Complexity and Education Day Conference

The IOP Nonlinear and Complex Physics Group and the British Educational Research Association (BERA) Philosophy of Education Special Interest Group co-hosted a one day conference on complexity and education.  It took place on Wednesday 26th July 2017, in Room 828, UCL Institute of Education, Bedford Way, London, WC1H 0AL

Further details can be found here:

The event attracted more than 40 people from across disciplines and from across Europe, and a broad range of issues was discussed, in education and beyond.

The submitted papers can be found here. Please note that speakers went beyond these papers in the seminar however.


Anyone familiar with education knows that it is a complex undertaking, involving the interaction of myriad influences and concerns. Over the last few decades however, the term ‘complex’ has taken on new meaning in both the natural and social sciences, denoting how the interplay of dynamic elements results in the emergence of patterns and meanings that cannot be predicted by considering those elements in isolation.

In education, complexity theory offers an alternative to the simple causality and reductive accounts of change which dominate contemporary policy and practice. This day conference explored how complexity problematises what it means ‘to educate’, and how it has drawn upon philosophical discourses which promote imminent, embodied and situational views of education.The day was structured around four papers with significant time given over to extended discussion of these ideas. The first paper introduced complexity theory in education and was followed by three papers which considered curriculum, learning and assessment through this lens. These papers considered education from early years to adulthood.The event was followed by a wine reception and networking event, in order to forge greater links between those interested in this area.
13.00 Welcome and introductions, refreshments
13.20 Paper 1: An Introduction – The Case for Complexity in
, followed by 10 mins initial questions
14.00 Paper 2: Curriculum and Complexity: A Different
Imaginary, followed by 10 mins initial questions
14.40 Refreshments
15.10 Paper 3: Complexity and the Characterisation of Learning Complexity and the Characterisation of Learning,
followed by 10 mins initial questions
15.50 Paper 4: Assessment Policy, ‘ Readiness for School ’ and a
Complexity View of Time, followed by initial questions
16.30 Chaired questions and discussion
17.55 Completion of evaluation forms
18.00 Wine reception and networking event
20.00 Close of event

Further reading

A number of delegates have asked about further reading in complexity in education, and in the social sciences more broadly.  Some good starting places might be:

Complexity in Education

Bates, A. (2015) Transforming Education: Meanings, myths and complexity.Routledge. – Angnieszka gave paper 4 at the event, and this book is an excellent study of leadership and school transformation through the lens of complex responsive processes.

Davis, B. & Sumara, D. (2006) Complexity and Education into Learning Teaching and Research. Routledge. – Davis & Sumara are key figures in the consideration of complexity in education in Canada and the USA.

Hardman, M. A. (2015) Complexity and Classroom Learning. PhD Thesis: Canterbury Christ Church University. – might I humbly suggest that the early parts of my thesis provide an overview of different approaches and philosophies of complexity in education.  Available here.

Complexity in the Social Sciences

Boulton, J. G.; Allen, P. M. & Bowman, C. (2015) Embracing Complexity – Strategic Perspectives for an Age of Turbulence.  Oxford University Press. – Jean gave the opening paper at the event, and is a committee member of the IOP group.  The book and her blog provide an ideal introduction to the power of complexity as an ontology of social systems.

Cilliers, P. (1998) Complexity and postmodernism: understanding complex systems. London: Routledge. (available as a pdf here) – Paul was a key figure in bringing together complexity and insights from social discourses.

Byrne, D. & Callaghan, G. (2014) Complexity Theory and The Social Sciences – The State of the Art. Oxon: Routledge. – David Byrne is instrumental in developing the realist foundation of complexity.

Stacey, R. (2003) Complexity and Group Processes. Hove: Brunner-Routledge. – Ralph Stacey is a leading figure in the consideration of complexity in organisations.

[I would propose that there are subtle differences in the way that Cilliers, Byrne and Stacey have interpreted complexity in social systems, and these different strands are reflected in contemporary research].

The E: Co Journal is an open access journal which hosts a wide ranging discussion about the applications of complexity theory to organisations: