Complexity Oriented Learning, A Promise?

Our world is full of complex causalities. Understanding complex causal systems is fundamental to navigating the contemporary world. Awakening learners to these more complex patterns is half the battle. The other half concerns how easily we can overlook what’s going on.

for students

How might education help students grasp the complexity of the systems surrounding us? How can education better equip them to recognise and respond in appropriate ways to complexity? Deeply interconnected systems are everywhere and at all levels of scale. One thing these very complex systems have in common is that they behave in ways that surprise. Their interconnected nature leads to emergent behaviour that is not obviously triggered by a single cause. This means that systems can trip into transitions and that they can react disproportionately small triggers.
If we want our students to understand how complex systems work and develop the habits of systems thinkers, we need to change some key ways in which we introduce them to new knowledge.


Most of our teaching approaches try to reduce complex systems into their parts so they are easier to understand. Then we tend to look for linear cause-and-effect relationships between these separate parts. Doing this is a problem because it ignores the essence of the dynamic whole that makes the system what it is. We need to find new ways to keep the wholeness, while still making the parts accessible. Traditionally we have also looked for students to demonstrate their understanding by giving us ‘right’ answers to every question. This is another practice we need to adapt as we help students build new habits of mind. They need lots of practice in the more contingent (‘it depends’) thinking that an understanding of complexity demands.
The field has developed a shared language for talking about complexity concepts and there is general agreement about the key characteristics of complex systems. Complexity science is increasingly developing tools relevant across disciplines that deal with complexity as it is. Our challenge is to find ways to equip our students with these tools, and this theory, so they can come to grips with complexity. Some teachers are already exploring these ideas with their students and some would like to start.

complexity oriented edu.jpg

key ideas

Implications of the growing importance of complexity approaches is that we need to add knowledge of complexity to the curriculum. There is new ‘content’ or understanding to address. Complexity takes a biological systems view of the world. There is an emphasis on interconnections between the various system components. The following concepts are central to knowledge of the characteristics of complex systems and how they behave:

⁃ the whole is more than the sum of its parts;

⁃ the greater the diversity of the different parts in a system, the more resilient it is likely to be;

⁃ systems evolve dynamically over time, self-organise and their global properties are said to be emergent;

⁃ change is non-linear and properties are emergent, so small consequences can have large effects that might not have been anticipated or predicted;

⁃ there are constant interactions between any system and its surrounding environment so the boundaries of a system are typically ‘fuzzy’ – it is said to be open.

What can you do? Some habits of a system thinker:

⁃ seek to understand the big picture;

⁃ identify the circular nature of complex cause and effect relationships;

⁃ surface and test assumptions;

⁃ observe how elements within systems change over time, generating patterns and trends;

⁃ change perspectives to increase understanding;

⁃ consider an issue fully and resists the urge to come to a quick conclusion.

now what?

The dominant stance of science in education is reductionist. Breaking things into their parts to make the ideas more accessible has been a major ingredient of effective learning strategies. In effect, without it ever being a learning goal, students have been taught reductionism as a core methodology for tackling problems.
The design of curricula has also been reductionist. Breaking knowledge up into subject silos that remain unconnected from each other. With the emergence of complexity science these familiar education practices are being re-evaluated. We emphasize that complexity science does not reject a reductionist approach. The aim is simply to acquire the skill to decide when a reductionist approach is fit for purpose. But when it is not what are the tools for those kinds of problems? What we know for sure is that some things are knowable, but others are irreducibly uncertain. Embracing uncertainty and dealing with ambiguity are becoming essential skills. Complexity science does not offer solutions to every difficult problem. But there is continuous progress and more importantly there is every indication that it will feature prominently during the adult lives of students who are in school today. So, when will you start acting on complexity oriented learning?


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