Helping kids become “antifragile”

I’m reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb again. It is always a bit mind-bending. (And more than a bit uncomfortable since it invariably leads me to wonder whether most education research is simply worthless. But that’s for a different post.)

Taleb’s most recent popular work (his technical work is beyond me) focuses on a concept he calls antifragility. The basic idea is this. Some of the most critical aspects of our lives are disproportionately affected by rare events (he refers to these as Black Swans); the more rare the event, the larger the impact. This makes prediction a very, very tricky business because 1) there is no particularly good way to estimate the chance that you are wrong, and 2) the consequences of being wrong are potentially disastrous. (The history of financial markets makes this point rather convincingly.) On the other hand, there are also situations where rare, unforeseen events can benefit us enormously (Taleb sometimes calls these Positive Black Swans).

Antifragility, Taleb explains, is the state of being as protected as possible from harmful Black Swans while being in the best possible position to take advantage of positive ones.

So what does this have to do with schools? Our students are much more fragile (in Taleb’s sense) than we tend to think. A sick little brother, broken down car, or a common cold can cause upheaval in their lives, with ripple effects on school, work, and family. And for some kids these are the least of their worries. What if they get kicked out of the house? What if their block gets shot up? What if a friend or loved one gets locked up, or deported?

Most school is organized around the assumption that kids have basic stability and predictability in their lives; that they can arrive and leave at the same time every day, in roughly the same physical, mental and emotional state. And each day, they get a little more schooling, which eventually adds up to something called an education.

Students can try and play by those rules, and have it all snapped away in a second. Every teacher can tell a version of that story. For urban teachers it’s more the rule than the exception.

So what do we do about it? For one thing, we can help students learn to cope with potentially destabilizing events. We can help them build support networks through and outside of school. Angela Duckworth’s recent research on “grit” speaks to this need, as does the growing body of evidence about the importance of so-called “non-cognitive” factors (i.e. things other than test scores) for real-life outcomes like long-term employment. School reformers like James Comer have sought to help students (and families) become more resilient, though in the current environment their work tends to be marginalized as “non-academic.” (That’s a shame.)

Second, we can put kids in much better positions to benefit from positive rare events. Schools can do this in two ways: by actively helping students develop social, educational, and professional networks; and by helping them discover and pursue work that they are passionate about. Right now schools aren’t really set up to do either of these things, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be. Doing so will require that we let go of long held assumptions, though. Our students’ lives are not stable and predictable, and we cannot make them so. But we can help them to better deal with that reality. And we can help them discover something they love to do and get really, really good at it. In so doing, we can help them to become antifragile.