Is This Legible?
You breathe in.
Your hand rests on the door handle.
Your first day.
I can do this, you think.
You push the door open and stride into the room.
You make your way to your desk, shoulders back, conscious of your posture, your smile, keeping a brisk, “can do” attitude about you.
You look out.
They’re all spread out. Some have their heads down. Others are lounging with their feet outstretched, sending an unmistakable message:
“We don’t want you here.”
Some have piercings. Others seem quiet. Still others look ready to go, but not wanting to seem too eager. Can’t know what the others would say, after all.
A pencil, restlessly tapping.
One whispers to another. They laugh.
If I don’t turn this class around, you think, none of these kids are going to graduate.
How do you do it?
Every year, all across the country, teachers –
(You know, that profession that we all agree is critical for the functioning of a healthy democracy? The one we can’t manage to pay very much?)
– face situations like this one.
It’s scary, and frustrating, and difficult, and rewarding – all at the same time.
But really, this situation isn’t much difficult from ANY situation where we need to change things for the better.
You come in with high hopes. You KNOW there’s a gap between where things are and where they should be.
Imagine you’re this new teacher. You’ve got this room full of vaguely-threatening, disrespectful, unmotivated kids. You know for a fact that if you fail them – if you can’t make this happen – they’ll all be worse-off.
How do we go about making a change?
First things first – we need to know how we’re being graded. We need a measure.
It might be scores on a standardized test.
It might be their grade point average.
It might be improvement in reading.
While some measures might be better than others, we need a measure, regardless.
Once we’ve determined a measure, we need to understand what our current score is. In other words, we need a baseline.
If we have an objective standard we’re trying to meet, we need to know how far off we are.
Once we know how we’re being measured, and we know where we currently stand…
We need to know where we’re going.
In other words, we need a standard.
What does our score need to be to qualify as a success?
Are we far behind? Just a tad off?
Knowing which it is will determine a lot about how we proceed.
1. Defining the measure;
2. Establishing a baseline;
3. Setting a standard…
…is the starting point of all improvement.
It’s not just a way of trying to improve a class, but the exact same framework you’d use to start a business, perfect your physique, learn a language, or colonize Mars.
Is the starting point of everything.
The foundation of all success.
And we can summarize it in one word:
I’d like to switch subjects for just a moment, to:
(And yes – I bet you know where this is going…)
The birth of scientific forestry.
The 18th century in Europe was one of rationalization.
Everywhere, science and mathematics were being applied to traditional practices. The hope was that, by applying reason and modern knowledge to time-honored ways of doing things, progress could be accelerated.
Scientific Forestry was the name for this process of rationalization as applied to traditional forestry practices.
If you were a landholding noble in the 17th century, forests were incredibly important. Wood was the primary fuel source, important not just for heating your keep in the winter but also as an engine of war. Fire was necessary for metal smelting, not to mention crafting arrows.
Imagine that your neighbor, the Duchess of Flapjack, had been making sorties into your territory. War seems to be on the horizon. It’s critical that you begin to marshal your forces and make preparations.
A steady supply of wood will be instrumental to your success. But how much wood can you expect from the nearby forests this year?
This question of wood production was incredibly difficult to answer. Oftentimes the exact outline of a forest was unclear. How big was it, exactly? What kind of trees were in it?
Local people had a rough idea – one that perfectly suited their traditional uses of that particular resource – but nothing approaching the accuracy required by local government.
Enter scientific forestry.
Assayers were dispatched to establish the exact boundaries of a forest. Tree counters wandered around, marking trees and making exact tallies. Experiments were conducted to figure out how many cords of wood could be expected from a certain species of tree over a given period of time. “Top Producers” were ascertained.
For the forest scientists (Forstwissenschaftler) the goal was always to “deliver the greatest possible constant volume of wood.”
A measure was defined (cords of wood produced…)
A baseline was recorded (historically, the forest produces X cords of wood…)
And a standard was established (could we somehow engineer an increase to 2X cords of wood?)
Entities were named, scored, measured and tallied.
The chaos of the forest became legible.
It is through these layers of abstraction – these human categorizations – that an incredibly complex reality becomes real to us for the first time. We are literally able to see the trees within the forest.
Heinrich Cotta – the father of scientific forestry – had a word for this new, abstracted forest entity: the Normalbaum.
Cotta and his followers used this layer of abstraction to apply scientific principles to the management of natural resources. Thinking in terms of Normalbaum – of, not a tree, with all it’s inherent complexity, but of a number on a spreadsheet – allowed a kind of “forest accounting” to emerge.
As Tore Frängsmyr, J.L. Heilbron, and Robin E. Rider write in The Quatifying Spirit of the 18th Century:
”The annual accounting of the bureaucrat had to be linked with a long-term plan of resource management based on scientific principles. One prominent Forstwissenschaftler , Friedrich von Burgsdorf, called the common problem “keeping the forest’s books,” and defined procedures to follow in terms of the quantities of interest to forestry science. The bond between forestry science and cameralism was the conversion from an amount of wood to its value. From that point, the practitioners could go their separate ways, the cameral official to the preparation of the Geld-Etat , or monetary budget, and the forestry scientist to the Forst-Etat , the budget that compared the yield to what the forest could bear over time.“
It is hard to underestimate what a revolution this was – and what a monumental effect it had on forestry the world over.
Once mathematical abstractions made the forest and it’s output legible, forest scientists began to experiment with different methods of management.
Undergrowth and brush were cleared away.
Insects that damaged valuable tree species were eradicated.
Less-productive trees were replaced by better-producing ones.
And, finally, trees were planted in grids to allow easier access and better care.
Germany (where Cotta’s teachings were implemented) experienced record yields. Their wood production dwarfed that of neighboring states, and provided a lasting economic benefit.
Scientific forestry became the dominant model of natural resource management the world over. Many of Cotta’s principles are still in use today.
Historian Henry Lowood observed (as quoted by James Scott in Seeing Like a State):
These innovations “produced the monocultural, even-age forests that eventually transformed the Normalbaum from abstraction to reality. The German forest became the archetype for imposing on disorderly nature the neatly arranged constructs of science. Practical goals had encouraged mathematical utilitarianism, which seemed, in turn, to promote geometric perfection as the outward sign of the well-managed forest; in turn the rationally ordered arrangements of trees offered new possibilities for controlling nature.”
In the beginning, there was the forest;
In the end, there was the Normalbaum.
The abstraction had become reality.
We will finish the story of the Normalbaum next week…
For now, let’s return to the concept of Legibility.
The universe that surrounds us is infinitely complex.
Through interaction, even seemingly simple systems can take on breath-taking levels of dynamic variance.
In other words:
The world is fucking confusing.
Without legibility, this world is too complex to affect, too complicated for man or woman to master.
It’s a world that is, at it’s depth, religious; dominated by old gods.
The application of abstraction is, in this sense, mankind’s greatest skill. Simplification begets pattern recognition; pattern recognition begets improvement.
It is for this reason that legibility is the foundation of all improvement, all creation, all invention, all progress.
To close the loop on our well-meaning new teacher:
How do we improve the performance of the class?
Well, first, we probably want to figure out their names.
You’ll probably make a seating chart, and ask everyone to stay in the same seat all year. That way, you’ll memorize their names faster.
Makes the class a little less intimidating.
Maybe you have a conversation with each student individually.
What struggles are they facing?
What are they good at? What’s hard for them?
The picture becomes a bit clearer for each student. You have a little more context now. A little more understanding.
You check with an administrator. It turns out, each of them needs a minimum 3.0 GPA to graduate this year.
That’s your measure. Now you know how progress will be judged.
You go around to each of their teachers, tallying their existing grades and doing some math. You figure out everyone’s existing GPA. The class average is only a 2.0.
That’s your baseline. That’s where you’re starting from.
You now know that for each kid to graduate, they’ll need to raise their individual GPAs to 3.0. You resolve not to let a single kid fail.
That’s your standard.
All attempts at improvement must start with legibility.
You can’t get the kids to graduate without learning their names.
You can’t solve a problem you can’t define.
Just like you can’t get wood from a forest…
Only from a tree.
What could possibly go wrong? 🙂
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