Complexity Theory & Education – Part II

I could continue the post on Complexity Theory’s liminal spaces by writing about it. But I stumbled on Sugata Mitra’s Ted Talk and this seventeen minute presentation demonstrates what  liminal space is better than I can possibly write about it.

As I do not pay for my space here in Edublogs I cannot put the video directly into this blog post –  I can only provide the link:  Sugata Mitra – child driven education.

Sugata Mitra states, at one point in the talk, that he feels that what happened in this education experiment, if you will, was caused by the talk between the children. That is what complexity theory terms neighbourhood interactions, the discussion that takes place between students and between students and teachers. In this case it was between students only. The result is phenomenal.

In our technology classes we have one class of lower intermediate students that have very weak technology skills. Our current project is creating a music video based on one of four themes. The majority of students in this class were totally unable to do this project and, in typical lower intermediate fashion, followed me around like a gaggle of ducklings. My frustration with the class and the technology problems grew to colossal proportions so my teaching partner and I stopped the project and reverted back to typing practice and very basic technology problem-solving.  My teaching partner had the students figure out how to save a Word document, yes, save a Word document, without asking for our assistance. The result was incredible to watch. Suddenly instead of surrounding and following me like ducklings, helpless and lost, they teamed up and helped each other and only 3 needed my assistance. Neighbourhood interactions and child-driven learning. Amazing.  I whole-heartedly thank my teaching partner for doing this, (which I should have figured out on my own), because I was too frustrated to think my teaching problem through  just like these students were too frustrated to think their problems through. We are now all happy and not frustrated! Well, for the moment at least. We are working on a short digital story. Let’s see what happens after the writing (by pen) is over and the technology comes into play!

Complexity Theory and Education

Have you ever had that teaching moment when you realize something incredible just happened in your classroom and you have no idea what you did to make it happen? A student created and led moment where you just sat back and gently guided the conversation. I have had these experiences in my classes and have wondered for years, “What just happened?” These are those teaching moments that make you know exactly why you chose this profession. But the question that still haunted me was, how – how did this moment happen? I have finally discovered an answer, or at least an answer that works for me.

Complexity theory originates in the domain of science, hard science. It is known in quantum physics, something I know little to nothing about. Stephen Hawking has been quoted as saying, “I think the next century will be the century of complexity”. He is referring to the emerging and transdisciplinary domain of complexity thinking. Transdisciplinary is referring to the idea that when researchers come together they bring with them widely ranging disciplinary backgrounds but are able to be sufficiently informed about each others perspectives and motivations so they can work collaboratively together.  Sound complex? Let’s make it “…as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Albert Einstein.

OK, so I just said that this theory originates in hard science. That was due to a ‘rub’ felt between hard science and analytical science. Analytical science attempted to reduce the universe down to parts, labelled , categorized and neatly compartmentalized creating a knowable, finite universe; like the biological order

all nicely organized and neatly categorized. The universe was now assumed to be finite and fixed. But there are always those folks who have to poke and push at things and just will not leave well enough alone. Well the evidence mounted and the ‘rub’ was felt by those pokey folks who just felt things were not so finite and fixed. Scientists began to realize that there were a range of complex forms and phenomena that were:

  1. self-organizing
  2. adaptive
  3. emergent

An yes, as you have noticed these phenomena are labelled, categorized, but they are not fixed. They are interconnected with each other to form a dynamic system and this is the idea that has been borrowed by some in the domain of education to use in understanding learning.

Consider: The transmission position, blank slate theory of education, with chalk-and-talk instruction, our traditional form of education, is based in empirical or analytical science – breaking the universe into parts for the purpose of studying or understanding. Looking at a typical school day, it is broken into parts designated by time (blocks or periods) into which a subject is inserted: mathematics, humanities, languages, science, electives. Each of these subjects is broken down again: humanities into English and History.Each of these is broken down yet again, history of WWII, European history, Comparative Civilizations….English Composition, English Literature….all taught separately.  Even the sciences are broken down by type: biology, chemistry, bio-chemistry, cellular biology and taught separately. What a nice taxonomy education has created.

Look at our classrooms. In a traditional transmission-based classroom the desks are in rows, the students are seen as individual entitites separate from each other, designated and classified by their performance which is determined by standardized testing and compartmentalized assessment. This theory or educational philosophy is very ingrained in our educational system. But what if we look at the classroom with a very different set of lenses. What will we see?

Complexity theory, as far as education goes, states that all the components in a classroom such as: teacher, students, environment, context, framework of curriculum, engagement and the interpersonal relationships create a complex system. A complex system can include any phenomena that could be described as a system that is self-organizing. The two key components that identify a complex system are adaptive and emergent. Adaptive means that the system can change, adapt its own structure. Emergent means it is made of the combined interactions of its individual agents. So a complex system “…is not just the sum of its parts, but the product of the parts and their interactions” (Davis & Summit, 2003, 138). I believe a classroom is an adaptive and self-organizing complex system; a learner. As teachers we see this adaptive, self-organizing behavior when we have a new student enter our classroom and suddenly the ‘apple cart is tipped’, the classroom dynamics are altered. The new student creates a ‘butterfly effect’. This phenomenon is what gives classrooms their unique ‘personalities’. (I just love Pixar!)

OK, OK, so how did ‘that’ moment happen already?! Well if the two key components are adaptive and emergent that moment happens in those ‘perfect’ spaces when the system combines the interactions of teacher, students, environment, context, curriculum framework, engagement and interpersonal relationships to create a ‘space’ or ‘liminal moment’ (remember the system is adaptive!) where incredible learning takes place. I know, I’ve given you a very large jump – it’s called level jumping. If I still have, and I hope I have, your interest, I’ll explain the ‘liminal moment’ in the next blog post. This theory is too complex, yes all pun intended, to fit into one blog post. This post is plenty long enough.

Any questions so far?

You may wish to check out the Complexity and Education site from the University of Albert here and Complexity as a theory of education pdf by Brent Davis and Denis Sumara here.

Works Cited

Davis, B. & Simmt, E. 2003. Understanding learning systems: Mathematics education and complexity science. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education. 34(2), 137-167.

Hawking in Davis & Sumara, 2006. Complexity and education.

Davis, B. & Sumara, D. 2006. Complexity and education.

Fels, L. & Belliveau, G. 2008. Exploring curriculum: Performative inquiry, role drama and learning. First flight into performative inquiry.

Setting Due Dates – A Prep Teacher’s Nightmare

One of the things that drives me crazy about prep teaching, which is what I do now, is trying to get work in from a large number of intermediate students who procrastinate their time away and I spend waaaay too much of my time chasing them down for work. I have better things to do.

I stumbled across this article from the Harvard Business Review where a study was done showing the effectiveness of deadlines in business. Funny how things in business can apply in education – yeah, I’m not going there. So I’ve decided that this year in my library research classes I am going to give a series of short due dates for chunks of work rather than one final due date for the completed work. I’m hoping that combined with using inquiry-based projects integrated with technology,  my students will be more engaged and able to get things done without me chasing them down for work thus wasting my valuable time and, in effect, teaching them nothing about being responsible but a great deal about being enabled!

I’ll keep you posted on the success of this! 🙂


A Sense of Place

You only know where you are by knowing precisely where you have been and how you got to where you are” (Davis, 2009, 60).

This image comes from novelist Donigan Merritt’s blog where he writes, “A critic once wrote about my novels that in the aggregate they epitomize the notion that place (literally geographical) functions like a character in the story.” During my MEd journey, I discovered that a sense of place became a grounding ‘character’ in my professional life.

In my last post, I said that two other bloggers where also heading on to graduate school and would begin their own journeys. Interestingly enough, both have also left schools or jobs held for some time just as I did. I had no idea how strong a ‘sense of place’ would come to mean to me.

My former Catholic school was where I first held a job as a teacher-librarian. It honed my love of storytelling. This is the school where the rub between instruction, professional development and I began.

Indigenous people hold a strong attachment to place. Place defines who and what you are. I knew where I would be teaching. I stated it as a fact, ‘when I teach in the Catholic School System…” and not “if I teach in..” The Church and all its traditions was my place. The Catholic classroom with its traditions and rationalism was home, my educational anchor. But like any other place, time, like the constant lapping of the sea, began to erode my place and I began to feel the first twinges of discomfort, a mis-fit. I began to feel a stronger and stronger rub and friction with my place. I am a humanist and existentialist believing that my students have the right to learn in a manner that best fits their learning needs or style and that by doing so they will be able to take control of, and be responsible for, their own learning and life path. I believe my students are capable of controlling their own learning within their maturational limits. These beliefs did not situation themselves with the empirical rationalism of my place. It felt like I was in a box that was growing so small I could not breathe. I left to find a better place.

What I came to realize was that I started the MEd journey with no sense of place. I was attempting to leave from the unknown, head into the uncharted, and arrive at some unknown destination.

I sat in the pew next to my daughter and looked around at the familiar surroundings, saw familiar faces and heard the familiar hymns sung by people I have known for a long time. As the casket was slowly brought down the aisle I felt a deep sense of loss to this place, as well as a deep sense of comfort that this place surrounded me with and continued to surround me with. As the Mass progressed through its familiar liturgy I said to my daughter, “It’s like being back in school again, isn’t it.” She smiled and nodded. I had walked away three years ago, and yet I could feel the clipboard and papers in my hand,  feel the slight anxiety that hosting a Mass always brought on and the presence of T., leading us as he always did, with passion for Catholic Education, a wonderful sense of humour and a depth of faith that can only come from being an Irish Catholic. Only this time we were leading him to his final resting place (Journal, 2010).

Through this lived experience of a colleague and friend’s funeral Mass I came to understand that my former school is my educational place, my home. I have yet to speak of it in the past tense. It is always ‘we’ or ‘us’ as though I still was there. The students are ‘my’ students and the classroom is ‘my’ classroom. It is the place where I learned to be a teacher, as in a person who cared and was deeply concerned about her students; practiced the art of teaching in the transmission and transaction methods; and developed a passion for letting  my students show me what they knew that led me on a journey that required me to leave my place and discover a new one. But one never truly leaves their home, they take part of it with them where ever they go and it defines who they are. A part of me will always be a Catholic educator no matter how hard I attempt to distance myself from anything and everything Catholic it always manages to be a ‘character’ in my life.

Where is your’ sense of place’ as an educator?

An Incredible Journey

The Hokulea

I have just completed one of the most profound journeys of my life. I have completed my Master’s of Education: Educational Practice through (SFU) Simon Fraser University’s Field Studies program. There were a total of 17 teachers in this program and not one of us left profoundly unchanged by the experience. We were a group of teachers of widely ranging years of experience, coming from both elementary and high schools, ranging from elementary generalists, French Immersion teachers, and high school English, Math and Science teachers.  What we all discovered was ourselves and our passions in education.

I have read that both Dan Meyer and Errin are both embarking on this graduate journey. Errin, who I’ve met face-to-face, will be engaged in the same program I just finished. Her excitement makes me smile a large smile. I wish you, Errin, the most incredible journey.  You are about to meet an amazingly wonderful professor whom I rate as the one of the top post-secondary educators of my career to-date. I am expecting regular up-dates from you! I so wish I could be a fly on the wall on your first weekend classes and at your final comp exam presentation!

To Dan, who will be heading to Stanford, wow, I might add, the very best in your up-coming foray into the world of academia. In response to your concerns about: “(the) uncertainty that I’ll have any time or energy to write anything here during my doctoral studies, much less anything of any insight into the classrooms I’ve abandoned; concern that I’ve now become the sort of egghead I found it so easy to ignore when I was a teacher.  NOT a prayer that you will not have any insights into your former classroom or that you will become the ‘egghead’. I have quietly watched you transform from a beginning teacher more worried about math curriculum than his students, to understanding ‘caring’ to combining both math curriculum and caring about students in a manner that many of your significant number of followers only dream of. Parker Palmer states in his book (2007) The Courage to Teach, “(w)e teach who we are.” (p1) and you are not that which you are worried about. Keep blogging about what you discover in your studies for the crystallization of learning.  My prof kept encouraging me to keep up my blog through my studies and I deeply regret not listening to her.

So what in fact was this journey all about? Well, the Hokulea image is the metaphor I wove through my Master’s paper. It came from a Wade Davis lecture on the CBC’s Massey Lecture series where Davis discusses how the Hokulea has allowed the Polynesian people to reclaim their cultural heritage. I went on a journey to allow my students to claim their culture; their digital culture. I investigated how digital media affected student writing. My project, digital storytelling was, after 14 years of teaching, the most fun I’ve ever had as a teacher and the most nail-biting project I’ve ever done. I pushed the envelop pretty hard and my paper was called ‘provocative’. Hmm, fits me for those who know me.

The project was a qualitative arts-based teacher inquiry. I chose to write my paper in a narrative format as  ‘story’ plays a strong role in both my personal life and my professional life. I shared the lived experience of the project in a rather ethnographic manner.  Even though an arts-based qualitative study may have some inclined to think that it would lack academic rigor, it did not. The project had to conform to all the academic rigor involved in a more quantitative study as well as to the standards of SFU. Ethical issues were addressed both through the University and through our local School District as the projects involved students that we were actively teaching.

A theoretical stance and initial proposal were submitted to the University.  Distant mentors were found. Data collection involved the collection of student story maps, scripts, final digital story presentations, (parental permission being obtained) field journals and personal journals. The journey began.

Distant Teachers – Who Are Yours?

While doing course reading about Literature Reviews an interesting assignment came up. The assignment was to envision a dinner party for twelve people, living or dead, who you would like to invite to discuss your inquiry research question with.  This turned out to be quite the fascinating little adventure.  For the purpose of the blog post, let’s just change it a little.

Envision a dinner party for twelve, living or dead, who you would like to invite to discuss education today with. Any aspect of education that “rubs” you, causes some angst, creates great passion.

My twelve guests:

1. John Dewey – to discuss the direction or re-direction education might/should head in in the 21 Century.

2. Sonia Livingstone – to discuss the use of technology in school and the effect of technology on children in general.

3. Jason Ohler – to discuss the use/power of digital storytelling in Language Arts programs.

4. Albert Einstein -to discuss what he thinks of education today and would it have been of benefit to him and why.

5. Parker Palmer – to discuss the ‘inner landscape of a teacher’ and its importance to teachers.

6. Lev Vygotski – to discuss how he would create curriculum with technology integration.

7. Jacque Rousseau – to discuss what his thoughts are on education in the 21st Century. What might he change and why?

8. Lucy McCormick Calkins – to discuss writing with children and any thoughts on technology integration in this process

9. Kieran Egan – to discuss imagination, play and creativity in education as well as changes in education and the educational theories that apparently do not mesh

10. Will Richardson – to discuss the uses to technology tools to enhance education

11. Stephen D. Brookfield – to discuss being a critically reflective teacher and its implications on teaching and teachers.

12. Thomas L.Friedman – to discuss the implications of technology on the future.

What an interesting evening of conversation, discussion, argument(?) this would be!

Who would your twelve dinner quests be and why would you invite them?

A Journey, An Awakening

reflections on the sea - Dan Werner

reflections on the sea - Dan Werner

After a great deal of procrastination, thought and pushing from my family, I decided to enroll in an MEd program. It has been a life-changing decision.  I have embarked on a most incredible journey and professional awakening. Between the classes, colleagues and readings there has been deep reflective learning.

I have discovered from Miller & Sellar’s¹ three traditions of education, transmission, transaction and transformation, I stand in all three, but my teacher’s inner-self situates in transformation. From Eisner’s² 5 traditions, I situate myself in “social adaption/reformation”. I look at my teaching practices through much different lens now. I realize where my former frustrations were coming from. I was trapped, through my own “unknowing”, in a tradition I needed to move out of. I needed to put my learners in the centre of my practice. I moved to standing with my students, but I was still frustrated. I was still standing in their way. Their voice was mingled with mine. I wanted to hear just them.

This class has become a journey of awakening as I am moving through the process of creating a qualitative research thesis. I know now that I come to my question of how computer technology enables learning through multiple intelligences from a passion. A passion to ensure my students are able to “show what they know” through their own unique voice, in whatever form that voice chooses to take. It also comes from a passionate belief that computer technology offers some, maybe those most at-risk of being marginalized by the “institution” of school, to find that voice and shout.

In an article by Denzin & Lincoln³ they talk about an image to describe a qualitative researcher; a bricoleur and Quilt Maker, a person who organizes images into montages. A quilt-maker. How interesting as my mother is an amazing fabric artist whose quilts take your breath away. I am the high school drama fanatic who was always more comfortable behind the script, not in front of it, moving the images to create a story. The university History nut who looked at  history through story. The reader who’s father said she read by weight not by volumes. The observer of people who wants to know their stories and for some reason they always tell them to me. Thank you to Kathy, who reminded me: I am a storyteller.  I situate myself as a researcher in story and I cannot wait to see the “images” of my students and hear their “stories” as this research unfolds.

¹Miller, J. & Seller, W. (1990) Curriculum: Perspectives and Practices

²Eisner, Elliot. (1985). The Educational Imagination.

³Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research. 3rd ed., pg 4.

A Year of Teaching with Technology in Review

Reflection always seems to come the strongest for me at the end of a school year. I guess it is the big picture learner in me.  Reflecting back over the past year with all its struggles I discovered there actually were successes. I have gone from walking into the computer lab with my heart in my throat and unable to deal with the myriad of tech problems or knowing how to teach with technology to finding a new search engine and creating a lesson with it on the fly using  a mobile lab with over half the laptops not working. I am deeply shocked at my own learning curve.

I began my year with absolutely no experience teaching using any form of technology. I had never used networked computers on an “intranet”. I had no idea how to fix the simplest of problems.  I had no idea how to “teach” my students. The instruction methodology I had used in the classroom was not working in the lab.  So how does a linear teacher teach using a nonlinear tool? I managed to find a way that works for me.

The biggest learning this year:

  • realizing the power of a good PLN – Twitter included
  • using technology as a tool
  • finding my instructional stride & understanding it still has to fit me when using technology
  • keeping my technological learning transparent and letting the students teach me and learn with me
  • taking risks as a teacher and seeing my students take risks with me – this one was the best one

All this new learning also created some questions:

  • How important is the process when teaching new technology to students?
  • How big is the risk to student safety when using certain Web 2.0 tools – in terms of giving of private information for accounts and where is the information stored and who has access to it?
  • How big of a risk will I take in allowing under 13 yr old students to use various Web 2.0 tools?
  • How to I ensure I am using the technology as a tool to drive good curriculum and not just use the technology for its own sake?
  • How do I assess the learning and by what criteria?
  • Does using Web 2.0 tools to enhance the curriculum increase student learning?

It seems my learning has created more questions than it has answered. I would hope that is the sign of an effective teacher.

So the stack of professional reading grows higher for the summer as the need to revamp my prep classes and manner in which I teach grows stronger.

What was your biggest learning this school year?

What are you reflecting on?

Anything good to read this summer?