Tag: community

education & learningfood systemshealth promotionpsychology

The Food Bank Model of Education and the Tyranny of Resiliency

Teaching the basics

Did this teacher pay for her chalk through bake sales?

This morning’s Globe and Mail introduced me to a new term “The food bank model of education” . Just reading the headline spurred a deep sense of empathy in me and a good idea (proved correct as I read the article) about what that term meant. As you might guess, the analogy of the food bank is one centred on the concept of donations to support those in need. As Wendy Stueck writes, an approach that was once used around fundraising for special events and activities — those ‘extras’ — is now being used to support the foundation of the educational system. It’s no longer about paying for students to go to special exhibit at the major art gallery and more about paying for pencils, pens and paints — the basics.

Big bucks raised by parent groups are becoming more prominent on the Canadian education scene and resulting in gaps between schools backed by well-off, well-educated parents and those in less-affluent communities, says Annie Kidder, president of the Toronto-based advocacy group People for Education.

“Fundraising has always been a feature [of the school system] and it’s not inherently wrong,” Ms. Kidder says, adding that festivals and silent auctions can be fun and boost morale. “The issue now is that parents are becoming the food banks of the education system.”

It’s easy to forget that food banks were temporary measures meant to serve as a stop-gap to serve communities when times were tough and there wasn’t the necessary resources in place to ensure that everyone had access to food when they needed it. Second Harvest in Santa Cruz area, was the United States’ second food bank (first in California), opening in 1972. That’s not long ago. It shouldn’t be around today, but it is. That’s not because they don’t do good work, but rather because unlike other banks, these weren’t meant to last.

However a funny thing happened while people were patching away at food security, these banks started evolving into social education resources that not only provide food, but also learning about food systems and training centres for policy advocates working to address food security issues. The Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto is another great example of this type of transformation in action.

What these groups represent is resiliency in action. Resiliency is the ability of a system to adapt to adversity and capitalize on opportunities to make positive transformation in spite of challenges or catastrophe. It is held up as a positive trait in humans and social systems. One reason is that the world is a dynamic place and change (as much as we resist it) is inevitable. As the memorable quote from Guiseppe di Lampedusa’s bookThe Leopard:  “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”..

But that is the problem here with education and food security. We’ve become really good at adapting. Our educators, our communities are exceptionally resilient, creative and adaptive. As the Globe piece points out, a lot of creative stuff is happening to keep the system moving:

But while the routine may be the same, Ms. Whiteaker and others worry that parent groups face increasing pressure to raise money – a kind of fundraising creep – as school boards across the country tighten their belts in the face of government cutbacks.

“Because of the funding cuts, you are going to see an increased demand for fundraising,” she says. “Because parents want to provide the best for their students – right now. Not by the time the government gets around to increasing the funding for certain areas.”

But this isn’t just belt-tightening. It’s unlikely we’ll see these funds restored anytime soon. Think about it: in North America we just experienced the longest run of economic success and wealth creation than at any time in human history. Yet, food banks and educational erosion has continued and remained ‘reslient’ through all of this. Is this a good thing?

Resiliency is almost always used as a positive trait, because adaptation in systems and psychological terms is healthy. But such demands for adaptation can be excessive and actually weaken the system over time. Resiliency is like an elastic band. It has a lot of give and stretch at the beginning, but as anyone with a well-worn pair of yoga pants can attest, the elasticity starts to dissipate after much use. Systems are the same way. Our educational system or food security systems are highly plastic and those working within them are creative. But at some point that elasticity will fade to the point where, like an elastic band, it will eventually crumble into pieces.

How many bake sales are we away from that happening in our schools?

complexityhealth promotionsocial systemssystems thinking

Cohesion vs. Diversity

I just watched (yet another!) great TED talk that solidified something that’s been on my mind all week: diversity.

The talk by Cary Fowler, the leader of the global seed bank, a remarkable initiative aimed at saving the world’s seed for future use should that day (or many days) come when we need to draw upon the diversity on our planet to support life. Even though we think we live in a world of apparent dietary diversity (after all the average supermarket literally carries thousands of products — just look at the number of types of yogurt you can buy at a typical store), the truth is that we are in deep trouble when it comes to the diversity of natural food choices available to us. It is estimated that there are about 7500 different types of apples alone. But we rarely see that expressed in food choices. Shop your local supermarket and you’ll find that variety sharply drops down to about a dozen or less. And this dozen or less is the same at most of the other shops. The truth is, we are limiting our diversity in food dramatically and are potentially harming our potential survival in the process.

In Canada, we praise ourselves for being an accepting society and our social, cultural and linguistic diversity. My home, Toronto, may be the most ethnoculturally diverse city in the world when measured by these aforementioned characteristics. Scott Page, a systems scientist from the University of Michigan, has written a fantastic book on diversity that provides a strong case for diversity in many different contexts from school to work to community life.

But diversity has a dark side. The less we have in common (i.e., the more diverse we are) the less cohesion we are likely to experience as a duo, group or society. It was that very topic that Michael Valpy wrote about in the Globe and Mail this week. In his article, he quotes another Canadian and now Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff from his new book:

“We need a public life in common,” he writes, “some set of reference points and allegiances to give us a way to relate to the strangers among whom we live. Without this feeling of belonging, even if only imagined, we would live in fear and dread of each other. When we can call the strangers citizens, we can feel at home with them and with ourselves.

And reaching for a codicil from his intellectual hero, he adds: “Isaiah Berlin described this sense of belonging well. He said that to feel at home is to feel that people understand not only what you say, but also what you mean.””

Anyone who has worked on projects where there is a diversity of opinion knows the benefit of having someone not only understand what you say, but also what you mean. That trait alone may be the reason we commit to working together at all and, when it doesn’t happen, why we might choose to do things apart. A healthy system has both diversity (represented by chaos at its extreme) and cohesion (represented by rigid order at its opposite pole). Having watched Cary Fowler’s talk shortly after reading Michael Valpy’s article has me questioning what the balance is in fostering diversity within a system. How does one know when you’re ‘diverse enough’ or when you’re too rigid and inflexible? In the case of Cary Fowler, he’s not planning to have all 7500 apples growing at the same time and place if he even gets all those seeds saved, but he’s not planning on saving just the tastiest, crispest or hearty of them either. That strikes me as a good thing.

In my eyes, a great community is one that is diverse and cohesive — living at the ‘edge of chaos’ in systems terms. Toronto is one of those cities, with many small villages within it, and has been highlighted by urban thinkers like the late Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida as a place that does diverse urbanism rather well. As imperfect as it is, Toronto is pretty cohesive.

But it is also seeing a large gap between the wealthy and the poor – and likely the healthy and the unhealthy. This gap was driven home yesterday as I took part on a panel on the social determinants of health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.The concept of ‘poverty by postal code‘ and the gap between those with choices and those without was clear. Along with Carol Timmins and Stephen Hwang, we spoke separately and as a panel about issues of public health practice, homelessness, and youth. As we explored these issues I thought about this ‘cohesion’ amongst the diversity and wondered whether this is as good as it gets? Can we create greater social cohesion than this or are we doomed to some level of diversity that has lots of upsides, but also many downsides. Can we have it all?

What is the balance here and would we know it if we achieved it?

complexityemergencesocial mediasystems science

Tr.im and Community Ownership

It occurred to me that I haven’t been tweeting as much as usual the past week. I’m about a 5-10 tweet per day blogger on the same range of topics that I discuss here at this blog. That doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been anything to write about and one of the most tweeted stories of the past week was one that has quite a systems flavour to it.

For those in the Twitter world, you probably heard about (even if you didn’t care or follow) the story about Tr.im shutting down and then getting resurrected as an open source, community owned URL shortener. For 99% of the world, this past sentence might as well be written in Klingon. URL shorteners are services that enable you to take a very long web address and shrink it down into something much smaller. For example, the Wikipedia link to URL shorter is included in the last sentence, however the same link might look like this when shortened: http://tr.im/wKxd

Early last week Tr.im’s owners decided it would pack up and quit, citing myriad reasons for dropping its support for the service. Interestingly, this got the blogosphere humming and soon Nambu (its parent) reversed position (of sorts) and declared that Tr.im’s source code would be released and that it would become community owned.

What the Tr.im experience reveals is a lot about the power of collective action in a Web world. Something that could seem relatively benign like a URL shortener quickly became something that was discussed by all kinds of people who previously couldn’t care less about what they used. What might make it even more intriguing is to watch how it moves from a private, closed system to an open one that is decentralized in how it runs as a community-owned entity. What is also interesting is how the term community has been used, yet how it hasn’t been articulated. It will be interesting to see what this ‘community’ looks like, particularly seeing that Nambu’s first option was to sell Tr.im. As a case study in emergence, self-organization and social action, this is one that is worth following — whether you’re a techie or not — because the lessons learned here could mean a lot for other community tools and technologies.

complexityemergencesocial mediasystems science

Wikipedia and the Limits of Co-Creation(?)

This week my eye caught a blog post from New Scientist magazine speculating that Wikipedia might be heading for a fall. When I saw Fast Company add to the argument, it seemed that there was more than just passing interest in the research that spawned the article.  Wikipedia, the most widely used encyclopedic source in the world, has become the go-to place for people interested in both mainstream and obscure facts. In my view, it has become to information repositories what Google has become to the search; namely the first place people go when they need something specific.

Yet, Wikipedia is slowly losing its momentum. As Jim Giles reports, there is research from the Palo Alto Research Center in California (the once Xerox PARC for those who know about the early innovation in computing, design and systems there for many years) suggesting that : “The number of articles added per month flattened out at 60,000 in 2006 and has since declined by around a third. They also found that the number of edits made every month and the number of active editors both stopped growing the following year, flattening out at around 5.5 million and 750,000 respectively.”

The article speaks to the problems that Wikipedia is having with maintaining control and how it is limiting co-creation in some small, but persistent ways by exercising more editorial control over content and thereby reducing the number of words that were generated by members in total over those generated by Wikipedia editors. To some, the answer might be “so, what?”. Maybe this is a good thing that there is more control over the content, particularly given its wide interest? Although this has merit, there is a risk that by creating a content system that is more tightly controlled that Wikipedia is limiting the very power of self-organization and community building that made it so popular in the first place.

Co-creation is about developing a partnership between creators to truly collaborate on the text. This need not be equal in terms of time and energy — there is always some who are far more enthusiastic about a topic than others and will therefore take a larger role in writing — but that partnership needs to exist. Perhaps Wikipedia leaders need to get back to revisiting the very concepts that made them successful. The beauty of the wiki — and a popular one like Wikipedia — is that it:

1) provides a critical mass of engaged users;

2) encourages a diversity of voices participating in the conversation;

3) provides opportunities for expertise to be shared and leveraged;

4) offers a coordinating mechanism to bring together this diversity keeping the system closer to the ‘edge of chaos’ ;

5) promotes self-organization;

6) which increases the likelihood that new ideas will emerge from the collaborations.

These are all hallmarks of strong, creative, and (mostly) effective communities and fits very well with the lessons learned from complexity science and systems thinking. It also is what has made them so popular and widely used. Perhaps the leadership at Wikipedia has forgotten that.