Successful Organisms Use Their Environment Well

I saw a fascinating talk at Creative Innovations 2012 from Wade Davis, who has the coolest title in the world, National Geographic’s explorer-in-residence. Wade made the point that successful human civilisations use their environment optimally, rather than fighting it. He gave several examples but the one that stuck in my head was that on the Inuit, who use the cold of their environment as an additional advantage. Instead of using metal rails, their sleds ran on frozen fish – because the fish is a low-friction thing and, frozen, it’s hard enough to sled on. Get trapped somewhere and unable to get home? You can always eat your runners.

I am writing this in Australia at the start of Summer, where we regularly hit 100+ F (38+ C) and, because it’s going to be hot today and I don’t have any serious meetings, I’m wearing a short sleeved shirt and shorts because I’ll be out of the sun for most of the day and fewer clothes means less heat. This is sensible adaptation. However, what is not sensible is that, if I had serious meetings, not only would I be wearing at least long sleeved shirt and trousers, I might even be in a suit and tie. This is, quite frankly, dumb and not showing any adaptation of work processes to the local environment.

This is, however, not new as any studies of the British Empire in the tropics will show you. Once convention, and conformity to that convention, dominate over adaptation to the environment, you end up making bad decisions. Worse still, if you don’t take the environment into account, you might see perfectly reasonable adaptations as being rebellious and unconventional.

In Australia, the trade off is always how much clothing do I have to wear to balance fashion, sun screening, temperature requirements, business requirements and avoid being prosecuted for public nudity. If we don’t wear the right clothing, we put additional demand on our environmental masking technologies, such as air conditioning or public transport. If I dress in a way that I can’t walk to work then I’m now fighting my real environment because of my overlaid work environment.

How is this an educational issue? I think that this ties in with our overlaid assessment environments for our students. If we create an environment that doesn’t actually encourage the behaviours that we want, as natural extensions and relations, then we will start to get adaptive behaviour to the real triggers in the environment, which will appear to us as aberrant and rebellious behaviours.

We want our students to do all of the work because it contributes to their development of knowledge and their ability to apply their knowledge. However, by providing certain commonly used assessment types, for example,mass-produced assignments that don’t vary from year to year, I believe that we are risking the formation of an environment where the assignments are seen as barriers rather than achievements. Humans optimise to get around barriers and we are very good at finding the easiest way to do this. We have a cultural convention that students shouldn’t cheat or plagiarise and this is a perfectly reasonable convention. If we build an environment where we weaken the perceived sincerity of this convention, or we set up an environment that implicitly rewards this activity without a high probability of detecting it, then we have set up a conflict. We are asking students to be less optimal in the way that they are working in an environment, with unnatural constraints to keep them in place. With better design, we can create environments that are a better fit to our conventions and are more consistent and integrated – but this takes design. “Because I say so” is never as strong as “because it’s actually necessary”.

Humans adapt to their environment in order to succeed. This is why we dominate and it’s part of who we are. By thinking about this behaviour, I think that we can get a clearer view of why our students sometimes do what they do, even when they are acting at odds with what we’ve explicitly told them to do. I’m most certainly not saying that we can accept students not doing enough work to get the knowledge, or passing off other people’s work as their own, as that’s completely at odds with helping them to build their knowledge. But perhaps it’s worth looking at every assignment we set up to see if the optimised behaviour, in terms of effort, innovation, autonomy, mastery, purpose and enjoyment, in the assignment environment will actually be along the lines that we are after.

I realise that some people will think that I’m putting the blame for cheating on our shoulders and, no, I accept the active role students have and that some students will cheat no matter what we do. But some assignment environments and types are better than others at encouraging our students to work as we want them to, and I think it’s worth thinking of this as an environmental optimisation.

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