Fireflies, Education, and the Future

What do fireflies have to do with education, society, and the future?

The Firefly Problem

In a recent episode of “People I (Mostly) Admire,” host Steven Levitt interviewed applied mathematician Steven Strogatz. Strogatz was explaining the phenomenon of the pteroptyx, a Southeast Asian firefly that will synchronously light up along the mangrove forests throughout the year.

See the video below to watch it in action.

But how do they do it? How do they know when others are going to light up?

Previously scientists had speculated about what caused this phenomenon. One idea was that there was a “master firefly” that set a rhythm that they all followed. Or maybe it was the weather that dictated the rhythm. 

The actual reason is a lot more interesting.

Biologists discovered that when the first fireflies start emitting their light at sundown the other fireflies are watching each other. Slowly they start to adjust their own lights to match what they are seeing. As Steven Strogatz describes, “It’s like musicians in an orchestra can keep time together even without a conductor, by everyone adjusting based on what they’re hearing. 

Dynamical Systems for the Win

The firefly phenomenon can be explained by a branch of mathematics called “dynamical systems” also known as “chaos theory.” 

Strogatz describes it the following way: 

“Anything that changes its behavior in time according to certain deterministic rules. So deterministic meaning, it’s obeying some rule. It’s not happening at random. It’s got rules that determine the future given the present. So we try to study the implications of rules, by working out their consequences over long time scales into the future.”

So what does this tell us about human behavior?

Think about how we come to a consensus. How do groups of different people decide on a solution?

Or if we go even deeper, how are we all connected? How is it even possible that we are all connected considering a large number of people on the planet?

We just passed the 8 billion people mark for the world population. It seems impossible that two people may know the same person out of this large of a population. But if you’ve ever sat on a plane with a stranger and started talking you may have been able to determine a person that you both know. How is this even possible?

This is what Steven Strogatz along with his co-author Duncan J. Watts called the “small-world phenomenon” in their seminal paper “Collective dynamics of ‘small-world’ networks.” It’s also where the famous Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game originated.

Goldilocks Randomness

Think back to the fireflies. I mentioned that the way they synchronize their lights is to watch each other and then time their own lights to match someone else’s. But how do they know who to watch? Who is watching who? And how do they know who to sync their lights to?

The key, as the paper explains, is to introduce a small amount of randomness to a system. If things are too regular a complex system will not be able to synchronize itself. But if too much randomness is introduced it disrupts the whole system. You can say you need a “goldilocks of randomness.” Not too much, but just a little. A tiny permutation is all that’s required to produce a dramatic result.

Humans, the Future, and Education

I believe a similar phenomenon can drive change in our educational systems. Education is one of the most complicated systems humans have created (along with healthcare and the stock market).

Most teachers will tell you that it feels impossible to enact any sort of significant change. We know what we want the future of education to look like, but we have not synchronized on how we will get there. The challenge isn’t the what, but the how.

The firefly example shows that introducing just a little bit of randomness can help get a complex system to synchronize itself. I see each teacher being that small amount of randomness.

As each teacher enacts change in their classroom, they are introducing some randomness into the system. Soon other teachers will see what they are doing and begin to adjust their “light” (to use the firefly example) and synchronize their work to what they are observing.

The idea is that over time this tiny permutation can produce dramatic results.

COVID as a Permutation

The last 20 years of educational change have felt like a slow slog. Attempts at small linear change have not had a large-scale impact on the system. There have been tremendous advances in technology but education hasn’t been able to evolve at the same rate.

COVID has been a black swan event that has accelerated many technological changes. The “phase transition” from how we used to use technology to how it is being currently used was almost imperceptible. Mr. Strogatz describes it the following way:

“So we were wondering, as you go from a regular world to a random world, would there be a phase transition somewhere in the middle where you would suddenly have a small world? And to our astonishment, there was no phase transition in the middle. The phase transition was all the way jammed up at one side of that transition.”

We have transitioned from one world to another. Now we are tasked with building a preferred future for our educational systems. By “synchronizing our lights” we will be able to illuminate a future that honors the needs of the next generation of young people.