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Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder (2012) has inspired my thinking about teaching for the past nine years and it informs the theme for the 2021 Summer ATE Conference and for the Annual Meeting in 2022.
Taleb’s work ultimately deals with "decision making under uncertainty.” As teachers, we know that research confirms that we constantly make decisions during our interactions with our students during our time with them. This richly complex process is well known to us all, but was definitely intensified for us during the pandemic, which threw us all into an arena of uncertainty. However, in listening to everyone’s stories, I can confirm that last year’s volatility was met with creativity and confidence. Whereas fragile things are harmed by shocks, and robust things are resilient, the “antifragile” benefits from shocks. I have seen this phenomena for myself as I see the great ways teacher educators met the challenges posed to us. We have not only survived—we have grown in our ability to meet the needs of all of our students.
A related concept in Taleb’s work is what he terms the “Lindy Effect.” Something “Lindy” is likely to survive for a great length of time because it has already survived a long time. Named after a Manhattan restaurant where actors observed this phenomena in Broadway show runs, the effect is interesting to trace in our field of education. ATE just celebrated its 100-year anniversary should therefore be more likely to stay in existence for another 100 years. We should be confident in this and appreciate the wisdom of those in ATE who came before us. They began construction of the rich inheritance that has been passed down to us all. It is our duty to keep it alive, and to enrich it. We rest on the shoulders of giants who made ATE “Lindy.”
One of the many repositories of ATE’s wisdom are the association’s Standards for Teacher Educators. The nine standards are elegant in their clarity, their specificity, and their concision. As we all move into the unknown terrain of a perhaps post-pandemic school year, I encourage you to look to the standards, which will present you with time tested truths and applications built to handle any teaching situation. Our standards are definitely “Lindy!”
What makes for an uncertain future? Recent years have presented insight into how we address this question. One answer is the global pandemic of COVID-19 that has fostered uncertainty in our world, our social and educational systems, and in our day-to-day life. The shock effect of the pandemic has presented society and its members with a level of uncertainty and unpreparedness. Increased political and cultural unrest have shifted us away from a sense of stability. Teachers and students forced to teach and learn remotely from home have challenged what was the perceived “normal” in education and the lives of teachers and students as well as parents and communities. Citizens and society have become cognizant of what it means to be “fragile” in what was otherwise perceived as moderately safe and secure. We are confronted with the need for and importance of evolving an “antifragile” state of mind and systemic response to a world that will not return to the perceived old “normal”. How we learn, as members of communities and society will require adaptation to the persistent uncertain times that we live in today and will face in the foreseeable future.
Schools in communities and cities across the US and in our global society will not return to the old “normal” nor should they. The “fragile” nature of our world will need to take direction from how systems change and adjust over time in response to what challenges us. For teacher educators this is perhaps the most significant and unfamiliar challenge we face today in a profession that has been guided largely by policies, standards, competency-based learning, and a way of education life that can no longer survive in stark contrast to the conditions we face now. Life in the next decade and beyond will likely be influenced by dramatic changes foreseeably more radical than the COVID-19 pandemic.
Educator preparation programs and the teacher educators that prepare each future generation of teachers must rethink the nature of preparation to ensure that each teacher is characterized by “antifragility” as a necessity for meeting the needs of an otherwise “fragile” educational system and world. As teacher educators, we shoulder a major responsibility for preparing “antifragile” teachers who are equipped to enter the challenging and uncertain nature of classrooms to teach students to become strong learners and “antifragile” members of a larger society.
In this sense, teacher education becomes a poetic for addressing the “fragility” we face. Michael Robbins, in his book Equipment for Living (2017), contends that poetry was in fact designed for living in a world often unfamiliar and filled with perplexities. He quotes Kenneth Burke, Poetry is produced . . . as part of the consolatio philosophiae. It is undertaken as equipment for living, as a ritualistic way of arming us to confront perplexities and risks. Teacher education as a poetic for preparing future “antifragile” teachers understands, as Burke explained, that we are preparing teachers for a world filled with perplexities and risks. (1941, p.61)
As teacher educators, we should arm future teachers, as philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb advises in his book Antifragile, with knowledge and understanding that offers the potential to make them shockproof. Taleb writes:
Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. (p.3)
The “antifragile” teacher entering schools and classrooms that are disrupted from events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and pursuant political and cultural unrest will need to be equipped for living in an uncertain world. As Taleb explains, “antifragility” is beyond resilience or robustness; it anticipates the persistent uncertain nature of a pandemic or other challenges that present dramatic changes in our way of life. As teacher educators our challenge, in part, is to prepare “antifragile” teachers who will grow stronger as a result of disorder and threats to what is perceived as “normal”. This will require an understanding of how to prepare future teachers who understand that cultural, societal, and ideological norms are constantly changing. “Antifragile” teachers must be prepared for the volatility, uncertainty, and randomness of the unpredictable, natural, complex nature of the world wherein they live and teach.
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