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?

Places of education must be antifragile

I’ve written about Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile in the past. If an aspiring teacher asked me which book he or she should read that would be of the greatest use in preparation for becoming an educator, Antifragile would be at the top of my list. Here’s an all-too-brief look at the book’s central idea:

Fragile: Anything that’s fragile can break easily. Think of an egg. If you drop it on the kitchen floor, it will break.

Robust: Anything that’s robust can withstand something bad without damage. Think of dropping a bowling ball on the floor.

Antifragile: Anything that’s antifragile will not just withstand damage, the contact will make it stronger.

To clarify, Taleb’s theory is that complicated systems (Wall Street, bureaucracies, a body pumped full of various medications) are weak; they can easily be destroyed by volatility, uncertainty, and slight changes in the norm. It would behoove organizations to avoid becoming (or remaining) fragile so that the slightest financial or natural event doesn’t put them out of business.

Similarly, individuals should find ways to make a living that cannot fall prey to the whims of fate. Robust organizations can be beaten up by whatever’s thrown their way and keep ticking. Of course, this is much better than fragility, and most people would assert that being robust is the ideal. In the case of a black swan event, a robust company or school district can take a hit and continue functioning properly.

According to Taleb, however, being robust is not ideal. “Antifragility” should be the aim. An antifragile organization not only can withstand the blow from an unfortunate event, it will be made stronger. A bowling ball may be robust because it wouldn’t be harmed if it were dropped on a tile floor, but if it actually grew stronger due to being dropped, then it would be antifragile.

It’s important to bring the idea of antifragility to a school district. Businesses should seriously consider ways to become antifragile, and school districts are no different. How can dropping enrollment rates actually make you stronger? How can a bond that failed to pass make you stronger? How can a lack of funds for technology or PD make you stronger?

Tightening one’s belt by budgeting and focusing on only the essentials are broad responses to the above questions, but they’re the beginning of a transformation away from fragility. I’d say almost all school districts in the U.S. are fragile, and this is because their well-being is dependent on too many entities and factors that are out of the districts’ control. Being debt-free, remaining independent, keeping things simple, having a plan (and changing that plan based upon evidence), hiring good people, and keeping a good asset allocation (in more ways than just investments) are great places to start, but I’ll admit that avoiding fragility is a tough nut to crack.

So what power do teachers have to help? 

I’d be remiss to not mention a way the philosophy of antifragility can benefit not just school districts but also the people they’re created to help: students. Taleb discusses how intervention weakens systems. For example, the U.S. meddling in the Middle East, the government meddling in private business, and cholesterol medication in the human body are all done with the best of intentions, but oftentimes these interventions create unintended consequences that leave us worse off than where we started.

It’s with this perspective that educators must approach Response to Intervention (RTI). In the field of education, we’re so quick to change the system and ‘make it better.’ We’ll throw in a half-hour intervention period two days a week and expect teachers to be able to reteach concepts to students who are behind. What we fail to perceive is that intervention periods throw off a system that has been established, and just like a medication that’s focused on changing one number on a blood test report, an RTI period could cause negative consequences on student learning. Even if teachers have a good lesson plan, are able to get failing students in their classrooms during the RTI time slot, and formative assessments are present to assess student progression, we still don’t know what unintended results could develop.

I am a huge proponent of not making organizations too complex, and this goes for school schedules as well. A school day should maximize the instruction time by allowing teachers to provide help to students during the regular schedule. For junior high and high school teachers, this would be done during the period they have the students. For elementary teachers, help should be provided during the portion of the day devoted to the content area that’s being retaught.


Intervention is viewed positively by many people. It means you’re trying–that you’re doing something. Unfortunately, that ‘something’ that’s done with the best of intentions can actually be worsening the situation. Teachers may not be able to make their school districts antifragile, but they can definitely make their classrooms antifragile, and I think RTI is a perfect place to start by maximizing instructional time with good teaching strategies and leaving schedules alone.

Fragile, robust, antifragile

Here’s a breakdown of an idea from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s fantastic book, Antifragile:

There are three conditions in which people, businesses, governments, etc., find themselves: fragile, robust, and antifragile.

Fragile: Anything that’s fragile can break easily. Think of an egg. If you drop it on the kitchen floor, it will break.

Robust: Anything that’s robust can withstand something bad without damage. Think of dropping a bowling ball on the floor.

Antifragile: Anything that’s antifragile will not just withstand damage, the contact will make it stronger.

Following this explanation, what do you think Wall Street is? The government?