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

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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.

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By | 2013-01-24T18:18:29+00:00 January 24th, 2013|Innovation in Education|10 Comments

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10 Comments

  1. Angél Kytle January 24, 2013 at 9:47 pm - Reply

    Very interesting, Grant, and I applaud you for tackling something so complex– reminds me of my doctoral seminars! Two comments– first, perhaps your disagreement isn’t really a disagreement if you take the perspective of the actual thing/idea that is flowing rather than the current influencing it (yes, I just got really out there– must be too much Big Bang Theory!). Second, this takes on even more of an interesting direction if you combine these thoughts here with the idea of Flow that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I hope I didn’t butcher that) writes about. A state of flow is a state of concentration or absorption with the activity at hand– one is so involved that nothing else seems to matter– now combine this with the constructal law, and the connection with learning and schooling is much deeper.

    Just my two cents…

    • glichtman January 24, 2013 at 9:59 pm - Reply

      Thanks! Will have to look more deeply into your last comment about state of concentration or absorption and combining that with the constructal law; don’t get what you mean, but it sounds interesting!

  2. Adrian Bejan January 25, 2013 at 4:35 pm - Reply

    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 http://www.constructal.org.

    • glichtman January 25, 2013 at 5:07 pm - Reply

      Thanks so much,, Dr. Bejan, and perhaps you will look at my post this morning and weigh in with your comments one more time. Leading schools are in a process of imagining the future, and understanding truly predictive laws will be critical to the process.

  3. Asynsis January 27, 2013 at 5:36 am - Reply

    Grant and Adrian,
    Speaking of spreading shared schools of thought and optimising analogical information flow, you’ll be pleased to know that the world of architecture, design and engineering also holds that Constructal law behaviours have parallel geometrical signatures that are directly related to canons of beauty and proportional order in both established statics and novel temporal realms. I’ve named these signatures the Asynsis principle and we hope that along with the Constructal law they will form the basis of a new paradigm for sustainable design and development.
    Cosmomimetic Design in Nature & Culture – Asynsis Principle-Constructal Law Seminar: ShanghaiUniversity-NantesEcoledeDesign http://wp.me/p1zCSP-1S via @ASYNSIS
    http://www.facebook.com/AsynsisSustopiaInitiative

  4. NigelReading|ASYNSIS (@ASYNSIS) January 28, 2013 at 2:13 pm - Reply

    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.

  5. NigelReading|ASYNSIS (@ASYNSIS) January 28, 2013 at 2:58 pm - Reply

    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.

  6. Holly Chesser January 28, 2013 at 6:00 pm - Reply

    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?

  7. NigelReading|ASYNSIS (@ASYNSIS) January 29, 2013 at 1:02 am - Reply

    Holly, “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.”
    As Dr Bejan says, “…this is not opinion, it’s physics.”
    Constructal law is intelligent design, without the need for a designer.
    Education is an ideal manifestation of that intelligence within our society. Since we are dealing with a new law of nature and of culture, it has much to teach us about how we can better design society. Here is an example regarding promoting sustainable design and development in the face of the climate crisis
    (a new sustainable design law of nature to become a new sustainable design and development law of man):
    http://www.facebook.com/AsynsisSustopiaInitiative
    http://www.facebook.com/EndEcocideInEurope

  8. NigelReading|ASYNSIS (@ASYNSIS) January 29, 2013 at 1:50 pm - Reply

    K-12s Internet-mediated learning is Prairie Grass. Constructal law is the reason why system architectures evolve over time and must have a genius loci or sense of place.
    “Constructal law points out that systems must ‘evolve’ through time, no single structural design will be sustainable forever. Instead, we must recognize changes within the system and give ourselves the freedom to redraw our design.”
    Just as prairie grass manages with its inherent diversity and dynamic resilience.
    http://www.treehugger.com/natural-sciences/constructal-theory-sustainability.html

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