Sassy Red

October 18, 2007

Earl Mardle while generally agreeing with my post on IT education in schools takes issue with me over my statement that: In any complex system you can never replicate outcome, but you can replicate starting conditions. Now this is probably a conversation best held over a Sassy Red in The Brewery or brunch in Felix (my favorite cafe in Wellington) when I am out in New Zealand in December but I thought it best to give a response now as its an important issue.

Now his objections seem to be:

  1. That an any subsequent experiment the starting conditions are changed by awareness of the previous outcome
  2. Any second trip will ritually follow the first unless you consciously attempt not to.

He then goes on to reference Lorenz’s original work on strange attractors stating even the tiniest difference in the starting conditions has very large effects on the results and from that arguing that trying to reconstruct initial conditions (a state, a thing) is both impossible and wasteful, while getting started (a way of doing) is active and constructive.

Now remember we were talking about IT education in schools and the question of how to replicate an experiment. The normal practice is for a series of trials to be run, and where success is achieved to attempt to replicate success in other schools. My argument is that this fails in the main for two reasons: (i) the trial schools get more attention and often pre-select themselves and (ii) the context (social, historical etc) of each school is different in subtle (or less than subtle ways) and this disturbs the assumed contextual homogeneity of the experiment and roll out process. This isn’t just schools by the way, it also applies in marketing and other areas.

My argument was that you could never replicate an outcome and Earl agrees with that; the disagreement is over the replication of starting conditions. Now I want to maintain my position, while pointing out that the phrase I used is an abbreviate of a complex set of arguments so misunderstanding is possible. Why do I do so?

For starters, it is very unlikely that each new school is going to be fully aware of what happened elsewhere, and there is no particular need for this to be the case. Even if they are aware they would not be able to replicate the path of the experiment. Here Earl’s reference to Lorenz’s discovery that minor changes have major impact on results contradicts his second argument as to ritualisation. It will take no conscious effort not to follow the same path, it will happen anyway. The intention is not to achieve the same outcome, but allow a contextual solution to emerge in each situation. We are not condemned just to be active and constructive, although that is no bad thing; we can learn.

Lets take another example to illustrate the point. I observe my parents as a child, and also other parents, when I am a parent myself. From that and other learning I know that some basics at the starting point of a child’s development are critical. If you say something you should always follow through, always be there when they need you etc. etc. I don’t believe that all children will end up the same, but I can learn. I don’t have to always start from scratch.

So trying to exactly replicate the starting conditions might well be wasteful, it is in anyway impossible. However in the context of experiments and transfer of learning (the objectives of the post) one would not be attempting an exact replication, but rather to say something along the lines of XYZ put these things in place, had these resources and took these actions and things worked for them. Having done that, you move on work out the degree to which you can replicate those starting conditions, or where, given your local context to have to provide a substitute. You then take action and monitor, reinforcing good patterns, disrupting the bad ones. Now I summarised that quickly in the phrase: In any complex system you can never replicate outcome, but you can replicate starting conditions. As a summary I stand by it, hopefully now I have fleshed out the detail a bit hopefully Earl may modify his criticism! If not, then it is back to the Sassy Red.

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