sure that this method of a data-driven system can be the ultimate solution for the education system’s problem, if there even is one.

Ironically, within this data-driven mindset lies somewhat of a conundrum. While this approach, in theory, de-personifies truth and removes a great deal of subjectivity, data and objective reasoning have become the new top-down method of management in many schools, the new absolute for best practices and achievement, especially in the education space.  It has become our new “administration,” our new “manager,” our new dictator. And we have become the slaves.

social animalEmergent Systems

I’ve recently been encapsulated by David Brooks’ The Social Animal, a social psychology text that explores the relationships between various dichotomies: top-down and bottom-up management systems, reason and intuition, conscious and subconscious thinking. And I think these dichotomies are worth exploring, not only in the context of the sociology, but also in the context of the classroom and the greater educational space, in an effort to examine our options for complexity management systems.  Education will most likely always be as equally a dynamic system as it is now, and in order to continue to adapt in an intentional, pragmatic, but still idealistic way, we must be prepared to examine these incredibly different, but parallel ways of thinking.

Specifically, in Brooks’ book, he discusses the idea of the emergent system, which seems to be a happy medium between a top-down and bottom-up approach, a link that grays this dichotomous line and paves the way for other variables and insights that are a bit less tangible, a bit less subject to objective truth, and entirely dependent upon serendipity and presence of mind:

Emergent systems don’t rely upon a central controller.  Instead, once a pattern of interaction is established, it has a downward influence on the behavior of its components…For example, let’s say an ant in a colony stumbles upon a new food source.  No dictator ant has to tell the colony to reorganize itself to harvest that source.  Instead, one ant, in the course of his normal foraging, stumbles upon the food.  Then a neighboring ant will notice that ant’s change in direction, and then a neighbor of that ant will notice the change, and pretty soon, as Steven Johnson puts it, “Local information can lead to global wisdom.”

Here, it’s quite clear that both the bottom-up and top-down approaches become seamlessly merged into one with reference to “downward influence” in tandem with “local wisdom.”  Currently, the education system at large has managed to distill local wisdom down into various discrete and granular components.  Through the use of innovative data collection systems, we’ve harnessed the capacity to pinpoint and diagnose specific gaps in learning, specific problems within classrooms, and identify variables that we’d like to isolate and change within school systems.  And in a sense, this is reminiscent of the bottom-up approach to schools and to the classroom.

However, I think this model entirely misses the idea of an entirely emergent system.  It’s missed the boat, not only in the sense that data has, in fact, become our central controller, but also because school systems, in general, have come to put data above all else, leaving no room for human intuition, for core values, or for the most important component of a school system: culture.

The Importance of Culture

You see, in an emergent system, one which values the bottom-up and top-down management styles — one in which both reason and intuition are valued — culture and values become the glue that connect each of these seemingly objective variables.  They form our biases, they color what is important to us, and they subconsciously determine our actions, moments of serendipity, and how we react without even reasoning.  It is said that the average teacher makes over 1,000 decisions each day, and it would be next to impossible to identify, analyze, and evaluate each of these decisions with reason.  Instead, we, as educators, rely on intuition, emotion, empathy, and trust to run our classrooms.  In a purely data-driven environment, however, where discrete variables are measured and analyzed in isolation of one another and where data becomes an absolute, the classroom becomes a regimented, prescriptive, and emotionless place, where teachers are not trusted to set up healthy patterns of interaction; they are instead simply trained to act based on the data sent from above, the data that is seen as the ultimate truth, regardless of context, interpretation, or subconscious intuition.

While I rolled my eyes at my friend who questioned truth just a few years ago, I now sit grateful that this question was ever posed to me in the first place.  In essence, there is no absolute truth; instead, there are truths we rule as objective, data-driven truths, and there are truths we rule as emotive, intuitive, and subconscious truths.  And in the school system, it is important to take all of these truths into account.

We don’t necessarily find these truths through objective judgment and meticulous experimental procedures.  Instead, we find these truths through building relationships, through listening, and through filling the space that exists between individuals.  Our current model of education lacks this seemingly messy component. In many ways, it ignores the importance of school culture; it ignores the importance of the environment.  And without it, all we’re left with is little bits and pieces, small variables we’ve isolated, until we’ve entirely isolated ourselves, making each one of us unrecognizable, unable to connect, and unwilling to reach out and fill that space between.

As you begin your school year, I invite you to look at the negative space, the space between, the space where it looks like nothing exists.  I think you’ll find a great deal there, and I hope you’ll capitalize on it.

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