Home > Conference: November 2009 > Keeping it complex

Keeping it complex

November 12th, 2009

I think I have been underestimating how much interest there is in complexity theory and what it might have to say to us in education. Not any more! During my first session of the conference “book club” strand I had planned to explore links between complexity thinking and Rachel and Jane’s book Disciplining and Drafting or 21st Century Learning? (I love this book – a gem on every page). A comment made as an aside by the person who sat down next to me (thanks who-ever you were – I didn’t see your name) decided me to change tack and foreground the complexity ideas rather than the book. Judging by the reaction I’m glad I did. How powerful it can be to take time to play in the world of ideas when we seem to be facing overwhelming practical challenges. So, in the spirit of wider sharing, I thought I’d start a conversation thread about complexity ideas and how they might help us find new ways to at least frame the challenges that face us as we live our “now” in the midst  the whirlwind of social change – and coming changes to our planet as well, but that’s another story!

Because there are so many ideas, I thought we might take a few at a time, so maybe this will become another multi-stranded conversation, much like the Shifting Thinking conference itself.

I’ve found that a good place to start is with the distinction between complex and complicated systems. This was important to the breakthrough thinking about complexity during the second half of last century. It was started by the physical scientists thinking about interactions between and within planetary systems and living organisms. More recently the ideas have been picked up in the social sciences (as in Capra’s book The Hidden Connections which Rachel has discussed in her blogs). I think idea of learning as a complex phenomenon and schools and education systems as complex systems has got important implications for education. Complicated systems are understood as being the sum of their many parts – to know the bits is potentially to know the whole. I see the industrial age model of schooling as a complicated system, in its design, enactment and accountability mechanisms. We can see this in the diagram of the traditional model of the senior secondary school on page 20 of Disciplining and Drafting – the assessment, curriculum, community-input and student-output bits all fit to make a tidy whole.  Complex systems, by contrast are more than the sum of their parts, and we can’t necessarily predict what will emerge as those parts interact. They are messy and have inbuilt uncertainties. Contrast the diagram on page 42 of Disciplining and Drafting – this is already the messy “now” for secondary teachers and the ground is still shifting. With our firm grounding in linear complicated systems thinking it’s no wonder the shifts can sometimes feel alarming and overwhelming.

One important idea from complexity theory is that complex systems adapt and learn as new connections are made and the consequences tested. The multiple emergent possibilities stand in contrast to the typical “if this, then that” logical linear prescriptive reasoning that underpins ideas in complicated systems. When links between things or events are seen as fixed and predictable, it’s so easy to see alternatives as mutually excluding – it will be either this, or that, but never both. This “binary” thinking is so deeply embedded in Western European culture that it’s really hard to escape. But complexity thinking challenges us to replace our either/or way of seeing our options with both/and thinking. Some of us have been trying to do this for a while now and it’s hard – the either/or default is almost a reflex!

A personal example might help illustrate both the point and the dilemma. When I first read Disciplining and Drafting, one of the pleasures for me was seeing some research I’d been a part of discussed by others whose purposes were wider than those of the original research. I am thinking in particular of a project that Karen Vaughan and I completed together called Learning Curves, which tracked the rolling implementation of NCEA in six medium-sized secondary schools, over its first three years. At the end of the first year we were cautiously optimistic that NCEA might achieve one of its stated goals – parity of esteem for different pathways through the senior secondary school, with credits awarded to all genuinely worthwhile learning achievements, regardless of their traditional “academic” status. By the end of the third year what we saw instead was a hardening of the academic/vocational divide, whose consequences are with us still. Through the complicated lens, learning can be one or the other – but never both. Yet many life situations, including but not limited to employment opportunities, require both. There are indications of this tension in the technology curriculum. Some opponents of the recent changes say the subject has become too “intellectualised”. Supporters of the changes say this reflects the nature of contemporary technological work. Thus through a traditional lens learning still has to be “either this or that” with a specific type of future pathway in mind. Through the complex lens our challenge is to find ways to make it “both this and that” and to value the many fruitful learning pathways that are likely to emerge.

There are so many other either/or questions and challenges that I think need to be reframed as both/and explorations but I’m curious about how others see all this. Can we have a conversation about other traditional binaries that we could reframe to help address the education challenges that confront us?  How many can we identify? Which ones should we tackle first and why? How might we go about reframing our choices through a complex lens? Please share your ideas and let’s think together about this.

Conference: November 2009 , , ,

  1. Mary
    | #1

    @Janet Akhurst
    Janet, I think you have identified an important concept. But I think part of its significance is as one of those false binaries that Richard was talking about, because for me the answer is both “yes” and “no” with a big dose of “it depends”.
    * I don’t believe that adopting either extreme (teach nothing but knowledge, or teach no knowledge) is useful.
    * I don’t believe the optimum balance will be the same for any two students, or on any two days. (Think the “teachable moment”)
    * I do believe that each of us navigates this tension-cum-balance every day more or less intuitively

    Perhaps we as educators should consider adopting agile methodologies (as described in the Agile Manifesto (see http://agilemanifesto.org/)

    We are uncovering better ways of …[educating each other]… by doing it and helping others do it.
    Through this work we have come to value:

    Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
    Working …[relationships]… over comprehensive documentation
    … collaboration over contract negotiation
    Responding to change over following a plan

    That is, while there is value in the items on
    the right, we value the items on the left more.

    Might need more tweaking, but y=You get the idea…?

  2. Rosemary Hipkins
    | #2

    that’s a really good binary to pick Janet. It often plays out in process vs. product debates when people argue for which is more important – as if you could have one without the other! It seems to me the most recent version of this is to contrast learning to learn with learning something in particular – this binary really needs the both/and treatment in our thinking.

    I agree with you too that these ideas are pretty demanding. Assumptions are just that until someone helps us see them in a different light. I well remember how I felt when Jane Gilbert introduced me to the idea – I think the brain/body binary was the one I first thought deeply about – I had to go and sit in the garden for a couple of hours to really “get it”

    thanks for your comments too Richard – totally agree about the soil as a complex system (I used to be a bio teacher). In some of the science ARB items we’ve developed recently we’ve had a bit of a play with what we’ve called “it depends” thinking – but we feel as if we’ve still got a lot to learn about how you put these ideas into teaching practice

  3. Janet Akhurst
    | #3

    I think the whole area of knowledge is very complex. In its simplistic form it is binary, should we teach knowledge or not? (I now need to clarify my own thinking before adding moer!!

  4. Diana-Grace
    | #4


    Perfect collection of words…I was wanting to express this to my team…and now I’m just going to send this as a link!

    Thanks Richard. :)

  5. Richard
    | #5

    I totally agree that ‘binary’ thinking is embedded in our much of our culture. My background is in ecology, and one of my favourite metaphors for complex systems is the soil – that amazingly complex dynamic/interactive system of minerals, fungi, bacteria, animals, actinomycetes, miscellaneous residues … and other things yet to be discovered. Linnear thinking/research is helpful tool in helping us to understand some of the system, but is inadequate.

    I’m suggesting that we move our thinking away from binaries and accept the ambiguity inherent in complexity. We can talk about/research trends, make generalisations, observations, etc.

    Exploring the tension between opposites is a useful, powerful tool which can provide insights into a topic. I like the idea that the truth is not a compromise, but lies in the tension between the opposites, and it’s location is infinitely variable. But when this is applied to a complex system, like the soil, or a school, it can only provide part of the information that is potentially available.

    I think it is also useful to think in terms of patterns – patterns of behaviour, growth, cycles, and so. Again this requires us to be comfortable with ambiguity – which for me is one of the main messages I got from the conference.

    However patterns are also just one more way of making meaning or understanding a complex system – there are others, such as story telling, music, dance; ways that engage other ways of thinking and knowing that are not just intellectual.

    The wider our definition of thinking/perceiving is,the better able we are to engage with and understand a complex system, I believe.

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