Complexity and Education – Discerning Ways Forward

Lonsdale Room, Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution

Monday 11th July, 10.30am-4.00pm 

Complexity theory has been applied to educational policy, practice and research for more than two decades, yet remains a marginal discourse in education. In this interactive highly stimulating workshop we discussed the potential of complexity theory in education, but also what need to be developed in order to realise this potential.

Three key areas emerged as areas emerged from the discussion:

Complexity as a critical frame

The potential to stand against simplistic narratives of linear causality and control is already recognised within the field, yet a complexity view is still marginal.  We discussed some of the barriers to this, politically and practically: schooling as a sifting system, resistance to difficult messages, the faith in (simplistic) measures, the difficulties of changing the way people make sense of the world.  However, we started to see ways forward, such as engaging with people’s dissatisfaction in existing descriptions/systems.  This needs to come through clear analysis of the complexity of specific systems.

The need/potential of complexity to further philosophical positions

It was interesting that most of the group had already begun to link complexity to other philosophical frames, mostly notably forms of pragmatism and materialism.  Complexity developed within the sciences but has gone on to undermine its own theoretical foundations and this may be a reason for these links being made.  We had a great discussion about the finer points of (Dewey’s ‘transactional’) pragmatism vs forms of ‘new materialism’ (Deleuze, Barad).  However, what these positions share is a rejection of dualist (or dialectic) positions which see mind as somehow separate from that material world.  Furthermore, they reject simple representation, which would have it that our ideas/descriptions/models are related to what they model in a simple way.  This would seem to allow the mounting of a rebuttal of constructivism as a dominant discourse in education and possible lead to new frames of reference.

What was also evident was that the group felt that complexity begs serious questions around ethics.  If the world is fundamentally unpredictable (and emergent) then how do you act ethically?  We discussed the ethics of research (particularly modelling), the unsuitability of normative ethical theory, possibilities of considering your instruments, of immanent ethics, of virtues as habituation and of ethics in using the past as a guide.  Clearly more work is needed but we also recognised that having a language of complexity would at least oppose reductive ethics.

Practical approaches and implications of complexity

Everyone was keen to see complexity approaches have useful, practical applications and we discussed some possibilities here (although time was short).  We considered:

  • An alternative model for schools as complex organisations
  • Complexity as a frame for curriculum development: more responsive feedback-development processes; more appropriate metrics.
  • Complexity can be very useful to teachers in recognising structure vs freedom and we discussed examples of how this is being included in teacher education
  • Complexity being used to redefine pedagogy as interacting systems
  • Considering how teachers make sense of complex systems: through heuristics and schema (which can be analysed using concept maps)
  • How research can be re-framed, both in redefining action research, case study and other approaches, but also in terms of reconsidering ‘boundaries’ or ‘levels of analysis’

The group intend to meet again in September 2016, and to develop projects in collaboration.