Antifragility and the 4 right drivers in systems

Two of my favorite non fiction books are Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Coherence by Michael Fullan and Joanne Quinn. The more I think about both of them, the more I recognize how intertwined they are. The best way to illustrate this is to first describe the central idea behind Antifragile.



Think of an egg. You drop it on the ground, and it looks like this:


That’s fragility; introduce a little force or instability, and destruction follows. Fragility should be avoided at all costs: fragile systems, fragile investments, fragile jobs… the list goes on.

Think of a bowling ball. You drop it on a tile kitchen floor, and it looks like this:
That’s robustness. Introduce a little force or instability, and the object, person, or organization isn’t affected. Obviously, this is more ideal than fragility.

Think of Hydra. You remember Hydra? When you cut off one of its heads, two more grow back in its place, like this:
That’s antifragility; introduce a little force or instability, and the object, person, or organization becomes stronger.

So we have three ideas: fragility, robustness, and antifragility (a term coined by Taleb). These ideas are important to keep in mind when discussing systems.

Let’s discuss the book Coherence. Fullan introduces the four right drivers and the four wrong drivers in educational systems .

Right drivers:

  1. Focusing direction
  2. Cultivating collaborate cultures
  3. Deepening learning
  4. Securing accountability

Wrong Drivers:

  1. Punitive accountability
  2. Individualist strategies
  3. Technology
  4. Ad hoc policies

Let’s say you run a school district. The first thing you should do is foster the creation of the four right drivers. You begin by focusing direction, which means becoming good at a small number of things and aligning all your initiatives and resources toward that end. The second thing you must do is cultivate collaborative cultures. The means professional learning communities (PLC) are supported, as well as the components that create effective PLC time (i.e. an emphasis on common formative assessments, focusing on goals, and providing enough time for members to be productive). The third driver is deepening learning, which means building capacity (shared skills and common vocabulary) regarding that which your system is focusing. Fourth, you must apply external accountability while fostering internal accountability.

I believe a school district can be made robust–and maybe even antifragile–by incorporating the four right drivers. Before I explain why, let’s discuss how the four wrong drivers will make a system fragile.

First, punitive accountability is a tactic made by politicians and shortsighted leaders who want (need) quick results. This has never worked, and never will work to advance student learning. Second, individualistic strategies are damaging to a system. Teachers who are individualistic tend to alienate themselves. Likewise, charismatic leaders who are individualistic and make a big impact often leave a vacuum when they switch jobs or retire. Third, technology has been viewed as a panacea because devices are easy to buy and install within classroom. They can be tangible, “shiny objects” that catch your eye. But don’t be fooled, nothing magical will happen by putting technology in classrooms. Fourth, ad hoc policies can inflict much harm upon a district. This is because they’re often implemented without awareness of their placement within the coherent ecosystem of the district. For example, if you really want to introduce problem based learning (PBL), and you haven’t established conceptual links between direct instruction, Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards, and technology, then the implementation of PBL is going to be a disaster.

All the wrong drivers Fullan discusses in his book will make your organization fragile. When you have the fragile-robust-antifragile paradigm established in your mind, it’s easy to make the connection between wrong drivers and fragility. Punitive accountability will make you weak. Individualistic strategies will make you weak. Technology could make you weak (unless you use it as an accelerator), and ad hoc policies will make you weak. In fact, ad hoc policies are the silent fragility maker, mostly because the people implementing them have the best of intentions and no idea they’re weakening the organization.

On the other hand, the right drivers will make districts robust–and as I wrote above–possibly antifragile. If an organization has focused direction, it doesn’t matter which shiny objects are offered; the organization is not going to bite. If collaborative cultures are strong, people will be unified, which helps focus direction. If educators delve deeper into their learning, they’ll be more likely to share, which cultivates collaborative cultures and focuses direction. And if accountability is secured both externally and internally, then learning will be deepened, people will collaborate, and the focus will zero in on what’s important. Thus, coherence.

This coherent organization will be robust because it will be strong. New curriculum adoption? No matter, we’ll learn it and use it to teach Common Core. New digital grade book? No matter, we’ll learn it and use it to provide valuable feedback. New principal? No matter, we’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing because we produce results.

That’s robustness. It takes a licking and keeps on ticking. But what about antifragility? Remember, antifragility is like hydra–this means the organization doesn’t just absorb the blow, it becomes stronger because of it. The antifragile district thrives within chaos.

My argument boils down to this: A district that incorporates all four right drivers can thrive within chaos. It can gain from disorder. This means the loss of a charismatic leader, lack of funding, Wi-Fi that’s down, large class sizes, new implementations, new standards, and new ideas can make a district stronger.

This is possible. We just need more people to jump on the Coherence train as we travel toward antifragility.

The Antifragile Teacher (part 2)

I discussed how to be an antifragile teacher in this post at the beginning of 2015. Here are ten more ways teachers can make themselves strong like Hydra.

  1. Use ubermix. Google Chromebooks are great, but they’re reliant on the internet for productivity. iPads should be avoided like the plague in educaiton–unless you’re teaching a multimedia class. With ubermix, WiFi can be down and students can continue working. In fact, students may come up with better ideas when figuring out how to solve a task without WiFi. Check out this post I wrote on the ubermix blog for more information, and keep this in mind: ubermix>Chromebooks>iPads>Windows.
  2. Go on PLC walks. This might sound absurd, but I can’t overemphasize the importance of walking while you collaborate. Why is walking an antifragile action? Not only are there health benefits, you and your colleagues will also be inspired in ways that are impossible within a classroom, library, or teachers’ lounge. The environment of a meeting is important, and so is what you’re doing while you talk. Try a walking PLC and see if you don’t come up with more effective ways to enhance student learning at your school. (If it worked for Steve Jobs, it can work for you.)
  3. Maintain the perspective that every day is an opportunity to learn something now. There’s so much change. Once you make the decision to stop learning, you’ll die as a teacher.
  4. Give feedback, not grades. Grading may never go away, but I’ve seen a lot of teachers pour precious time and effort into grading assignments. The time could be spent more effectively, especially considering that students often don’t understand how to become better by viewing a letter grade. It’s much better to tailor your classroom in a way where the assignments you create foster easy teacher feedback–even at the expense of grading. “That’s a great idea, but how do you grade it?” This is a question I’ve heard many times. The quick answer is, “You don’t grade it.” In my credential program, I learned you have to grade everything. This is bonkers. Instead, take the stance that every assignment deserves “feedback”, and the feedback doesn’t necessarily have to come from you. It could come from students or other teachers. This approach will strengthen you as a teacher by providing more time, fostering your creativity with student assignments, and allowing flexibility within your work day.
  5. Give less homework (or no homework). I don’t want to make a blanket statement and say that you should never give homework under any circumstances, but I think we need to have a long conversation about why we give homework. Is it to strengthen skills and knowledge of content, or is it to ensure students are being compliant? It’s an interesting debate, and a great place to start is right here.
  6. Ditch your textbook. What would happen if school districts decided to write their own textbooks? What could you do with the money? How empowered would teachers feel? Could this help establish an antifragile school district?
  7. Get really good at a few skills. In my first post for becoming an antifragile teacher, I wrote you should learn as many skills as possible. This is true, but I’d like to add that you should never underestimate the importance of being really good at a select few. This will make you invaluable within any organization.
  8. Build your Professional Learning Network (PLN). Twitter is a must,–chances are you found this post via Twitter. Social media is important, but face-to-face interactions are much stronger, which leads to…
  9. Attend conferences. I’ve stated before that you must “read, read, and then read some more.” The great thing about conferences is you can learn and build your PLN at the same time. It’s like reading a book and making a friend simultaneously.
  10. Read Seneca’s work. I know this is random, but Seneca’s stoic philosophy will teach you to be antifragile in every area of your life, which will inevitably make you a better teacher.

Read Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Run away from “top-down, one-size-fits-all”

Michael Bloomberg wrote a wonderful piece entitled Why Cities are the Key to Fighting Climate Change. The article focuses on why local government–specifically, urban populations–is the least fragile way to solve 21st century problems. Money quote:

Nations and cities that fail to prepare for the urban population explosion risk creating, or worsening, slum conditions that frighten investors, perpetuate a permanent underclass, and impede national progress. The best way to prepare is not by implementing top-down, one-size-fits-all centralized programs but by empowering cities themselves to solve problems, invest in their futures, and harness the potential of their residents.

How does this apply to education? By avoiding “top-down, one-size-fits all centralized programs,” and empowering districts and counties to solve problems on their own, we can avoid fragility within the systems that support student learning.

  • Interventions should not be accomplished through Systems (notice the capital “S”) but rather embedded within instruction and assessment.
  • Lesson plans must be nimble and able to change minute by minute.
  • The quality of the teacher in the classroom is the most important factor regarding student learning. Instead of spending money on consultants, technology, and intricate top-down programs, seek smart individuals who know how to teach and pay them well.

Fragile, robust, antifragile (with pictures!)

Once you think in terms of antifragility, you start to view education–and life–in new ways. Because I find the concept so important, I try to explain it to anyone who will listen. Medicine, business, politics, international affairs, education, and pretty much every other field can benefit from an understanding of antifragility. Yesterday I was telling a coworker about all of the concept’s benefits, and she added, ‘It’s important for marriages, too.’ I think it’s important in all areas of life. I could go on and on about how an antifragile philosophy can be beneficial in a multitude of ways, but as usual, I’ll focus on education. Here’s another go at explaining what Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined in the book Antifragile, with pictures I recently drew:



Think of an egg. You drop it on the ground, and it looks like this:


That’s fragility; introduce a little force or instability, and destruction soon follows. Fragility should be avoided at all costs: fragile investments, fragile jobs, fragile people… the list goes on.

What does fragility look like in education? Intervention just for the sake of intervention. Unsustainable 1:1 deployments. Rigid adherence to curriculum. Lack of training. Implementation of (big) ‘Systems’. Teachers isolated in classrooms. Spending money on programs, training, and technology that isn’t helpful. Unneeded hierarchy and bureaucracy. A narrow understanding how to increase student learning.

Think of a bowling ball. You drop it on a tile kitchen floor, and it looks like this:
That’s robustness. introduce a little force or instability, and the object, person, organization, etc. isn’t affected. ‘It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.’ Obviously, this is much more ideal than fragility; it’s where the bumper sticker ‘Tough times go away; tough people don’t’ comes into play.

What does robustness look like in education? A program that can keep functioning with a lack of funds. Lesson plans that are effective year to year. A 1:1 deployment the district can maintain in regards to maintenance and training. A well-rounded understanding of how students learn. A district that is financially stable. Quick reaction to unforeseen events.

Think of Hydra. You remember Hydra? When you cut off one of its heads, two more sprout back in its place, like this:
That’s antifragility; introduce a little force or instability, and the object, person, organization, etc. becomes stronger. Think of it: Does chaos or conflict make our international relations stronger? Does instability make your job stronger? If you’re an architect, does force make your building stronger or weaker?

What does antifragility look like in education? It’s a 1:1 deployment where the devices can be used in new and interesting ways when the Wi-Fi is down. It’s not having to be reactionary. It’s teachers who think quickly on their feet and provide engaging lesson plans, even in the midst of a lock-down. It’s principals who come up with amazing programs, activities, and training sessions on a shoestring budget. It’s districts who thrive in times of financial hardship. It’s students who enjoy fixing technology in their classrooms and view broken devices as challenges and learning experiences. It’s a district or school who, like Hydra, becomes stronger, smarter, and more experienced during times where other districts and schools crumble.

I recommend examining your school and district and determining where it’s fragile, robust, and antifragile. I also encourage you to examine your life and see which areas can be moved to the robust or antifragile side of the spectrum. You’ll be doing yourself, and those you love, a huge favor.

Antifragility and 1:1 devices

It’s always been essential to avoid fragility and strive for robustness in one’s life and organizations. Examining what Nassim Nicholas Taleb has written (and what I’ve been blogging recently), robustness should be something for which we strive, but ultimately it’s not the goal. The goal is anitfragility. When a black swan event occurs, it’s only the antifragile people and systems that take the hit and become stronger.

For today’s exercise, think about an antifragile 1:1 deployment. Which device is most antifragile: an iPad, a Chromebook, or a device running the ubermix operating system?

The answer, at least right now, is the device running ubermix. Wi-Fi at many campuses across the country is extremely fragile. If it’s down, then the students can’t use the device to learn and produce. Many apps on iPads function this way, and Chromebook lose most of their functionality when there’s no internet connection. Ubermix has a wide range of educational apps that don’t need the internet. Also, there’s LibreOffice, which is a free office suite students can use when cloud-based programs are down.

Whether you’re a teacher planning a blended learning lesson or a superintendent planning a 1:1 deployment, Wi-Fi unfortunately injects fragility into your system (at least for now). It’s best to plan accordingly.

The Antifragile Teacher

The term antifragile, coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, has slowly begun dominating my outlook on everything–including how I invest, whether I should take statins for high cholesterol, and the efficacy of US foreign policy. I’ve written about antifragility before, but in this post I’d like to focus on ten ways a teacher can become antifragile.

1. Learn as many skills as possible. Becoming well-versed in Direct Interactive Instruction (DII), knowing how to embed formative assessments continually throughout the school day, and successfully blending technology into your teaching are just some of the valuable strategies that can help your students and strengthen yourself for whatever is thrown your way. Skills equal value, and valuable teachers become antifragile because they’re desperately needed at school sites and within districts–especially in stressful times.

2. Read, read, and then read some more. Reading fiction can help promote empathy, and nonfiction will help build your skill set, which needs to continually grow to remain antifragile. Caution: If you’re reading good books, your brain will be brimming with ideas, many of which you’ll want to implement in the classroom. Avoid this temptation; you should deploy only a small fraction of what you know when teaching. Throw too much information at kids (or even adults), and you’ll slide down the spectrum toward fragility.

3. Avoid negative talk and complaining, especially in the teachers’ lounge. Your words can trap and weaken you, thus making you fragile and susceptible to worry, broken relationships, and a pessimistic outlook that can corrode your will to help students. It might sound corny, but cultivating a generous spirit is the only way to sustain a lifelong career when teaching kids. It will also make you antifragile in the face of pink slips, textbook adoptions, admin changes, and general uncertainty.

4. Don’t continually introduce new technology to students. Less is more. Let them master programs and apps so that they can then dig into the actual content they should be learning. Teaching students algebra is much more important than throwing the newest math website at them. Put only the best educational software products in your tool belt and discard the rest.

5. Build intervention into your instruction. Intervention blocks created within a bell schedule can waste a lot of time and effect student learning. Intervention embedded in a lesson is powerful because you as the teacher know your students better than anyone else at the school site. It’s important to remember that intervening within systems can weaken organizations and introduce fragility; this needs to be considered when altering a school’s schedule in order to provide safety nets for students. Reteaching is important, but intervention blocks may not be the answer.

6. Don’t rely on things you can’t control, like wifi. If your students need to write in Google Docs and the internet is down, adapt and have them type in a word processor that’s installed on the computer. Full reliance on technology can expose you to fragility. Because of this, all lessons with a heavy dependance on technology must be backed up with a non-tech version. Pencils, paper, and books will not suddenly disappear on you. When the wifi drops, and from time to time it most certainly will, revert to your tried-and-true teaching methods. Remember, antifragility means that you become stronger when calamity strikes. This means an antifragile teacher becomes better when uncertainty and chaos are injected within the school day. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but when you start to consider how failing technology can make you stronger, you’ll come up with some interesting ideas.

7. Keep a perspective on the whole child, and don’t drill and kill him or her because of one low number on a test. This will just frustrate you and the student.

8. Learn to work well with what you’ve got. Remember the movie Apollo 13 when NASA had to build an air filter with only the items on the ship? Here’s an excerpt from a previous post:

NASA had to solve a problem with a limited number of resources in order to bring the astronauts home. Failing this objective was not an option because the stakes were too high. They did everything they could to fix a seemingly insurmountable problem. It wasn’t easy, but through hard work they figured it out.

So your student has a tough home life, large gaps in his learning, and is absent half the time? If astronauts can make a filter out of a bunch of random items, you can provide effective instruction when the student is with you.

9. Begin recognizing antifragility around you. Governments, companies, and people make unwise decisions that will weaken them when tension, confusion, or catastrophe strike. Sometimes, doing the opposite of what pundits say on TV will make you stronger. Take this page from Warren Buffett’s playbook:

Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.

Yes, antifragility will not only help you in the classroom, but also in all areas of life, such as investing.

10. Read the book Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He’s much smarter than I am, and his ideas can change your perspective on the world.

And isn’t that what good books are supposed to do?

Systems vs. systems

Adam Smith is best known for An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations–a book that has influenced economists more than any other work ever written. What you may not be aware of is that Smith also wrote a collection of his thoughts on how to be a good person, entitled The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Even though The Theory of Moral Sentiments is a treasure-trove of insight and wisdom, the average modern reader would have a difficult go at it (including me!). Luckily, Russ Roberts wrote How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness, which distills Smith’s essential thoughts about living a moral life.

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life is a wonderful read in its entirety, and educators can benefit greatly from the portion of the book devoted to Smith’s thoughts concerning Systems. In the field of education, professionals have been setting up Systems of improvement for years. Intervention, assessments, instruction, technology, and more have all had gurus who wrap the edu-buzzwords into a System and sell it to schools and school districts to ease all ills. Unfortunately, a System directed toward a large population of students is nothing more than snake oil. Roberts writes:

But Smith reserved his greatest disdain for what, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he called the man of system, the leader with a scheme to remake society according to some master plan or vision. He warned that such people fall in love with their vision of the ideal society and lose the ability to imagine any deviation from that perfection.

I capitalized ‘System’ above because I was referring to a plan created by a ‘man of system’ that is intended to revolutionize society. I’ll talk about the lowercase ‘system’ at the end of this post, but before that, let’s discuss five problems inherent in educational Systems:

  1. The leader (man of system) fails to see the imperfections in the plan. All Systems have flaws, but the leader who is trying to remake education on his or her own can’t be bothered with confronting challenges.

  2. No System can solve what ails whole schools or districts. There are too many moving parts, and these places of learning have to struggle with complexity using the items at their disposal. Believing that one System can help 2, 10, or 50 different schools in a district is folly.

  3. If the leader retires, switches jobs, is demoted, or dies, the System will fall apart.

  4. Widespread and complicated Systems introduce fragility into an organization.

  5. A System will strip autonomy away from school sites–taking decision-making power away from the people who know what’s most needed for students.

Channeling Adam Smith, Roberts provides some historical examples:

The man of system is an apt name for those remakers of society who claim to be able to remake man–Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao, dictators who had a dream system they imagined they could impose from the top down. The result was as Smith describes–the highest degree of disorder and disaster.

It would be foolish to compare the figures above with any System created in the field of education, but the principle of using a one-size-fits-all approach to fixing a problem concerning student learning is clear: Top down approaches rarely work because teachers and students usually don’t have buy-in, and there is often too much complexity that comes into play concerning school site locations, staff, and kids. Roberts writes:

…when you are trying to legislate behavior in a complex world, you have to remember that people have certain natural desires and dreams. Legislation may not achieve what its proponents intend, and it is likely to lead to unforeseen problems.

Which leads us back to the importance of pursuing antifragility. (If you’re not familiar with the term ‘antifragile’, I highly recommend clicking the link. The term will greatly help your understanding of the world–at least it did for me.) Leaders who introduce a System to the masses fail to comprehend–or just plain ignore–the complexity of the organization and the fact that the System will not be a balm because of that complexity. Introducing a System into a school district is similar to the following story:

A family friend of mine just bought a house in Florida on the ocean. She and her husband want to convert the backyard pool into an infinity pool. A contractor analyzed the area and came to the conclusion that in order to make the transformation, a portion of one of the pool’s sides would need to be removed, including a significant amount of rebar. The contractor couldn’t say for sure, but he was highly concerned that this upgrade would compromise the integrity of the pool and lead to disaster.

Before introducing a System, a leader should ask himself or herself: Is this System going to compromise the integrity of my school or district? Oftentimes, the answer is yes.


We’ve discussed large-scale Systems, of which Adam Smith and Russ Roberts are extremely leery. Examining history and developing a healthy understanding of how Systems introduce antifragility into organizations will provide a clear perspective concerning the best ways to help schools.

Keeping this in mind, it’s important to note that systems on a small and individual scale are beneficial, which I’ll refer to as lowercase ‘systems’. Teachers must have their own systems set up in order to help students learn. This includes rules, procedures, analyzing data within Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), and methods for learning material and solving problems. It also includes digital infrastructure for assigning assignments, collecting assignments, and facilitating the students’ digital learning and production.

Creating personal systems of success are extremely important. They help at work, as mentioned in the above paragraph, and they also help in our personal lives for morning routines, exercise, reading books, eating healthy food, purchasing groceries efficiently, etc.

‘Systems’ with a capital s can cause disaster, while ‘systems’ with a lowercase s can improve your life. Providing PD at school sites that promote a leader’s System will go nowhere and may even cause harm. Providing PD that gives teachers the autonomy to implement systems such as teaching/classroom management strategies, programs, apps, in-class intervention, and more can lead to buy-in and success.

Teachers need to be given the power to make decisions for themselves. It reminds me of Hermann Hesse’s Sidhartha:

It is not for me to judge another man’s life. I must judge, I must choose, I must spurn, purely for myself. For myself, alone.