Info-Ops Implications For Public Education

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Due to the nature of the Info-Ops series, many of the concepts translate directly over into other fields where the result is information, knowledge, or new skill acquisition. Public education is one of these. The following ideas are developed at length in the series and shown here

Habits Over Goals

Perhaps the most counter-intuitive concept out of many in the Info-Ops books is that habits can get goals accomplished in a context environment but the reverse is not true. John Dewey first pointed out that education should primarily be about forming good habits and it's a goal that each generation seems to discover over-and-over again.

Goal-focused management and knowledge work tends to hand-wave over the details of how that goal is to be accomplished, and for good reasons. Each type of knowledge goal has vastly-different ways of being accomplished, and it varies by student, project, culture, and so forth.

Instead, a system of habits should be created and honed that will allow widely-different intellectual goals to be accomplished. These habits should be the focus, not the goals themselves. Focusing on the wrong thing has been called "Trying to play tennis by watching the scoreboard"

Education Is Always Bullshit

Another thing that Info-Ops teaches us is that knowledge work is infinitely-divisible. (That's the main reason we have something called "analysis paralysis".) This means that when you're working intellectually, you're always going to be wrong. The real goal is understanding when you're right enough not to need to continue working. An old saying here is "All models are wrong, but some models are useful" Life is completely multivariate whether we can observe and understand that fact or not, as outlined in the It's Time To Grow Up" essay

Pick any topic in education, from simple counting up through something extremely complex and nuanced like literary deconstruction. For every topic that we teach, a simple-yet-wrong topic is introduced as a a way of getting the student started and perhaps providing all they need for a successful life. So there are no correct or incorrect things to teach, only things that can be useful right away for the student and things that provide a foundation for further learning. A good education should provide these kinds of "fake" narratives as a jumping-off place for students later. Narratives that do not provide immediate applicative value and/or make future learning more difficult should be avoided at all costs.

Negatives Stack

Another very powerful concept not acknowledged in most education theory is that negatives stack, positives don't. In other words, it's much easier to eliminate broad areas of inquiry than it is to focus down on one specific one. To over-simplify, as Frankenstein's Monster learned, "Fire Bad!" and it's a true statement that any child who's gotten burned learns. But it's really more complicated than the simple "Fire Bad!" concept; it's just that we want a child to eliminate *anything at all to do with fire* for a long period of time. We have tossed-out a huge area of childhood inquisitiveness. It is categorical.

These types of negatives are very difficult to overcome in life, which is the reason why parents use them. We are wired to exclude things. "Elephants kill!" is a much more useful evolutionary concept than "Some elephants are useful". The first provides a negative space that we may never have to challenge. The same is true in more technical analysis, as shown in the "Negatives Stack" essay

It follows that we need to be very careful about the kinds of negative attitudes students receive in school. Ideally, we would teach positive, fake narratives about how problems can be overcome in certain fields. As students, progress, their knowledge may become such that they can be one of the people helping to move progress along. When we teach, accidentally or otherwise, general negative concepts like "history is for losers", we effectively eliminate entire areas of academic research from future generations. Why spend any time on a topic that is for losers? Students should not, and they don't.

The fallout here is that we need to create false positive over-simplified stories about our place in society and how we might help solve problems in various areas should we be more interested in learning about them. This means that education is much more about which negatives to exclude and how to over-simplify than it is anything else (aside from good habits, perhaps). There are multiple ways of achieving these goals. It's no wonder that various local school systems vary so widely. This should be expected and encouraged.

Broken Management Metaphor

If there's one underlying similarity between technology development and education it's that for the most part the industry has no concept at all of how to management them effectively. I suspect this is due to the use of the "factor" metaphor: students (teachers, administrators, programmers, etc) either man a factory station and/or move through them manned by others. At each station we measure some predefined process that is to be applied. The overall Tayloristic concept is that we can break intellectual work into small manufactured pieces and then concentrate on the production and quality of those pieces. Once assembled, if each small part is working correctly the overall product will also be of high quality.

Technology management, where it's done correctly, has shown us that the reverse is true. External factors not subject to manipulation demand something of us and then we are required to work and research in an ad-hoc manner in order to meet that demand. To the degree that it can all be predefined and preplanned it is not a human endeavor but rather a robotic one.

Isolated Optimization does not work in these kinds of activities, as I pointed out in the "We do not do learning; learning does us" essay

Abundance of Theory, Paucity of Practice

When we enter areas where management is expected to work on loosely-defined concepts such as education, we are at no lack of people who are willing to help us. Most of these folks work in Platonic Ideals. There are a lot of really good concepts and great-sounding theories and we are asked to evaluate them on the basis of how good they sound (or how well they are presented) instead of through experimentation and trial-and-error.

It's important to understand this as a bedrock of education policy no matter what your stance on what that policy might be. Management theory, like self-help books, are plentiful and prevalent. They come and go as the wind. One book will champion one metric, process, and set of practices. Another book will choose others. Each has good research, prominent supporters, and an observable set of successful implementations. However, each ends up failing in various unforeseen ways when applied to other situations. These failures cannot be predicted and when faced with them, the usual argument was that it was not done correctly. Goalposts tend to move. This type of learning situation is not unique to public education in any way but it tends to distort both the public discourse about education and the investment-to-returns the public receives when it invests in education. Things that cannot be talked about reasonably among the common folk are extremely difficult (if not impossible) to manage in an open democracy, so any discussion of public education must acknowledge this as part of the bedrock.

I will not go into this further as it is bound to skewer some sacred cow or another and it is not extremely relevant to the topic at hand. Suffice it to say that all organizations have feedback and learning systems. The different in end-result boils down to how much these learning and feedback systems relate to outside objective measures and how much they are some form of opinion (either internal or external)

Feedback loops have to be simple, visible, and fraud/vagueness free

As pointed out in the "Feedback Loops are Bullshit" essay, we are stuck using feedback loops even though they have many known errors.

We have two and only two choices when it comes to feedback loops in public education. Without any work, humans will fall into an internal, opinion-based feedback system. Another way of saying this is that evolution has programmed us as social creatures. The second way is to use some numeric, "objective" external measurement, like test scores or future earnings potential. (There are some hybrids, like the measuring the opinions of students about the quality of their education 20 years after graduating)

Both of these have a place in public education. Ideally, student's opinion of the quality of their past education, alongside real external measurements such as test scores would drive internal opinions among practitioners. This informed opinion would work alongside community opinion (because at the end of the day, an opinion feedback system is the only thing that works in a democracy) to change curriculum.

No matter which systems are used, the external should always drive the internal. The only question is the configuration and execution of external stressors on the internal education system, not what it actually consists of. (As an example, it hardly matters if an English teacher teaches "Moby Dick" as much as it does that some kids may leave education with an ambivalence and hatred of all things related to whales and sea-life)

Gardening, Not Processing

From a study of good teams and organizations, it seems to me that first comes habits, then external stressors, and finally setting up conditions for success. Stated differently, we want our educators to be gardeners in places the community sets up, and with minimal constraints (aside from those mentioned earlier).

Some technology projects will never succeed due to things they cannot control. Some gardens will never work. This is true in many areas, not just gardening or education. In these cases, something needs to change outside of that garden, and that's a topic that's outside the scope of public education in general.