Complexity Theory Essay

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Complexity theory, along with fractal geometry and chaos theory, is one of the “new sciences” that came to prominence in the latter part of the twentieth century. These three fields contribute to a new awareness that nature in its organization is complex, fractaled, and turbulent. This is quite different from the past (modernist) view that nature is simple, linear, and stable in form and organization. The new theory and its application to education are described in this entry.

Order Out Of Disorder

Isaac Newton, in the seventeenth century, believed nature to be “pleased with simplicity” and “conformable to herself.” Charles Darwin brought forward a different view, one wherein nature is capricious or random in its development. “Chance caught on a wing” is the way one scientist has phrased evolutionary development. In their study of nature, contemporary scientists, using the mathematical tools of nonlinear dynamics and the power of supercomputers, posit that nature is in form self-organizing and that the disorder observed in the cosmos, universe, and world is really an “orderly disorder.” Models of this “stable” disorder are found in avalanches, economic systems, evolutionary development, galactic births and deaths, human bodily and social systems, and population dynamics––to name but a few. What looks and appears disorderly is really a new type of order, an order emerging from (and even embedded within) disorder.

The implications of this for education are immense and radical. Up to the present day, education, in its forms of curriculum design and instructional strategies, has been premised on a simple design, directly transferable. To think of learning, not as a passive, receivable act––with the mind a tabula rasa imprinted by teaching––but as an interactive, dynamic, and self-organizing process challenges past (and even present) methods of syllabi design, lesson plans, and instructional strategies.

Self-Organization And Emergence

Self-organization, whether in computer simulations, in ecological, environmental, information-processing models, or in social interactions is the defining characteristic of all complexity research and study. Whereas imposed organization––be it institutional (including education), political, or religious/philosophical (God as progenitor of the West’s Great Chain of Being)––is always top-down, self-organization emerges from an interactive base of particulars. Life itself at the cellular, species/human, and social levels is an example of such a self-organizing system. As particulars or events interact, they do (under certain conditions) form a system: an interactive, dynamic, creating system. Complex networks arise from simpler networks, as in evolutionary theory; or conversely, simple, unifying networks emerge from complex interactions, as in galactic order, human bodily systems, or population dynamics.

Self-organization refers not to an individual self-becoming consciously organized but rather to a dynamical system––sometimes large, sometimes small–– organizing (even transforming) itself in particular phases of its development. Such a system, often labeled antichaotic, existent in all natural sciences but most prominent in the biological/living sciences, maintains its stability even as the interactions within itself and between itself and its environment proliferate.

Complex adaptive systems is another phrase used here, to indicate the system’s overall ability to maintain order as events or particulars within the system experience change. Bodily immune systems or neurological systems are examples of this––as cells both die and regenerate, the system maintains its overall harmonious functioning. At a critical point, though––far from equilibrium or the system’s center, out near “the edge of chaos”––a small perturbation or occurrence leads to a major, transformative change. In this view, chaos is embedded within complexity.

Evolution here is not simply the result of random or chance occurrences but is rather a natural, interactional, complex process. Organization emerges, freely and spontaneously––“order for free”––from what seems to be chaos. For those complexity theorists studying evolutionary development, “natural selection” is not the one and only way species evolve. Rather, development is stochastic, combining elements of randomization with those of natural emergence. Such emergence (arising more from than toward) is sporadic, spontaneous, and unpredictable (although deterministic, at least in a probabilistic sense).

Implications For Teaching

The educational implications of this emergent or self-organizing process are numerous and radical; most significant is the recognition of order emerging from interactions––it need not be imposed. In fact, imposition may well be a hindrance to development. If development is indeed a stochastic process––interactions among elements or events themselves interacting with random external events––then the educational design of curricula, teaching strategies, syllabi, or lesson plans needs to be rethought.

At the very least, flexibility needs to be built into the structure of curricular design and teaching strategies. Even better would be syllabi or lesson plans that emerge, a real challenge to any educator. “Teachable moments” would now be not a surprise but expected. Here, the abilities a teacher needs to possess go beyond the skills and methods usually offered in teacher preparation or school mentoring courses and situations. Further, to guide a situation toward a far-from-equilibrium situation––away from stability, toward “the edge of chaos,” without going over that edge into an abyss–– requires a sense of feeling for the situation not present in current teacher-centered (or even student-centered) designs. Situations become their own managers and guides, with teachers (and students) playing important but nondominating roles. Ambiguity, uncertainty, imbalance, chance, probability all take on importance as issues, not to avoid, but to utilize.

All the foregoing represent a major shift in curricular design, instructional strategies, and teacher-preparation courses and experiences. This shift is away from preset goals, experiences prechosen to mirror those goals, experiences organized to achieve the preset goals, and assessment as to how the preset goals have or have not been achieved. The shift is toward a curriculum rich in problematics, recursive in its (nonlinear) organization, relational in its structure, and rigorous in its application.


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