The spider and the starfish


starfish = bottoms-up (Photo credit: kevinzim)

I enjoyed listening to this EconTalk podcast with guest Lant Pritchett about education, specifically in poorer countries. I recommend it.

He begins with a nice discussion about bottom-up and top-down systems using metaphors (emphasis added):

…the basic distinction is between a top down organization where the metaphor of a spider is, all of the resources of the spider web, however spread out they are, merely serve to transmit information to one spider, who synthesizes that information and responds with the resources of the system. So, if there is a bug, the spider crawls out and gets it. But kind of all the web is kind of an ancillary to the brains of the top. The starfish is a creature that actually has no brain. It’s neurally connected, but a starfish moves because the individual units of the starfish sense something and if they sense more food they try and pull that way. And if the other side isn’t pulling as hard, the starfish moves. So it’s really a metaphor of a decentralized system, where individual units responding to local conditions create the properties of the system. And the beauty of a starfish is if you cut a starfish up into 5 bits, you get 5 starfish. The danger of a spider is that when the spider dies, it’s dead. The whole system therefore falls into dysfunction [single point of failure].

Later, he proposes why bad school systems may persist:

…one of the conjectures I put in the book is that it persists partly by camouflage. It pretends to be something it’s not and then can project enough of the camouflage that it maintains its legitimacy. So, sociologists of organization have a term called ‘isomorphic mimicry’, which is adapted from evolution where some species of snakes look poisonous but aren’t, but get the survival value of looking poisonous. So, one of the things that’s happened is by this pressure to expand schooling and by the governments’ desire to control that socialization process, they have created all the appearances of schools that provide education but without actually doing it. But have at the same time not produced the information that would make it clear that they weren’t doing it. So they produce enrollment statistics, numbers of buildings, numbers of toilets, numbers of textbooks, numbers of everything. But have, you know, all of which can project the image that there’s a functional system and providing real learning there. But they don’tprovide metrics of learning or incentives for learning or feedback on learning or accountability for learning at all.

There’s much more good discussion throughout, but I’m fond of something Pritchett said near the end:

You know, the United States has always been much more of a starfish system. And the starfish system has enormous strengths, and I think those enormous strengths have led America to be a leader in education in many ways. And one of the examples I use in my book is, if there’s a scaled example of a starfish education system, it’s American universities. And it’s just unbelievable from the data the extent to which America dominates quality universities. It’s just unbelievable compared to Europe, which always took the same approach to universities that other countries want to take to their basic education. And you see the consequences of it. America’s universities–in the book I have numbers of the top 200 universities in the world, what fraction of them are in Anglo countries, and it’s just way disproportional to the population size. And even wealth. Because Europe, which is equally sized and equally wealthy, continental Europe, just has nowhere near. And it’s the result of a starfish system, in my view.

I’ve made the same point several times on this blog. Here and here are a couple of examples.

I do appreciate the spider and starfish metaphors. Those roll-off the tongue better than top-down and bottom-up.

6 thoughts on “The spider and the starfish

  1. The starfish/spider model doesn’t seem to explain how Singapore produces such well-educated students. Also, 19th and early 20th century German universities appear to be spider-designed but were spectacularly productive in research. There seem to be other factors at work here that the tops-up/tops-down dichotomy doesn’t address.

    • Hi Mark, I don’t know a lot of about the Singapore education system, but I do find that people often mistake spider and starfish systems. So,it’s to validate whether Singapore is truly a spider system.

      In the ‘History’ section of the wikipedia article on Singapore education it says this about changes made in 1997: “Schools became more diverse and were given greater autonomy in deciding their own curriculum and developing their own niche areas”, which sounds more starfish-like.

      I also don’t know much about German universities of that, or any, era. But, again it might worth delving into the idea further to ensure you’re not seeing spider when it’s really starfish.

      • You make some good points, especially as I have to confess I’m certainly no expert on education in Singapore or 19th-early 20th century German education. But this exchange of comments brings up another aspect of this question: World-wide rankings of American universities are, I’m pretty sure, based on research prominence rather than on quality of undergraduate education. But are American universities’ research programs decentralized or not? I just don’t know. Certainly the big funding agencies, NSF, NIH, and DOD, set their agenda and researchers better follow it, or they don’t get money. But once they have the money, no one spells out how the research should proceed–which seems starfish-like.

        • Good point on the research. That gives me some additional thoughts.

          One is what is the success measure? If your success measure is to plan a fun birthday party or fund research priorities, a spider system probably isn’t bad.

          If your success measure is less obvious — like educating undergrads — then a starfish system may do the job better. Though, like you mention, conducting the research is more starfish.

          Two, we should consider the whole system. Some parts of the system may seem spider-like, but the fact that they play as part of a bigger system that doesn’t rely on a single coordinator makes the bigger system a starfish. So, keeping in mind your research example, while individual research projects at universities look like starfish, while funded, perhaps, from a spider system, there’s research going on outside of universities as well that also make some important breakthroughs, so the larger system looks more like a starfish.

          Good stuff. Thanks for the comments.

  2. Pingback: Taleb on education | Our Dinner Table

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