Saturday, June 23, 2012

Learning off Water Fleas ( Daphnia)

One of my favourite books at the moment is Steven Johnson's 'Where Good Ideas Come From' (2011).  Steven uses the story of the water flea  as an example for us all when things get tough - time to look around for new ideas! Johnson's book is about environments that foster innovation. 'Some environments', he writes, 'squelch new ideas, some environments seem to breed them effortlessly'. The future, he writes, is about  creating powerful collaborative environments to create and share new ideas. In my thinking - a definition of a creative school.

The water flea Daphnia lives in most freshwater streams and swamps. They are not really fleas but tiny crustaceans no more than a few millimetres long.

Under normal conditions Daphnia reproduce asexuality, with females producing a brood of identical copies of themselves. In this mode, the Daphnia community is composed entirely of females. It turns out this strategy is stunningly successful  in warm summer months.

But when conditions get tough , when droughts or other ecological disturbances happen, or when winter rolls in the water fleas make a remarkable transformation: they start producing males and switch to reproducing sexually.

Scientists believe that the sudden adoption of sex is a kind of biological innovation strategy: in challenging times, an organism needs new ideas to meet those new challenges. Reproducing asexually makes perfect sense during prosperous periods; if life is good, keep doing what you're doing. Don't mess with success by introducing new genetic combinations. But when the world gets more challenging- scarce resources, predators, parasites- you need to innovate. And the quickest path to innovation lies in making novel connections.

When nature finds itself in need of new ideas, it strives to connect, not protect.

It seems that in the human world we are entering equally challenging times  as old ideas no longer seem to be working and that we need to create environments that foster new ideas, connections -  to see things with fresh eyes.

Moving into standardisation and conformity - as schools are being encouraged to do, is the wrong approach. This is equivalent to asexual reproduction - and not much fun - and the consequences are just too predictable with a narrowing of the curriculum, teaching to the tests ( which will come) and sidelining of creative areas.

The water fleas have it easy.

PS Just been thinking how 'asexual' schools are. Compliance to Ministry requirements ( notably National Standards) and conformist requirements of schools results in a consistency of expectations that make it hard for creative teachers to develop 'sexy' ideas. Johnson's book has lots of examples of the kind of free flowing open environments that encourage the development of new ideas - some that even work - but , he makes it clear, taking advantage of  serendipitous mistakes are where new ideas emerge. Ideas that created the Industrial revolution were spawned in coffee clubs!

If such things as a performance management, merit pay and competitive 'League Tables' are introduced into schools  collaboration and sharing - even trialling new ideas  -then innovation and creativity will be at risk.


Anonymous said...

Those water fleas have all the fun! A bit more interschool 'sex'( sharing ideas that is) is what we need as things are closing in on schools with all the top down control and conformity!

Sounds like an interesting book.

Teacher as Transformer said...

Bruce, the line about the asexual nature of schools caught my eye. In top down scenarios, we do not want creativity and innovation. This forces compliance and conformity rather than conversation.

slopnz said...

We no longer spend time with the time wasters.

Education has never been a business. Sure, some aspects have become just that such as English Language schools. But authentic education is always messy.

The classic business plan imposes efficiency on an inefficient market. That’s a great way to make money, but hardly the way to find the future.

For true education reform we need to roll back the past twenty years and search out those individual teachers who are still being consciously, enthusiastically inefficient. Where are they spending their precious time doing something they don’t have to do?

This is exactly the same ‘playing’ phenomenon that has spurred great global leaps from video games to social networking, or from kite flying to America’s Cup sailing.

In fact, today, inspired dissipation is everywhere. This phenomenon of ‘hackers’ converts free time into interesting ideas, concepts, and developments in a laid back collaborative environment where innovation is fun. Of course this approach doesn’t create the future, not all ideas fly and not all ideas guarantee success for those that use them. But they do give us a glimpse over the horizon, an opportunity to recognise that in this idea or that person there might be something worthwhile.

The trouble is our political masters are desperately determined to impose a business education model on our society for all their own reasons rather than for our society's good.

Bruce said...

I agree anon. This idea of making education an efficient business is destroying time for creativity - which requires a senee of 'unknowability' - or messiness.