Monthly Archives: January 2013

Design in Nature and the Relevancy of Your School

UnknownDr. Adrian Bejanof Duke, author of Design in Nature, has been kind enough to help clarify our understanding of how the constructal law will drive the design of future K-12 learning systems. The constructal law requires that systems that carry some flow tend towards a tree-shape design (see earlier posts for clarification). I queried him thusly: with massive interconnectivity amongst teachers, students, and nodes of knowledge management around the globe, will this not lead to a structure of the knowledge web that can be more accurately mapped as a net or web, not a tree-shaped structure? I did not understand why schools or colleges must be the largest flow points of knowledge in the future.

Dr. Bejan:

The flow is from area to point, from the plain to the river mouth. It is tree shaped.

In education of all kinds, including sports training, the area is the inhabited land, and the point is the university, or the K-12 school.

The pathways are tree shaped, because they connect the area (an infinite number of points, approximated by the large student population) to one point, or to two or three points—the school, the art school after hours, the basketball team practice after hours.

The channels that have come to dominate the Internet happened naturally because they serve the largest numbers of Internet users. No one is “slave” to anything. Users click voluntarily on what works better and faster for them, and from this common urge to move faster and more efficiently (with less effort) on the web sphere emerges the rived-basin of channels that the Internet has become.

My mistake was in seeing the future of learning as defined by our concept of school, when in fact this has never been the critical nature of learning.  The critical nature of learning is the creation and management of knowledge, the exact words I have used to define the system I call the cognitosphere. Knowledge has always been created and flowed through this system, and up to now most of that flow has been through nodes we call schools.  That is changing, and the rate of change is increasing.  From our point of observation access to knowledge is becoming increasingly democratic, tending toward anarchy, which made me see the design resulting in an amorphous web or net.  This is not actually the case: the number of connected points in the system are increasing, but the structure of the system will still evolve in a tree-like design based on the unchangeable critical nature of learning: the flow of ideas.

imagesIf you believe schools have a role to play in the future of the learning experience, you care about this. Empirical observation aligns with the demands of the constructal law: learning will have more depth, power, and importance where the flow of ideas is greatest, whether or not that flow is at all related to schools.  If you want your school, or schools in general to maintain importance, they have to be at or near the core of the tree-shaped design of the cognitosphere.  If they are on the fringes, they will be largely irrelevant. You can’t control the design of the universal system of knowledge; you very much can control where your school, teachers, and students are within that system.

EdJourney Summary and Future Work Up on Whipple Hill Site

One of the sponsors of my fall EdJourney, Whipple Hill, asked for a trip summary and look ahead.  You can go to their blog update page for the full text, but here is a bit of what is in store as I work through the mounds of notes and video I collected:

I have been asked to speak to teachers, heads of school, business officers, admissions directors, and trustees, and while I will tailor the active learning portions of these workshops for each audience, I have found that we must get away from compartmentalizing the story of our organizations based on function. As we shift from a reliance on traditional strategic planning – which has a long wavelength – to a focus on creating organizational value – which is more attuned to the speed of external change – we all have to be on the same page, contributing in our areas of knowledge and expertise, but with a common background and shared vision.

I have started work on the book, which will incorporate much of the narrative from the 64 schools I visited.  It is rich ground to mine!
Thanks again to Whipple Hill for the sponsorship; how often these days do companies invest in an unknown with no real suggestion of a return, just because we need to expand our overall knowledge base.  That is forward thinking.

Finding Value Never More Important For Both Public and Private Schools

I have been investigating, and you have been commenting on, the future structure of K-12 education.  In my morning paper there is an article about National School Choice Week, particularly important here in San Diego, which has one of the strongest school choice programs in the nation.  Families can apply for their students to attend any traditional, magnet, or charter school in the district, the second largest in California.  One parent described the maze of applications and campus visits.  Will it be a Chinese language program or STEM magnet?  Performing arts focus or high-tech charter?

I have been talking about the critical role of value proposition in forming school strategy and program development.  It should be easy to grab attention on the value discussion when we are talking about a private school that costs $25,000-$50,000 a year.  The discussion has been less obvious in the public domain, but snaps into focus with the drive towards more choice for families in more major urban districts.  2.3 million American students are now at public charter schools, and many more opt for a non-neighborhood alternative.

Here is the punch line that should resonate with all educators who worry about the future, which should be all of us.  Jed Wallace, executive director of the California Charter School Association: “…when people are empowered to make choices, their level of buy-in and investment at the school level is greater.”  That is a powerful statement for us to carve into our consciousness for two reasons.  First, the customer, not the organization, determines value.  Public and private schools alike must identify and amplify their differentiated value as seen through the eyes of prospective families, not through the eyes of just the school leadership.  Second, this empowerment to make choices is exactly what we are talking about as the core of student-owned learning, that drives student “buy-in and investment” in their own education.  When a school can empower both students and parents by engaging them to make their own choices, learning will flourish.

What does the system of K-12 learning look like 10 years from now?  The constructal law demands that it will be deep and strong where the flow of ideas is greatest, and weak where resistance to big ideas is dammed.  Schools that offer access to fresh ideas and exciting programs will flourish at the expense of those that do not.  It will be more widely distributed with universal access to a global knowledge network, the cognitosphere.  Outcomes and essential learning goals will be more diverse as colleges and other post-secondary nodes offer a vastly increased range of non-traditional learning opportunities, which prepare young people for jobs that evolve more quickly every year. Choice is inevitable, regardless of the politics driving decisions like voucher programs in your state.

Public or private, all schools need just one thing to survive: students. If your school charges $40,000 a year or is free to the public, you should be sharing the same discussion: Why should a student come to our school rather than the one down the street?


More Thoughtful Comments on Constructal Law and The Structure of Education

My reflections on the work by Dr. Adrian Bejan on constructal law and its implications for K-12 school and learning continues to draw comments, both from educators and theorists.  Here are two thoughtful comments to mull over as we think about how a global learning system, the cognitosphere, will evolve in the years and decades to come:

From Holly Chesser at SAIS:

Glad you did the heavy lifting on this theory. With no knowledge of the details, I certainly can see how innovation in schools relates to constructal theory: for a system to live and prosper, it needs to evolve in such a way that provides easier access to the currents (ideas) that flow through it. Schools that, either because of their hierarchies or institutional structures, stifle flow eventually turn sluggish and starve.

I wonder, though, if the reason you struggle with the theory’s application in grade school is that you’re presuming that idea flow was once concentrated in a system of publishers and textbook writers. Was it ever? They determined content and helped create a classroom of consumers, but were they ever producing the flow of ideas or encouraging creation?

And from Nigel Reading at ASYNSIS:

Know thyself. What is education if not a form of Heraclitian logos, of a principle of order and knowledge, of analogy and feedback itself? It’s society recapitulating what it knows about itself and the world it exists within
using historical and oracular reason. A civilisational RAM device.
The beauty of the Constructal law for me is in how it reveals to us that this behaviour is driven by thermodynamics and is fundamentally a physics phenomenon.
Form follows flow. Asynsis principle geometries are often the fractal static and temporal signatures of those behaviours, albeit in idealised form.
Both nature and culture evolve designs to flow energy, matter and information more easily, optimally, analogically from entropy. Given freedom, they will often also do so with greater force, hierachy and resultant complexity.
K-12 seems to be an emergent property of a society increasing in complexity and undergoing rapid change. So as an evolved design to seek equilibrium more easily, K-12 is perhaps a manifestation of a society in flux self-designing a more flexible, decentralised, distributed, dynamically resilient and adaptive mode for education to cope (and flow), more easily with that increased flux.
This too, is no doubt also Constructal law behaviour.

Thanks; this topic sounds obscure, but education cannot hold itself apart from the knowledge we gain in other parts of the physical and intellectual universe.

Time Out at the Failure Love-Fest

I wish I were in Philadelphia this weekend, bouncing ideas madly with some of the best educators in America who are attending EduCon in person.  But I am forced to watch from afar, view the live-streams and follow the fire hose of Twitter feeds, a window seat voyeur sifting the flow of ideas and vision for what the future of education holds. Like any voyeur, I run the risk of sounding like a sniper when commenting from outside the room, but you know me; I get my hands dirty in person whenever I can, so you will forgive this once.

imagesWe are finally embracing failure!  It was not even a part of mainstream discussion a few years ago, except amongst the few propeller-head teachers who mentored the Robotics Club.  Lest the pendulum swing irrationally too far, here are a few comments about failure that I think we need to keep in mind.

Failure sucks. Yep, I said it and will say it again.  Failure stinks and big failures stink more than little failures. If you have ever lived through an epic failure, you agree.  If you don’t agree, you have never experienced epic failure.

Failure is not a goal; it is a result.  This is a huge distinction.  There is a pulsing enthusiasm to embrace failure because it is a great way to learn.  That is just not true.  We learn by trying, or more specifically through the experience of trying.  Failure is one result of trying.  The teacher is the experience.  John Dewey told us to “try in order to learn” not “try in order to fail”.  Big difference when you are developing that class unit.

The Experience Equation has four other terms: risk, success, failure, and reward.  The more you risk, the higher the likelihood that failure is the result.  Our current love-fest with failure stems from wanting to take more risks and knowing that means we will fail more, and we can learn from those failures.  Great! But you don’t learn more from failure than from success; that is just wrong.  You learn equally.  It is just that the world holds far more opportunities to fail than to succeed, especially as you increase the risk term in the equation, so the cumulative lessons learned from failure will tend to be greater. Our love-fest needs to be focused on maximizing experience in the equation, not failure.

images-1Finally, failure in learning is a luxury.  We learn by failure because we have the luxury of picking ourselves back up and trying again, which is blessing.  But much of the real world does not have that luxury, and we need to teach our students this; that is where empathy comes in.  I can test which type of seeds grow best in my garden out back of the school house and learn from my failures because I have more seeds in the classroom and my mom is going to make me dinner when I get home.  A farmer down to his last packet of seeds that will either sprout and feed his family, or not, sees failure very differently.

So thank goodness we are embracing failure in our schools! What a refreshing breeze.  But let’s keep focused on the prize gem, and not lose it because we are so happy digging around in the dirt.

Response From Dr. Adrian Bejan on Design of Nature

I was honored to receive the following comment from Dr. Adrian Bejan at Duke about my post on his book yesterday.  Since many of you may not follow the comments, I will re-post here. I am also asking Dr. Bejan to perhaps weigh in one more time with a clarification that can help us understand or predict some evolution in these massive knowledge connections as they pertain to the development of global K-12 learning.

Dr. Bejan wrote:

Thank you for this very interesting essay and discussion. The current grass-roots contributions to K-12 education are in accord with the constructal law, not against it.

They are the early design of a new flow system, like the new rain falling on the smooth plain, and like the Internet in its early stages. In time, the better ideas contributed to this global K-12 flow tissue will attract more users, and will become bigger nodes, trunks and big branches…and on this way to the “few large and many small” design of all flow systems that are old enough to have perfected their flowing (like the textbook publishers, river basins, and most popular web sites).

The natural emergence of hierarchy (i.e., tree shaped flow structures) is already happening in this new way of distributing knowledge on the globe. It has been this way with every new technique of spreading ideas. More examples are in the articles and videos posted at

My follow-on question:

I understand the evolution and geometry of the system, and in particular the example of a stream system (I am a geologist from back in the day).  And I understand how good ideas with more impact will tend to create larger channels of flow which will drive the design of an interconnected knowledge system, what I am calling the cognitosphere.  At the same time those channels are growing larger, is there not a counter-mechanism that is increasing the distribution of nodes and connections as more students, teachers, schools, and other knowledge centers connect in an increasing way?  Is the geography of these possible connections the same as the geography of a plain on which rain falls?  The plain has a limited number of surface gradients down which water can flow before those flows coalesce.  It seems that the number of connection pathways available to the global terrain of K-12 students is much larger: billions of students and teachers, and millions of other sources of idea creation and sharing.  As these increasingly connect point-to-point, bypassing larger channels in the hierarchy, how will that impact the design being driven by the constructal law?  Is it just a matter of scale? Whereas a stream or vascular system may have N number of component sizes, should be predict a much higher number for N in the system of global knowledge connectivity?  Flow on the Internet has been channeled through some very large for-profit mechanisms that are certainly present in the sphere of K-12 learning, but K-12 learning has a degree of freedom that we can imagine is not slave to those same profit forces.

I don’t think this is just an interesting coffee table discussion for K-12 schools.  We are in the process of re-imagining what learning looks like, and working with first principles and laws of physics makes a heck of a lot more sense than working against them!

Thanks again to Dr. Bejan for helping us understand the nature of the constructal law as we apply it to the radical pace of K-12 education innovation.

Design of Schools and the Nature of Design via Dr. Adrian Bejan: A Fascinating Read

51CrmugxY4L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_I have just ground through a fascinating book; “read” would imply I digested every word and that would be a lie.  Design in Nature by Adrian Bejan is a deep and rich read, and there were sections with math better left untested by my simple mind.  But don’t be scared by the next couple of paragraphs.  There are some ideas critical to the system of education and schools that lie within, so read on!

Dr. Bejan is an engineer, educator, writer, thinker, and one of those people who is clearly so much smarter than I that I don’t need to understand 100% of their argument.  He and his colleagues developed what they call the constructal law, a first principle of the world in which we live that goes something like this:

“For a finite flow system to persist in time (to live), its configuration must evolve in such a way that provides easier access to the currents that flow through it.”

What the heck does that mean and why do I think it has anything at all, much less critical importance, to the world of learning?  Here is my try at a summary explanation, just in case you, for whatever reason (hah hah), don’t have the time or inclination to wade through a fascinating exploration of the synergies of our natural and human worlds.

WikideltaAccording to his line of reasoning, “everything that moves, whether animate or inanimate, is a flow system. All flow systems generate a shape and structure in time in order to facilitate this movement across a landscape filled with resistance (for example friction).  The designs we see in nature are not the result of chance.”  And neither are the designs of man-made things.  He has studied systems ranging from rivers to blood vessels, athletes to airports, cities and universities, trees to fish, and he proves that all of these systems develop along lines that increase efficiency in the transfer of what it is that flows through them.  He states that the law is “revolutionary because it is a law of physics…that governs any system, any time, anywhere…(including) social constructs such as knowledge, language, and culture.”

The book is rich in examples, some narrative and some with equations that I can’t understand.  Let’s move on to education, learning, and schools.

All systems have designs that evolve over time in ways that provide easier access to the currents that flow through them; this evolution and the evolving structures are inevitable and predictable.  In any system there are big, deep, wide channels that accommodate the flow of lots of current (heat, blood, pressure, water, knowledge, etc), and there are fine vesicles that accommodate lesser flows. In a chapter on academia, he argues that the primary driving current of learning institutions are ideas.  We can essentially map the flow of ideas through the system that we call academia. Using the example of higher education he says that “all the colleges and universities are components of a single larger flow system that covers the entire globe” and that the current that flows through the design is ideas.  The best schools, he argues are not the largest or wealthiest or have the most students; they are the best because of the “visibility, the fame, the usefulness of the ideas they generate.”  The map of the global system of learning, in other words, has a structure that we can define.  The big, important parts of the structure are those that develop and flow the most important ideas that have wide impact and long life.

There are a couple of things that jump out at me about his arguments and the world of education innovation, some which I think are compelling observations that support him, and at least one that I think does not (but I sure am not going to challenge him to a public debate over it!)

According to the constructal law, the system of learning must develop over time in ways that minimize resistance to the flow of ideas.  Parts of the system that do this will, over time, become more important to the overall system than parts that don’t.  This sounds right.  Free transfer of knowledge and ideas are the lifeblood of learning.  If your school has more of that than it did 10 years ago, then it is evolving according to the constructal law.  If not, it is running counter to the inevitable.  If your school is creating and spreading ideas that others value, pick up on, use, and leverage, your school is “better” and “more important” than a school that does not generate that level of ideas.  I don’t use quotation marks around those words flippantly. I think this is an outstanding way to think about improving a school.  Are your students and teachers creating ideas and passing them along to the rest of the system, or just absorbing them? Are you thought leaders in your region, your demographic, your benchmark group?  If not, what structures at your school resist the development and flow of good, big ideas?  What structures facilitate those flows?  I am not sure we have thought about school organization in this way, but I for one am going to start to.

UnknownHere is where I either disagree or don’t understand the law.  All of the systems he discussed in the books from rivers to blood vessels to highways share common elements of design, with larger and smaller conduits for the flow of whatever current is inherent in the system.  In the system of academia, big channels of flow pass through universities that generate a lot of ideas and knowledge.  I get that design.  But what happens if the nexus of idea generation becomes highly diffused?  What if we think about the system of K-12 education where idea flow has been concentrated in a system of publishers and textbook writers for decades and is now being exploded into a universally connected, highly distributed system of many, many separate nodes, each classroom and student and teacher able to creatively add ideas to the system and share those with all other members of the system across a globally connected system, the system I have coined as the cognitosphere?  Clearly this is the path of least resistance that the law dictates, ideas flowing freely, unobstructed by walls and people, time or space.  But it also goes against the design structure of mighty river basins, forests, and airports where small channels flow to bigger ones, where current flows from a point to a space or vice versa. The flow of ideas may never revert back to the deep channels controlled by a few large purveyors of ideas; it may always tend towards entropy and more finite distribution.

Or not.  I am pretty darn sure that if Dr. Bejan were sitting in my living room right now he would be able to derive an answer to my objection, and that would be very cool, indeed.  I am working a lot on how schools are going to evolve in the future, and I know this book and the constructal law will stick in my mind as I do so.

Three Foundational Questions Schools Must Ask

I was asked last week to put together some ideas for working with a school’s leadership team based on the findings of my visits with more than 60 schools this fall.  At a high level, the goal would be to help that team develop the skills to become institutionally comfortable with change.

Those of you who know me also know that I think questions are vastly more important than answers; get the questions right and the path to success is much easier.  So I spent the weekend reflecting on my school visits, working backward to what I think are three foundational questions that all schools need to ask and answer before they can develop an innovation roadmap.

  • What are the essential learning outcomes or qualities of your students when they graduate?
  • What is the desired relationship at your school between students, teachers, and knowledge?
  • What is the differentiated value that your school offers to your clients?

If your organization validates answers to these three questions, if there is shared understanding and organizational clarity on these points, your school is ready to work strategically on changing how and what you teach to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world.  If not, it is likely that change will be slow, lacking direction, and unsustainable.

Dreams and Textbooks

I had a dream last night.  I was in a high school chemistry class and the teacher handed us all a textbook, not something new, fresh, or innovative, just old textbooks.  In my dream, and just after when I woke up, I experienced a warm feeling of comfort and confidence.  I knew all I needed to do to excel in chemistry was to read and understand this one book.  My first time around when I was 17 I was not a good chemistry student; in this time-skewed dream where I had the perspective of an adult looking through the eyes of a high school student, I knew I could read a book and understand it; that was all I needed to do, and it was so comforting.

And so disturbing when I woke up and thought about it.  It is, after all, just that easy to do well in most schools.  Read the book, do what you are told, and you succeed.  Some students don’t have the maturity to do that, but many do.  What does it mean?  Nothing in the real world is that simple.  Few jobs today require a worker to just follow the manual.

On my trip several veteran faculty and a number of students told me “smart kids can get A’s in class without really learning anything. They just read the books, memorize some stuff for a few weeks, and after that it is gone.”  Good grades don’t mean anything more than that in the long run.

Any course designed around getting through a textbook should be hammered, beaten, redesigned.  Period.  If schools started there, they would radically transform the learning experience in a year. Real learning is not, or should not be, that comfortable, at least for the students. Real learning should be for and in the real world, not within the covers of one book.


A Key Role to Fill: The Agonist, via Seth Godin

This short post from Seth Godin caught my eye.  He names two people you might need to help you in your professional life: an agonist to cause things to happen, and a procrastinatrix whose job it is to hold you accountable for getting things done.

I think many senior leaders have a procrastinatrix, or should; they are called good executive assistant.

But on my EdJourney I found a key to successful innovation at schools was a person or small group designated with the role of Seth’s agonist, the person or people who don’t overlook the rough spots, but plow through or around them and get things done.  The old way, finding the most abrupt sergeant-at-arms personality to take care of business does not  fit any longer.  Good agonists are creative, inventive, collaborative, reflective, and imaginative.  I found them with titles like Chief Imagination Officer, Chief Innovation Officer, Chief Irritant (that was informal, but lovingly so), Director of the Center for Innovation, and more.  Really smart leaders at these schools identified some of their best people and made it their main job to make sure the organization moves forward, cause things to happen.  At some schools these are committees or working groups, but the role is the same.

Schools are big, complex places and stuff always happens to get in the way of the best intentions and vision. A great agonist will get things done even when the world conspires to stop her/him/them.  Your school has people who are good at this. They have more “agonist DNA” than most other people. You just have to find them, name them, and make sure they have the standing and resources to “get it done.”  Good things will happen.