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.
According 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.
Here 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.