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Posts Tagged ‘complexity’

Growing complex

April 23rd, 2012

I am on the long flight home from a series of workshops and classes in Boston: at Harvard, at Children’s Hospital, with world-class coaches and consultants. In each of these places, the idea of complexity looms large—not just because I bring it along, but because it’s already there.

I ask my participants about the increasing complexity in their lives and give them time to think about it. They erupt in a storm of talking. Their lives are more complex on every dimension: there are more uncertainties to watch, there are more interconnections among the parts, there are more players in each of the realms, some in person, and some virtually. Everyone has a story of the way their work is increasingly international, from the 20 countries represented in my class at the Kennedy School to the students who have never left the US but are connected to people around the world. The swirling together of uncertainty, diversity, and change leave these people–graduate students, doctors, teachers, and leaders at the top of their careers—all a little dizzy and confused.

While there are no key competencies easily named in these many places, these folks are thinking hard about participating and contributing in a more complex and global reality.

How is it, though, that we can grow better able to deal with complexity? And, if this increasing complexity is puzzling and unsettling these adult learners, what might it be doing for the students in classrooms around our country?  Might it be that woven through each individual challenge (whether it’s finding the problem as Sue writes about or inviting a friend over after school) is a growing demand for our participation and contribution in a more complex world? And would we adults—who are dizzied by the complexity around us—be able to help prepare young people for this uncertain future?

My daughter came home from her year 10 class with a furrow in her brow a few weeks ago. “My teacher told me today that we are preparing for careers that don’t even exist yet!” she told me, frustrated. “How on earth are we supposed to plan for that?”

How indeed. It may well be that helping all of us develop a greater facility for complexity and uncertainty is a core piece of 21st Century education. As you think about your experience as a growing and changing adult, what has helped you get better at that?

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Dealing with complexity

April 3rd, 2012

Dr. Jennifer Garvey Berger talks about how we might develop our capabilities to work with complexity, and  what to expect from her session at the 2012 Shifting Thinking Workshop.

You might also like to check out Jennifer’s recent book Changing on the job: Developing leaders for a complex world

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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.

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The Hidden Connections (Capra)

July 3rd, 2009
Leaf of surprise (c) Rachel Bolstad, 2006

Leaf of surprise (c) Rachel Bolstad, 2006

When you read a book by Fritjof Capra, you’re getting value for money. Though Capra is a physicist by training, his interests and knowledge span an enormous range of disciplines, and he is enviably well-connected; his friends and colleagues include leading thinkers from many fields, and his books draw together threads from fields as diverse as biochemistry, management theory, economics, cognitive science, feminism, design, and agroecology.

I just said he “draws together threads from areas as diverse as”… but as the title of his book The Hidden Connections (2002, Doubleday) suggests, perhaps our big mistake as a species is in continuing to think that these areas are all diverse, different, and disconnected, rather than recognising the persistent patterns, relationships, and connections between them. The aim of this book is (p. 216): “to develop a conceptual framework that integrates the biological, cognitive, and social dimensions of life; a framework that enables us to adopt a systemic approach to some of the critical issues of our time”. (These critical issues are, of course, all grounded in issues of sustainability).

For the purpose of this blogthread, I was interested in how Capra’s book could help develop my thinking about what it means to be a “self-generating network for knowledge building, learning, and change” (as part of our future focussed issues project).

In the first few chapters, Capra begins to develop a systems-level way of describing “life”. Since I majored in biological science, I was immediately hooked in by the way he begins by looking at contemporary theories about how life got started. How on Earth did something as complex as a cell come into being? You’ll have to read for yourself to find out, but a key idea from this section is that, with the emergence of metabolism comes the ability of a cell (which is in fact a tiny network) to become self-generating, or “autopoeitic” (from autopoeisis –self-making1). That’s because (pp.9-10) “the function of each component in this network is to transform or replace other components, so that the entire network continually generates itself….[the living network undergoes] continual structural changes while preserving their weblike patterns of organisation.” Cells are also “open systems” materially and energetically. While the cell continually replaces, fixes, changes, and regenerates itself, stuff has to come into the system (food), and stuff has to go out (waste). This leads Capra to discuss the theory of “dissipative structures2” – defined as “an open system that maintains itself in a state far from equilibrium, yet is nevertheless stable: the same overall structure is maintained in spite of an ongoing flow and change of components”.

(p.13) The dynamics of these dissipative structures specifically include the spontaneous emergence of new forms of order. When the flow of energy increases, the system may encounter a point of instability, known as a “bifurcation point”, at which it can branch off into an entirely new state where new structures and new forms of order may emerge.

In short, what we are talking about here is emergence, “the creation of novelty that is often qualitatively different from the phenomena out of which it emerged” (p.117)
I’m now going to skip ahead past the section of the book where Capra applies these ideas to understanding the nature of mind, consciousness, and learning. (Though these are actually some of my favourite chapters). Where I wanted to get to in this posting was Capra’s ideas about how these concepts and ways of thinking apply to social reality – and in particular, to social networks and human organisations. In chapter 3 he talks about the role of communication as an essential part of the metabolism of social networks:

(p.83) These networks of communication are self-generating. Each communication creates thoughts and meaning, which give rise to further communications, and thus the entire network generates itself – it is autopoeitic. As communications recur in multiple feedback loops, they produce a shared system of beliefs, explanations, and values – a common context of meaning – that is continually sustained by further communications. Through this shared context of meaning individuals acquire identities as members of the social network, and in this way the network generates its own boundary. It is not a physical boundary but a boundary of expectations, of confidentiality and loyalty, which is continually maintained and renegotiated by the network itself”

I’ll skip ahead again and bypass the chapters where he discusses how social networks, through communication, create culture and a “shared body of knowledge – including information, ideas, and skills – that shapes the culture’s distinctive way of life in addition to its values and beliefs”. (p. 87), and how knowledge can’t be treated as an entity independent of people and their social context…. (Though again, these are fascinating chapters). I want to get back to this idea of emergence.

In chapter 4 he talks about how emergence happens in human organisations. He argues that emergence often occurs at “critical points of instability that arise from fluctuations in the environment, amplified by feedback loops”.

(p.117) “In a human organization, the event triggering the process of emergence may be an offhand comment, which may not even seem important to the person who made it but is meaningful to some people in a community of practice. Because it is meaningful to them, they choose to be disturbed and circulate the information rapidly through the organization’s networks. As it circulates through various feedback loops, the information may get amplified and expanded, even to such an extent that the organization can no longer absorb it in its present state. When that happens, a point of instability has been reached. The system….is forced to abandon some of its structures, behaviours, or beliefs. The result is a state of chaos, confusion, uncertainty and doubt; and out of that chaotic state a new form of order, organized around new meaning, emerges. The new order was not desgned by any individual but emerged as a result of the organization’s collective creativity.”

The quote above inspires me as I think about the shift to 21st century thinking about learning and education. I think about Jennifer’s posting . I think right now we are in the state of chaos, confusion, uncertainty and doubt. But I’m looking forward to the bit where a new form of order emerges from our collective creativity!

There’s a lot more in this book which I won’t discuss here – maybe in a future posting – but suffice to say that it’s given me a whole new bunch of new concepts to think with, regarding “self-generating networks for knowledge building, learning, and change”. I wonder what you make of it?

Capra, Fritjof (2002) The Hidden Connections: Integrating the biological, cognitive and social dimensions of life into a science of sustainability. New York: Doubleday.

1 Capra credits the term “autopoesis” to biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (p.10)
2 Ilya Prigogone and his collaborators developed the theory of dissipative structures (p.13)

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