Reframing Education for the Long Now: Education as Intellectual Infrastructure


Long Now Educators Workshop, August 01, 02017.

This article was previously posted on Medium. It is Part Two of a four-part series, Reframing Education for the Long Now, based on insights from the Long Now Educators Workshop on August 1, 02017, hosted by the Long Now Foundation and KnowledgeWorks Foundation.

Looking at education through the lens of the pace layer framework provides several insights about the dynamic of education as intellectual infrastructure in the U.S., and where long-term transformation might emerge. In The Clock of the Long Now (01999), Stewart Brand describes education as intellectual infrastructure, situating it in the middle of the pace layers.

The Pace Layers diagram at Long Now Educators workshop, August 1, 02017.

There it is bracketed by the turbulent, questioning, and disruptive forces of fashion and commerce on one side, and by the stabilizing constraints and forces of constancy and preservation from governance, culture, and nature on the other. In this middle pace layer position, infrastructure is capable of moderately-paced change — which should be measured in decades. As a form of intellectual infrastructure, education is well-positioned to take advantage of both the rapid testing of new ideas and approaches from the fast layers and the ability of the slower layers to purposefully integrate selected, meaningful disruptions.

As intellectual infrastructure, education represents society’s approach to developing its future generations with the purpose of ensuring its sustainability. It is society’s platform for developing its people — its human creativity and acumen—which in turn feeds the faster layers of fashion and commerce and supports the stability of slower layers of governance, culture, and nature.

The challenge of education as society’s intellectual infrastructure is to provide reliability and effectiveness to its constituents. That means being receptive to the propositions from fashion-art and commerce layers, even sometimes encouraging disruption and shock, while also seeking continuity and holding to society’s deeper values and principles. Any form of infrastructure requires large investment to do its job well, producing high but delayed payout over future decades. As Brand reminds us, societies need to be able to span these delays of payout and reward:

Hasty societies that cannot span these delays will lose out over time to societies that can. On the other hand, cultures too hidebound to allow education to advance at an infrastructural pace also lose out.

— Stewart Brand, The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility (01999).

This is the delicate dance of education as intellectual infrastructure: to cultivate societal patience in order to set innovation free and to use deep purpose to filter and integrate disruptive propositions in ways that make education more relevant to new societal circumstances.

The Effectiveness of the Slow Layers for Education Transformation in Finland

Finland seems to be striking this balance well, with culture and governance acting in partnership with educators to guide and evaluate innovation in schools at a steady pace. Its current adaptive innovation is intended to enable more fluid, integrated learning. That approach combines open-space layouts for learning environments with multi-age learning cohorts and the elimination of rigid disciplinary boundaries between subjects.

A Finnish school. Source: Kuvatoimisto Kuvio Oy

The approach is built on trusting educators and students. It allows teachers to drive curriculum, rather than follow a standard set curriculum. The benefit is the ability to effectively create ways to integrate competency development freely across subject matter and collaborate across grade levels to create higher-level thinking and multidisciplinary learning experiences. Students navigate physical spaces and social groupings to support their own learning. To effectively implement and achieve the benefits of this innovation, Finnish educators have broader society’s trust.

The kind of freedom Finnish teachers enjoy comes from the underlying faith the culture puts in them from the start, and it’s the exact kind of faith American teachers lack.

—Chris Weller, Business Insider

Operating at the infrastructure pace layer, Finnish teachers drive change in the education system with the support of the culture layer and enabling structures established by the governance layer. In the U.S., the culture layer has become fragmented with competing narratives about the value and purpose of education creating churn at the infrastructure layer that the governance layer struggles to help manage.

Pace Layer Tensions in U.S. Public Education

Change in public education in the U.S. is strongly shaped by the dynamics of the commerce layer, with market values, business rationales, and global economic imperatives shaping education decision-making. Commerce is rapidly introducing new educational technologies and pedagogical approaches at a pace that outstrips the capacity of other layers to engage effectively and exert their influence. This dominance of the commerce layer has been recasting education with language, values, and purpose that serve commerce stakeholders — business interests — but not society at large. The result has been a shift form treating education as the public service it should be to treating it as a market good.

Exacerbating this imbalance, accelerating technological change has created flux at each pace layer and has heightened uncertainty about the future.

Long Now Educators Workshop, August 01, 02017.

Workshop discussion about the impact of an unchecked commerce layer on education included the following insights:

The market determines the value of education. Both hyperconnected global markets and increasing automation and digital augmentation are challenging established economic and business models, the structure of organizations, the notion of work, employment patterns, and even the nature of what it means to be human. The cultural narrative emerging from this context is that people are human capital — an asset whose value is determined by the market. Our societal definitions of success and how we determine student readiness to navigate society have become tightly tethered to the global market. Education critics have written about the link between the origins of compulsory education and the factory model school with the needs of early industrial society, so this link is not necessarily new. The challenge is whether the purpose of education continues to be narrowly evaluated in terms of serving the requirements of commerce rather than broader societal needs, such as the needs to support pluralistic society, democracy, and a sustainable planet.

“Solutionism” shortens the time frame and scope of reform. The education technology sector has grown rapidly, shaping the process, language and expectations of education reform. The ed tech rationale argues that the way to “fix” education is to configure the right suite of applications and devices without much concern or understanding for the root causes of education’s most pressing challenges such as achievement gaps, inequity, teacher support and professional development, and student engagement. The language and process common in Silicon Valley of “solutionism”—promising quick fixes, profitable return-on-investment, and scalability—has a stronger role in guiding decisions about education investment. Solutionism has permeated the education reform space in ways that has shifted mindsets and expectations about the timeframe and scope of change. Linking such activities to longer and slower processes of transformation in the governance and culture layers is lacking.

Mismatched metrics. The spillover effect of technological solutionism is that the expectation for change is measured in months and years rather than in decades. While it may be appropriate to measure reading and mathematics performance yearly (or more often), measuring social and behavioral practices and cultural shifts in meaningful ways takes longer and require metrics that span years and decades. Carol Dweck, the pioneer of the popular “growth vs fixed mindset” concept, has written articles and changed her book to warn against the “the false growth mindset” to counter simplified, shortcut, ineffective implementations of her concept. She reported that teachers were not able or willing to commit to the longer time frame to integrate fully and develop the growth mindset practice in their classrooms. The allure of quick solutions is that they make us think that there are immediate outcomes.

Implications for Long-Term Change

While the commerce layer seems to drive decision-making and innovation in education in inappropriate ways today, this pace layer does do well at absorbing disruptions and responding quickly to immediate needs. A challenge for education decision-makers today is to find ways to better harness commerce to provide a more equitable system and one whose purpose serves broader society. The venerable Peter Drucker reminds us about the link between the tension of short- and long-term interests:

“Building around mission and solutions is the only way to integrate shorter-term interest.” — Peter Drucker

Brand also warns that any meaningful long-term change will need to integrate the slow layers of culture and governance.

Source: NASA

In the current education narrative, nature is largely left out as a significant influence. However, this layer may provide inspiration for reframing education and designing interventions across the pace layers to shape a new purpose for education that speaks to our collective humanity, global interconnectedness, and shared responsibility to steward our delicate relationship with nature.

The earth photo from the moon showed that national solutions were not sufficient to solve global ecological challenges. Education solutions may also need to transcend national borders, taking their cues from a globally interconnected and planetary context.


The next blog post in this series will explore the possibilities for leveraging pace layer strategies to create system change in education.

Reframing Education for the Long Now: Balancing immediate needs with long-term transformation

This article also appears on Medium  as part of a series done in partnership with The KnowledgeWorks Foundation and The Long Now Foundation

“Now” is the period in which people feel they live and act and have responsibility. For most of us, “now” is about a week, sometimes a year. For some traditional tribes in the American northeast and Australia, “now” is seven generations back and forward (350 years). Just as the [first] Earth photographs [from space] gave us a sense of ‘the big here, we need things which give people a sense of ‘the long now.’

— Stewart Brand, Long Now Foundation founder

Education is inherently a long-term proposition. Just as species adapt by learning and thereby ensure their survival, so too societies educate their people to ensure longevity through the ingenuity of future generations. As a system, education straddles the pressures of individuals’ and society’s immediate needs and inequities on the one side with desires for long-term positive outcomes and sustainability on the other.

For many U.S. schools and districts, this bridging might translate into reconciling immediate goals such as ensuring that all children read at grade level in the elementary years and helping students with trauma learn to self-regulate with longer-term goals such as rethinking curriculum for a future employment landscape that will be automated and digitally augmented. Yet even when education stakeholders see the value of addressing both time horizons, it can be incredibly difficult to imagine and pursue true transformation.

As Stewart Brand describes in The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility, after the Apollo program began returning color photographs of the earth from space, the earth’s problems lived in a new context, “the big here”, and took on new dimensions, stakeholders, and rationales. Having planet-scale perspective on atmospheric health, ocean health, and climate stability made national approaches obsolete. What might a similar context shift for education be? When considering education as a long-term proposition, what might the “long now” in education look like? What forces and dynamics might shape it? How might we cultivate a “long now” mindset in order to reframe pressing education challenges in ways that reveal purposeful approaches and thoughtfully-scaled solutions?

Long Now Educators workshop, August 1, 02017.

This was the domain of discussion and collaboration at the Long Now Educators workshop on August 1, 02017, hosted by the Long Now Foundation and KnowledgeWorks Foundation at the Fort Mason Center for the Arts. Insights from the workshop will be presented in a four part series of blog posts over the next four months.

The Dynamic of the Pace Layers

The Pace Layer framework is a thinking tool developed by Stewart Brand that effectively stretches the “now” to make long-term thinking (decades, centuries, and millennia) more concrete, accessible, and relevant to the present. It shows how different parts of society (its pace layers) act and change at different speeds, with the fast ones at the top and the slow ones at the bottom.

Source: The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility, Stewart Brand, 1999.

The fastest layer, fashion-art, moves in minutes and months. It is irreverent, engaging, and self-preoccupied. At this layer, a society’s culture is set free to experiment, albeit sometimes irresponsibly, learning through creativity and failure. It’s where we find relatively trivial phenomena such as fidget spinners and Lady Gaga’s meat suit, but also more significant developments such as ride-sharing and the breakthrough neo-expressionist painting of graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

The barrage of ideas and propositions generated from the fashion layer gets sorted out at the commerce layer. Whether at age-old bazaars or modern-day stock markets and digital crossroads such as Etsy and eBay, commerce brings people together to make sense of new ideas that capture our attention. Commerce tames and harnesses the creative energy of fashion so that society can benefit from it.

In turn, infrastructure changes more slowly than commerce. It is high-cost, high-yield, and delivers delayed payback to society. It provides foundations and platforms for society to operate—among them transportation, communication, energy, and education. It is refreshed and modernized through the innovations from lower layers while being protected and validated through governance and culture. For example, Elon Musk’s company, TESLA, captures our attention through the fashion and commerce layers with its innovative electric cars and batteries, but ultimately aims to transform the transportation infrastructure. Despite its allure at the fashion layer and its transactions in the commerce layer, TESLA is really an infrastructure play, using the various pace layers to support the transformation.

Moving down a layer, the job of governance is to serve the larger, slower good for society. It provides stability. It preserves what we hold to be necessary and true. As Brand points out, social and political revolutions want quick change, demanding that governance moves faster than it is capable of, frustrating society. The constraints of governance force reflection and pause, which can be paralyzing or empowering.

Even slower to change, culture is the essential work of people as they gather to make sense of and integrate the many facets of life together on earth. It includes religion, language, and the enduring behaviors and social norms that help to provide constancy across centuries and even millennia. Nature is the slowest-changing layer, with the earth and the human body changing slowly over millennia. Nature’s power is immense when unleashed, whether as the processing capacity of the human brain or as the magnitude of earthquakes and hurricanes.

In healthy societies, the pace layers exist in relationship, communicating with each other, pushing and checking, yet moving independently, each at its own pace. This “slippage” between layers allows each layer to do its respective job and creates dynamic interactions that drive a society’s adaptability. Fast layers propose, disrupt and learn. Slow layers preserve, constrain and integrate. The dance between fast and slow layers can create adaptive strategies and societal resilience.

Source: The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility, Stewart Brand, 1999.

Events occurring in one layer may force another layer to move faster or slower than its typical pace of change. The popular acceptance of same-sex partners put pressure on legal and infrastructural supports to change more quickly than is customary, helping to resolve tension and conflict in workplaces and hospitals regarding issues such as rights to marriage, benefits, and visitation. Conversely, regulators in the governance layer can slow the pace of releasing disruptive new drugs or genetic therapies to allow for more informed integration into society. The way these disruptions are resolved determines a society’s health and resilience.

Educators using the pace layer framework at the Long Now Educators workshop, August 1,02017.

Cultivating the Long Now: Pace Layers as a Guide to Education Transformation

For educators, the pace layer framework provides a powerful thinking tool that can help re-contextualize pressing issues and questions, such as equity, and achievement, and the purpose of school. Using them can help stakeholders take a broader, longer view of solutions and interventions. It can also put education’s transformation into the context of a civilization’s transformation. When viewed through the pace layers, solutions for the achievement gap or the dropout crisis may come from unexpected layers with varying time frames for outcomes. The pace layer framework enables such possibilities by providing perspectives from multiple layers of society with distinctive stakeholders, intentions, and time horizons. The pace layer framework can help tease apart the complexity of education, revealing actors and events across societal domains and across time. It helps us ask:

  • From which layer of society is this challenge originating, and what is does its pace and process of change look like?
  • At what layer might a solution emerge, and how might the other layers be enlisted to support it?
  • What outcomes should we look for at various layers?

The next blog post in this series explores education as intellectual infrastructure to aid in understanding possible origins and drivers for long-term transformation in education.

Kids as Critical Futurists

When given the opportunity, kids can be wonderful futurists, creating artifacts that help us imagine possible futures.

Two summers ago at Kirk Cooper’s fabulous summer camp Sees the Day in Berkeley,

Finnish Field Phone, WWII era.

California, kids 6-9 years old prototyped devices they thought would be important in the future.  Using a forecasting rule of looking back two years for every forecast year, we looked at many historical devices and the kids had to guess their function.  A lantern specifically designed for milking cows in the mid 19th century; a wired, “mobile” field phone from the mid 20th century: a cassette player/boom box and an LP from recent past, etc.  The campers had to guess what the devices were, how and why were were used.

We then talked about what devices might be important for us in the future (time frame is a squishy concept to nail down with 6-9 year olds).  They prototyped and then presented their devices.  We talked about why these devices were important, who might use them, and what kinds of things were happening that would make them important in the future.

Two of my favorites:  spray on network (when signal gets weak) and backyard, garden grown battery packs!

Everyone had fun.  And it was a great way for kids to experience the threads that connect their present with their future.

The Future of Visual Practice

Yesterday I had a great morning at the annual meeting of the International Forum of Visual Practitioners.  These are the amazing practitioners who support our collective thinking, workshop experiences and processes, and pattern recognition through graphic recording, facilitation, process design, hands-on modeling, and other forms of visual practice.

Visual practitioners help make the invisible stuff in our minds visible and sharable in dynamic settings.  As we move into a new sensory world of portable social media, smart objects, and location based information, a literacy of visualizing information, ideas, people and relationships will be increasingly important.

The Center for Graphic Facilitation made a nice summary of my talk and have it on video here.

It was really fun to spend the morning talking about the emerging strategic problem space of our clients and think about the role of visual practice.  I think we will see some interesting stuff emerge at the intersection of  visual practice, new digital publics, and large scale collaborations.

NLab: Amplified Individuals & Business Resilience

Last year I was fortunate to be invited to speak at the Nlab Social Networking Conference at De Montfort University in Leicester, UK. The day focused on discussing the implications of Web 2.0 tools and applications and social networking for small business.  It was a great event, in part due to the wonderful hospitality of the folks at the University and the Institute of Creative Technologies, but also because we tried to bridge big ideas and concepts with the practical challenges of managing small business.

This year, my colleague Sue Thomas, Professor at DeMotfort University,  invited me to prepare a short video for their NLab event, Amplified Individuals and Business Resilience.  I was sorry not to be there, but at least I got to share some ideas, via video, of the opportunities for using participatory digital media to infuse communities and business with resilience – the capacity to reorganize and recover from crisis – to meet the challenges of a complex and uncertain world.

Here is a link to a page with the video and other audio clips from participants in the seminar.

What is most inspiring to me about this topic is the opportunity for local organizations to gain a bit more agency,  in the creation of information and the discussion around that information, in the ability to create more transparency in local processes and decisions, and in the ability to create, share, and direct resources.

What if you can’t go to school?

This article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, Bay Area Schools Reconsider Swine Flu Closures,  is a good example of the importance of developing a resilient public learning system.

“Federal health officials are considering whether to stop recommending closure of schools where students test positive for swine flu, a move that could unburden parents from Brentwood to San Jose who are scrambling to provide last-minute child care.”

The article describes the burden placed on families to provide care for their kids while their parents work and schools remain closed for as much as two weeks.  Some parents think the decision is appropriate, while others think it is an over reaction.  Parents with strong social networks (as the family pictured in the article) were able to develop “cooperative” child care arrangements, a sort of rotating play date to cover the days while school is closed and parents work.  Those parents without such a social network have had to cope themselves (like the single mom described in the article).

As a working mother, I recognize the child care concern expressed in the article, but this is about much more than flexible child care.  What happens if our kids can’t go to their school for long periods at a time?  How do we flexibly provide consistency and quality in kids’ learning experiences as we respond to a variety of system shocks  (pandemics, climate change, extreme weather, energy shortages, etc) that we are likely to face in the future? What happens when we concentrate the learning experience to one mode or format – in this case a bricks and mortar school?

What is exciting is that we have an emerging set of digital media tools & applications (from mobile phones to Twitter to wikis) and new collaborative and cooperative social forms (like smart mobs, swarms, MeetUps, avatars and gaming guilds) that can help us create flexible ways to organize and coordinate learning experiences. How can these tools and social forms help us reconfigure and reorganize learning in response to big disruptions?  How can parents and educators develop and leverage a “smart education grid” comprised of distributed resources (digital, human, curricular) and diverse modes of learning?

What if instead of the progressive childcare described in the article:

“Today, Jack Macy has to go back to his job coordinating recycling programs for the city of San Francisco, so the girls are headed for classmate Kiki Valenzuela’s house. A babysitter has been hired for the Wednesday shift, then it’s on to Caroline’s house, and, on Friday, Rachel Aronson’s house.”

the giggly second graders got to continue with their reading and writing through a neighbor to neighbor literacy volunteer program that got alerted through Twitter when the school closures were decided, or worked on their math puzzles posted their work on the math class wiki for their teacher to review and comment on, and then discussed it on the phone, or a webconference, (like Elluminate).  There are many options to think about for reorgnizing learning in a more bottom up way, and I think we will see it coming from creative parents, classrooms, and educators who want more than a “school is open or closed” world.

We need to move from thinking about email and cell phones as a way to arrange on the fly play dates and coordinate summer camp schedules, to thinking about how we can use the full range of mobile, participatory, and collaborative media to create a new resilient public learning infrastructure.

Altered Bodies

Rob Mitchum has a nice article in SeedMagazine.com, “This is your brain on Facebook”,  that puts recent concerns (doomsaying) about the relationship between the Internet and our brains into a more informed context.  He points to the latest research from UCLA and University of Rochester that focuses on the links between digital media and brain plasticity and the implications for therapeutic and educational applications. He suggests that research reveals “more benefits than ill consequences” but acknolwedges that this is an open research question.

As Gary Small of UCLA states:

“We tend to oversimplify when we argue whether technology is making us smart or making us stupid,” Small says. “The brain is complex and technology is complex; it’s the content, timing, and balance of what we’re doing that’s important. We can argue whatever we want with so little data. It’s not settled; we need to study it. These are the technologies that are part of our lives, so we need to be scientific about it and not conclude from the outset whether it’s all good or all bad. We need to understand it and use it in a way to enhance our lives.”

The complex challenge of understanding the relationship between the environment — technological, urban, ecological — and our human performance is an important driver of change when thinking about communities, schools, and learning envronments.  As our knowledge in this area grows, hopefully we can begin to design and implement interventions to mediate damaging effects and design more brain and body healthy environments for teachers, learners, and families.

How we alter our bodies and brains and the implications for how we think about performance is one of the drivers of change in KnowledgeWorks’ 2020Forecast.

“Advances in neuroscience are revealing new understanding of the brain, its plasticity, and its responsiveness to the environment. Emerging notions of neuro-diversity and physical “disability” will challenge standards of what is “normal” and will spark innovations that help mainstream populations. At the same time, greater threats to human and environmental health from climate change, pollution, war, extreme urbanization, and other natural and human-made disasters will in the next decade create new stresses on minds and bodies. These stresses will converge in schools, some of which will seek to instill a sense of stewardship for self and environment in their students. With their mission to educate all students, these schools will become key sites for interventions to overcome the various challenges of disability and bio-distress and their impacts on learning.”

See Altered Bodies for more.

Welcome to Andrea Saveri’s blog

I’ll be sharing research, ideas, and projects related to amplification, cooperation, and resilience here. Specifically, I am interested in how we can amplify ourselves — as individuals, as members of communities, as decision-makers in institutions, and as a society — to become more resilient in an uncertain future.

New technologies and digital media can amplify our individual and collective human capacities to sense our world, create new insights, and build platforms that enable us to cooperate to regenerate our civic, economic, and political life. Cooperative strategies inform us about ways to interact to avoid social dilemmas that result in unsustainable and inequitable outcomes. Together, strategies for amplification and cooperation can help create systems that are more resilient — ones that adapt to crisis by absorbing shocks and learning, reorganizing, and generating new patterns for renewal and growth. I’ll be using this blog to explore what amplification, resilience, cooperation, and digital media hold for community life and civic discourse, alternative systems of education, innovation, local economies and micro production, and youth.