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.


2 thoughts on “Complexity Theory and Education

  1. Wow! Are you sure you finished that MEd?! I think you’re still in graduate coursework mindset! I love the connection between complexity theory and the classroom. I often wonder how anyone can learn anything close to the same thing when you consider how complex every student, every teacher, every subject, every school, every community, is. So many variables to account for! I enjoyed reading this and look forward to the next post!

  2. Hi Errin!
    I have a deep, passionate interest in complexity theory and education. I hate to tell you, but the graduate mindset sticks around after the paper is done and the degree hangs on the brag wall. Next post is half finished!

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