Antifragility and covid-19

Five years ago, I wrote about Nassim Taleb’s book, Antifragility.  The book built on the ideas developed in Fooled by Randomness and Black Swan.  On 26 January 2020, before its outbreak in the West, he wrote a prescient warning about covid-19.

Taleb writes about probability and how humans fail to correctly estimate probabilities, especially the very low probabilities at the tails of non-linear distributions (“fat tails”).  People wrongly tend to extrapolate from a normal situation.  Taleb coined the terms “black swans” (highly rare and unforeseeable events) and “white swans” (highly rare but foreseeable events) to describe such low-probable but highly consequential events.

Landscapes are mostly the result of extreme events in the past (volcano eruptions, tsunamis, ice ages…), much more than the daily grind of erosion and sedimentation.  Similarly, black and white swan events have an outsized influence on our politics, economies and societies.

The concept of antifragility is related to resilience and robustness, but the difference is that antifragile systems become stronger under pressure, like bones or muscles become stronger when they are tested.

The shock of the pandemic has exposed the increased fragility of the western world: tightly integrated global networks and supply chains and a reliance on China for key resources such as pharmaceutical ingredients.  This means that risks such as pathogens, computer viruses, cyber attacks or reckless budgetary management by companies and central banks are likely to cause global rather than local shocks.

Africa’s relative exclusion from global supply networks has so far spared it from the worst effects on the pandemic.

Taleb advocates for more antifragility in the system. “That’s why nature gave us two kidneys.”  Antifragile systems are characterised by optionality, redundancy and variability.  They contain the institutional equivalent of “circuit breakers, fail-safe protocols, and backup systems.

Some elements of such antifragile systems are:

  • distribution of power among smaller, more local, experimental, and self-sufficient entities
  • no monopolies or centralized bureaucracies (against increasing trends towards winner-takes-all markets and data centralisation)
  • public but decentralized health insurance, (universal) basic income or temporary unemployment benefits (bailing out individuals, not companies).
  • “just in case” instead of “just in time” organizational models
  • more cash reserves and less debt (for companies, households and governments)
  • having a safety net of loyal, well-trained and adaptable full-time employees (rather than relying on free-lancers, consultants and gig workers)

Antifragile systems are not necessarily big government systems. People and governments tend to over-intervene on small things and under-intervene for large things.  Governments should plan and provide buffers for extremesThis is especially true in areas with high uncertainty like climate change.  Not the median value of expected temperature rise is so much important, rather than the ‘fat tail’ of improbable but potentially devastating temperature rises.

A way to make systems more antifragile is to make sure that those responsible have skin in the game:

“In the Hammurabi Code, if a house falls in and kills you, the architect is put to death”.  Correspondingly, any company or bank that gets a bailout should expect its executives to be fired, and its shareholders diluted. “If the state helps you, then taxpayers own you.”

For companies, skin in the game means letting the process of creative disruption play out.  If airlines used their cashflow in the good times to buy back shares instead of building reserves, why should they be bailed out?  Governments could be made more responsible by linking salaries and incentives of politicians to debt levels, economic growth, poverty levels and well-being of the population.

Will covid-19 have a permanent impact and lead to more antifragile systems?

Memories are short.  Additional expenses in hospital beds and strategic stocks of materials become harder to justify as memories fade. There will heightened attention for pandemic risks for some time now.  But what about other systemic risks?  The systemic risk of inflation and a corporate and government debt crisis is not high on the agenda now.  Gone are calls for increased expenses in cybersecurity or counterterrorism. Attention for climate change mitigation has waned.

There is an increased focus on making supply chains more resilient, but this trend started before covid-19.  This includes shortening them, reducing reliance on a few suppliers and increase investments in robotics.  The nature of work is changing with more decentralization and distance work, but with a higher reliance on the internet.  The covid-19 pandemic risks increasing the power of global corporations due to their better ability to raise free cash and lobbying powers.

What about education?  Covid-19 has arguably spurred more innovation and investment in online learning than in the last 5 years.  But will it last and will it make education systems more antifragile?

A basic problem in the organisation of education is low productivity increases compared to other sectors, a phenomenon referred to as Baumol’s Disease.  A lack of relative productivity growth explains why salaries for educators struggle to keep up with those of other sectors and why pedagogical innovations such as differentiation, project-based learning and personalized learning struggle to find inroads.

The only plausible way to increase productivity in education is by online learning.  By digitizing parts of the education process (explaining theory, showing examples, elaborating on topics, evaluation), time is freed for educators to focus on social support, individual learning support and supporting group activities. Making educators responsible for larger groups of learners allows for increasing their salaries.

Will covid-19 have a lasting influence on education?  Many schools and teachers have experimented and developed skills with online learning. Many may continue developing instructional movies and online Q&A sessions.  However, a real education reform would include moving away from year grades and fixed classes and a specialisation in teacher roles .  Schools have a lot of autonomy in Flanders to experiment with online learning and the organisation of education. If covid-19 can result in lasting innovations in the organisation of education in our schools, it will have had a positive impact after all.



Why Are Beliefs About Education Hard to Change?

gearThe beliefs that teachers and school leaders hold about education are arguably instrumental to their practice. These include beliefs about the purpose of education, beliefs about how people learn, beliefs about the nature of their subject (e.g. math wars) and beliefs about learners (debate to what extent learning outcomes are genetically determined: nature vs nurture debate).  In our activities, we often rush to strengthen educators’ knowledge and skills.  But shouldn’t we focus more on changing their beliefs? One reason is that changing our beliefs is hard and difficult to measure.

Why are beliefs so hard to change? Psychology might provide us with some answers.

According to Kahneman, we are prone to overconfidence. When making judgements, we rely on information that comes to mind, neglect what we don’t know and construct a coherent story in which our judgement makes sense.  90% of car drivers think they are better than average.  I don’t know of any similar research for teachers, but I’m pretty sure more than 50% thinks that they’re better than average.  Add to this the fact that uncertainty is not socially acceptable for a “professional”.

Secondly, we tend to surround ourselves with people who confirm our beliefs, gradually locking ourselves into ‘echo chambers’.  According to Yochai Benkler in his book “The Wealth of Networks”, individuals with shared interests are far more likely to find each other or converge around a source of information online than offline. Social media enable members of such groups to strengthen each other’s beliefs, by shutting out contradictory information and to take collective action.  Even people with fringe beliefs are likely to find like-minded souls online and see their views reinforced. In these ways can establish themselves and persist long after outsiders deem them debunked: see, for example, online communities devoted to the idea that the government is spraying “chemtrails” from high-flying aircraft or that evidence suggesting that vaccines cause autism is being suppressed.

Technology companies play an active role in constructing such echo chambers. In 2011, Eli Pariser, an internet activist, warned for a “filter bubble”. He worried that Google’s search algorithms, which offer users personalised results according to what the system knows of their preferences and surfing behaviour, would prevent people from accessing countervailing views. Facebook subsequently became a much better—or worse—example. Its algorithms are designed to populate people’s news feeds with content similar to material they previously “liked”.

Another explanation may lie in a general a loss of trust in institutions and distrust of experts.  The Economist recently ran a briefing on the emerging post-truth politics, in which the value of evidence seems to diminish in favour of so-called “authentic” politicians, who “tell it how it is” (ie, say what people feel). Teachers may trust their own experience more than published research, for example on learning styles, ability grouping or using grades.  One reason for this within the education field is that education experts often contradict each other,also because of the difficulty to generalise many findings across contexts and cultures.

Education is one of those domains on which everyone holds an opinion.  For most people, these opinions are based on their own experience and intuition about “what feels right” or “what ought to be true”.  Many feel that teaching boils down to common sense.  These opinions attract a lot of attention. An example is the regular stream of opinion articles lamenting the ‘crisis in education’, the fact that ‘education has not evolved for 100 years’ and that ‘it doesn’t equip our children with 21st century skills.’  Moreover, education seems to be particularly prone to ‘fads’ (one computer or tablet per learner, standardised testing, small class sizes), which often come from the burning desire to ‘fix education. Coming up with a ‘magic bullet’ is easier than changing the oil tanker that an education system is.

Context plays a role as well.  Research in Singapore showed that teachers pointed to contextual constraints to account for the inconsistency between their espoused beliefs and the teacher-centric teaching practice. Teachers may feel the pressure to cover the curriculum and get learners ready for examinations.  Parents may resist relatively new approaches like inclusivity and heterogeneous grouping and threaten to move their children to another school. Ongoing research in Free State, South Africa, shows no relation between teachers’ preference for a surface versus deep learning focus of teaching and learning outcomes, likely as a result of contextual factors. There might be, in other words, be a gap between the ideal world of educational research and real world of cash-strapped education systems.

Should professional development of teachers and school leaders focus on changing those beliefs?

The main argument to focus on beliefs is that sustainable changes in teaching practice are only likely to occur when teachers support the underlying rationale.  However, beliefs are not static. People do change their beliefs. But often gradually, not as a result of one workshop. Good insight in recognising and dealing with resistance, ways how change occurs, effective feedback and adoption of innovations should be important elements in the repertoire of every education advisor.

Mike Hulme’s book on climate change provides some useful recipes from complexity science:

Rather than aiming to find one global solution, a variety of approaches catering to different world views, ideas about governance, science etc. stands a better chance at curbing climate change.  Climate change derives from various other problems, such as population growth, unsustainable energy, endemic poverty, food security, deforestation, biodiversity loss…  Rather than framing climate change as a mega-problem, requiring a mega-solution, Hulme argues that disentangling the issue, moving climate change to the background, is more likely to yield effect.

Using a variety of strategies (testimonies, research findings, inspiring stories of change) for a variety of beliefs and sensitivities for changing them.  Research indicates that the perspectives of administrators and teachers can differ significantly on this point. Administrators tend to perceive nationally normed standardised assessments, whereas teachers grant more validity to classroom observations (Guskey, 2007).

In a trajectory that aims at changing teachers’ beliefs, a possible succession of steps is:

  • Making existing beliefs explicit
  • Creating conditions in which existing beliefs can be questioned
  • Presenting the conflict between their old and new beliefs as challenging rather than threatening
  • Providing teachers with the necessary time to reflect on their beliefs, reconcile the new beliefs with their existing knowledge framework and teaching context.

Another point of attention is that we should take care to back up what we introduce in training activities with decent research findings and theoretical underpinnings, and discuss these and their implications with educators.  In doing this, we must help educators understand how to cope with the complexities of classroom life and how to apply theory and new findings in real classrooms where the relationship between theory and practice is complex and where numerous constraints and pressures influence teacher thinking.

The Role of Gender in Fighting Poverty

gender-saSouth Africa has made great strides towards achieving gender equality in education. According to the 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDG) report, gender parity on all education indicators has been achieved. In terms of access to primary education, gender gaps on educational accessibility are closed.  Proportionally more females are enrolled in secondary and tertiary level education than males.  Females are also more likely to have higher levels of educational attainment than males.

This progress towards gender equality has contributed to poverty reduction in various ways:

  • Increased levels of education have empowered females as they get equipped with the self-confidence, knowledge and skills to participate fully in their communities.
  • Education of girls has resulted in higher family incomes and increased productivity.
  • Health benefits of education with an impact on poverty reduction include delayed marriages, reduced fertility rates and improved maternal and child health.

Despite the achievements, the latest Gender Series report on Education (2004-2014) from Statistics SA reveals many remaining challenges:

  1. There are large gaps in subject preferences and performance, which often result in varying social and economic gender inequalities. For example, there is a significant gap in South Africa in favour of males qualified in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, resulting in male dominance in STEM-related occupations such as engineers and architects.  More females are enrolled for Business and Commerce, Education and Other Humanities study fields. Education has the highest gender disparities, followed by Other Humanities (3/1 and 1,77/1 ratios respectively).  Male-dominated professions are often those that command higher pay.  Gender prejudice within the education system about maths and science abilities of females remain widespread.
  2. Males are more likely than females to enrol in Masters and Doctorate studies.  Females enrol more frequently in lower tertiary qualifications.
  3. Employment absorption rates for females are significantly lower than for males, leaving them more at risk of poverty despite their education levels.  Moreover, South African women remain disadvantaged in terms of pay, promotion, job stability and status.
  4. There are persistent gender inequalities in performing unpaid care or house work.  Women spend more time on unpaid work, having a negative impact on their careers in the labour market, impacting their work status and pay, regardless of levels of education obtained.
  5. Boys’ performance in literacy is significantly lower than that of girls. Boys are also more likely to leave school early. Some of the negative social impacts associated with boys dropping out of school include crime and gender-based violence. This confirms the need for a growing focus within the gender rights movement on the construction of masculinity.
  6. Girls are more likely to stay at home due to family commitments such as child minding, which seems to have a bigger impact on girls living in urban areas as opposed to rural areas. Pregnancy and marriage also act as social gender-specific obstacles that hinder access to education for girls, particularly those from rural areas.

The most fundamental impact of education and gender equality on poverty reduction may lie in its impact on slowly changing norms in a society:

“In particular, the education of boys and girls—beyond its role in building human capital—is crucial in shaping norms. In multiple discussions, adolescent boys and girls described how education exposed them to new ideas and knowledge, enlarging their capacity to analyse and encouraging critical scrutiny of established gender relations and the status quo. These discussions reaffirmed what is already known about the intergenerational transfer and reproduction of norms within households. Education fosters learning away from the household environment where gender roles are played out in every interaction and action. The research team realised the importance of ensuring that school curricula offer gender-neutral learning opportunities.”  (World Bank, 2012)


These results confirm some of the findings from the World Bank Report which I wrote about earlier.

“One of the more consistent findings across the 97 research sites is the universality and resilience of the norms that underpin gender roles.  In every research location, women and men of all generations identified the dominance of women’s domestic role and men’s bread winning role as absolutely core to female and male identities. Some of the focus groups gave evidence of gender norms changing, albeit slowly and incrementally, with new economic opportunity, markets, and urbanization.”

This blog post is a contribution to the IIEP Course “Monitoring and Evaluating Gender Equality in Education’, edition 2016.


Taylor, S. & Spaull, N. 2015. Measuring access to learning over a period of increased access to schooling: The case of Southern and Eastern Africa since 2000, International Journal of Educational Development, 41, 47-59.

Statistics SA, 2015, Gender Series Volume II, Education, Report No. 03-10-12 (2004–2014)

World Bank, 2012, On Norms and Agency Conversations about Gender Equality with Women and Men in 20 Countries (link)