Complexity … needs to be countered by simplicity.
– Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Like many business-type books, The Black Swan can be helpful to a homeschool mom if she couples her reading with imagination and a generous dose of extrapolation. One particularly helpful concept in the book is that of a “complex domain.” Homeschooling clearly fits his definition:
A complex domain is characterized by the following: there is a great degree of interdependence between its elements, both temporal (a variable depends on its pat changes), horizontal (variables depend on one another), and diagonal (variable A depends on the past history of variable B). (p. 358)
I don’t know about you, but all my kids have the middle name Variable.
Taleb’s talking business and explaining how complex businesses are particularly vulnerable, and I’m amazed because he’s actually explaining how we can have massive homeschool day fails if we’re not careful:
[M]oves are exacerbated over time instead of being dampened by counterbalancing forces. (p. 358-359)
It can be hard to unwind What Happened because of what Taleb describes as “circular causality and interdependence.”
Recently, two of my children weren’t allowed to go swimming next door for a week. If you asked me why, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. “Something happened,” would be as near as I could get and it’s not because I was being cagey. It’s clear that Something spun out of control over there, they both came home upset, and I almost immediately dished out what seemed a fair consequence at the time because, honestly, listening to all that he-said-she-said stuff leaves me befuddled. I have dropped at least 10 IQ points by the time the stories are over. I can, however, cling to one thing: If you can’t behave at a certain place or in a certain situation without my supervision, then you’re not going unless I’m going to be there. End of conversation.
There humble acceptance of this consequence immediately reinforced my suspicions that, whatever it was, they were both wrong.
“Complexity,” writes Taleb, “degrades predictability.” We plan schedules but the Lord directs our steps and all that.
Taleb has some advice to strengthen us, though. Or, at least, he has advice to complex businesses that I think we can plunder and bring home to our benefit.
1. “[S]uccess consists mainly in avoiding losses, not in trying to derive profits.” (p. 368)
In Homeschoolspeak, this is as simple as playing it safe and hedging our bets. What do I mean? Well, how many times have you chased something that was supposed to be Awesome, but everything else in your day or week fell apart? In the end you were paying more for it than it was worth, weren’t you?
It’s easy to get our heads turned by Shiny New Awesomeness, but lots of times these things don’t really give us the payoff we anticipate.
I’m not saying new opportunities won’t be profitable. I’m just saying that chasing profits (or maybe we could say chasing what we perceive as greener grass) is exhausting and can causes losses we didn’t expect.
2. “Have respect for time and nondemonstrative knowledge.” (p. 371)
In the early years, kids raised in a classical Charlotte Mason way sometimes seem behind their peers. We’re not in a rush and we’re seeking “nondemonstrative” fruits. At the same time, it’s tempting to start looking around and playing the compare game. Little Jane from Public School just wrote a five-page essay on summer breaks and she is only in third grade. Or, I’m in the Vendor Hall at a big homeschool conference and a booth is promising me that my baby can read and my kids be college ready by age ten.
In a principle-based educational pursuit, we have to learn to pay no heed to Jane. No one even remembers whether we could write a five-page paper at 8 or at 12 and it’s sort of like babies learning to walk: anything between 9 and 17 months is developmentally normal, but pushing doesn’t really help and might in fact hurt.
If we don’t seek externals, but rather wait patiently for them to appear; if we do spend our efforts laying a proper foundation in the early years, I think we’ll be okay in the long run.
3. “Avoid optimization; learn to love redundancy.” (p. 371)
Redundancy is, according to Taleb, “the opposite of debt.” It’s having more than you need, just in case. It’s your rainy day fund. This will look different for each of us, but it pays to consider whether you have it, or whether you’re running your homeschool into metaphorical bankruptcy.
This can be financial, for sure. If you can’t afford that “perfect class” for your child, don’t buy it. But we can do this by planning too much into a day or week both in curriculum and in life.
Redundancy means we’re supposed to be done with school by, say, 1:00 pm, but there’s a 90-minute buffer before our next commitment, just in case. Empty time slots are your insurance plan.
Bankruptcy means you planned it to start at noon even though you knew you wouldn’t be done by then and you figured it would all work itself out eventually.
Another form of redundancy is to leverage things that pay double or more. Remember the days when you went to the zoo and you had a cell phone, a map, and a big bulky camera? Now you carry just your smart phone and you not only have all three, but five zillion other things you might need, too. This is a form of redundancy a la Taleb — you have one tool that is going to help you in a variety of ways.
Narrations are the Swiss Army Knife of classical homeschooling, just to give an example. Where else can you test (or even cause) reading comprehension, teach sequencing, train a variety of intellectual habits including attention and thinking, prepare for public speaking, and coach writing, just to name a few? Many of the practices we know and love are so human precisely because they aren’t overspecialized.
3. “Avoid prediction of small-probability payoffs — though not necessarily ordinary ones.” (p. 372)
The bottom line is that we can’t actually know the future. We can’t even determine in education what will specifically pay off in the end. The point isn’t to stay home and never do anything fun or different or interesting; the point is to, rather, not expect the extraordinary to do education’s heavy lifting. We bank on the ordinary: good habits, good books, time to think. We enjoy the payoffs of special moments as they come.
I am reminded of the Scripture:
Go to now, ye that say, “To day or to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain:” Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. For that ye ought to say, “If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that.”
4. “Make an omelet with the broken eggs.” (p. 376)
Taleb doesn’t exactly mean making lemonade with lemons. Since this is real life and all, we can safely assume that something will eventually go wrong, if it hasn’t already. It might be something small, like a bad day with bad attitudes. It might be huge, like health crises, job losses, and natural disasters. Taleb’s advice to businesses is to consider and prepare. What resources do we need to survive when things go badly? I’ve talked about this elsewhere before, but for me, the lifestyle of building up internal resources is what has helped us survive the bad times.
The omelet Taleb is referring to, then, is a prepared life. It’s shoring up the weaknesses and making sure that while broken eggs are a bummer, omelets are new and different and even tasty and nutritional. It’s not just in how you look at it; it’s in whether you’re prepared to face it.
Moral of the story: it’s okay to be comfortable with simplicity.
If I could say one thing about homeschool life with teenagers, it’s that everything gets more complex. People usually think I’m referring to hormones, but I mean juggling all the things. There are more activities and more happenings. Schooling really does become more because you’re on the launch preparation side of things and there is much to consider.
In the midst of that, I think there’s the temptation to ditch what has worked all these years. But really? In the midst of all the chaos, that foundation of good habits and narration and reading is key — I think it’s key because it is simple. We don’t have to think about it or build elaborate education castles. We can just continue to do what works, and that’s enough. Yes, the books are “harder” and more numerous and also they have more pages. But the foundation remains the same because it’s strong, it’s simple, and it works.
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