Complex Systems Pedagogy & the school library

(3500 words)

How can a complex systems pedagogy enhance student learning?

How is a complex systems pedagogy relevant to the classroom and school library?

This article will explore the theoretical ideas that underpin an understanding of complex systems.

We will inquire into the relevance of an understanding of complex systems in education.

We will apply these new understandings to examine the impact of a complex systems on the library, teaching and learning.

I owe a great debt to the book edited by Mason, Mark, “Complexity Theory and the Philosophy of Education”. While I have explored complex systems in many fields over the years this book was a great help in applying these concepts in the education setting. I have included further reading at the end of this post.


I am going to begin with a sceptical note. Complex systems theory has experienced an increasingly rapid rise in popularity in the social sciences and by extension is also gaining significant traction in education. In the milieu of fads and trends in education there are a plethora of claims made for the effectiveness of a particular approach that can yield the learning outcomes we are all in education to achieve. I am always cautious of a new programme packaged by the large learning corporations or promoted by individuals whose income depends on the adoption of a particular approach so in presenting complex systems in education I ask that you employ the greatest level of critical analysis and sceptical inquiry. This presentation is designed to challenge assumptions, open our minds and give us a more holistic view of our classroom and library practices. The value I see in a complex systems approach is that implicit within the theoretical framework is an open and holistic view of students and the educational context we are part of creating for them. Any theoretical framework that seems to lead to an unbalanced focus on single elements or purports to be a panacea is highly suspect because education is not simple. There is an undeniable complexity to the task we have as educators. When you consider the diversity of students within a single class, the thought that a single approach will meet all their individual needs instantly appears ridiculous. Herein lies the strength of a complex systems approach because at it’s very core is the embracing of the complex, the dynamic, the unpredictable, the intangibles and the challenges of working with children who bring a vast array of prior experiences, expertise and characteristics that come together to make them a collection of unique individuals.

What is a complex system?

A complex system is defined by a number of structural elements that enable a set of key attributes. Due to the transdisciplinary nature of complex systems theory, a unifying definition is difficult to articulate however there are key features and behaviours of a dynamic system that can help us to understand this enigmatic field of study.

A complex system contains:

A large number of elements, parts, sub-systems or agents.

Interactions through connections between elements.

Examples of complex systems: Birds in a flock; Students in a classroom; The human brain; Corporations; School administration; Weather; Stock markets; Ecosystems.

These systems are distinct from complicated systems. For example, a car engine can be complicated but it is not a complex system because it operates in a mechanistic and linear fashion. It is important to distinguish between the terms complicated and complex systems. A task can be complicated but not a complex system. A complex system describes a collection of interconnected agents.

A student in a school qualifies as a complex system on a number of different levels.

The individual student represents one of the most complex systems imaginable. For example, it is estimated that the human cortex contains 100 billion neurons each with 1000 connections to other neurons. This equates to trillions of connections. If that is not complex enough, place that brain inside a body which is then placed within a social context of systems such as the family, friends and, of course, school.

The school contains many agents (students, teachers, administration, families and support staff) representing a complex array of interactions and connections.

How does a complex system behave?

How these agents behave in the interactive context is key to defining and understanding the complex system. The key features of a complex system include the following.

Self-organising: the agents in a system establish a structure that is a result of the interactions between the agents and the context in which that system is located. This is in contrast to the imposition of a predefined structure or design

Dynamic: the organisation of the system changes depending on initial conditions and in response to environmental conditions.

Adaptive: the system responds to changes  within the system or in the context.

Emergent: self organisation may lead new patterns to arise as a system responds to changes in the environment or interactions between agents. Order is not imposed on a system.

Feedback: as a system responds to changes in interactions or the environment, where information is fed back into a system causing further changes and adaptations. Negative feedback is inhibitory while positive feedback brings change, growth and development.

What does a complex system look like?

Unpredictable: organisation of a complex system is internally generated which is quite different from an overarching design or plan. Change can be spontaneous and the cause difficult to determine since changes in the underlying sub-systems may not be observable.

The behaviour of a complex system is greater than the sum of it’s parts:  This means that reducing a system to the constituent parts rarely provides insight into what the combination of those parts will look like. A complex system is therefore non-linear since the observed outcome is not in proportion to the input making the system difficult to predict.

Adaptive: a system can change and new patterns emerge depending on input from the environment or changes in the connections between agents.

Tipping points: change can occur within a system with no observable affect on the organisation of the system until a threshold is reached where a new pattern emerges spontaneously. Changes occurring in the interactions between agents is a feature of complex systems however these changes are often not visible until a critical point is reached triggering a new pattern to emerge and a change is observed. The key point to note here is that while some aspects of a system can be observed, it cannot be assumed that a change in an observable subsystem is the cause of a new emergent organisation because it is the combination of the agents and subsystems that makes a system adaptive not a single element.

The edge of chaos: Complex adaptive systems are open to change and this change occurs at the edge of instability. Picture a ball bearing resting in the base of a bowl compared to an ball on top of an upturned bowl where it may roll of in any direction at anytime.

What has complex systems theory got to do with education?

Firstly, learning is change and change is learning. If there is no change, there is no learning. Emergence of new organisational structure in a complex system that is the result of feedback, changes in the environment and evolution of the connections between agents represents learning in that system. Corporations that have responded positively to market pressures have in effect, learnt.

Secondly, it is undeniable that an individual student is an ultimate representation of a complex system nested within many other systems including the family, school and the systems of the wider community. A moment spent inside a classroom of 20 students will reveal the diversity between individuals, the innumerable connections and interactions each student engages in, the emergence of patterns of play, and the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) feedback systems as students respond to each other and their teacher. Teachers will attest to those moments of learning bliss when the class seems to hum with engagement however creating the context for this sweet-spot in the classroom to emerge seems to rest in the hands of some unseen conductor and is often elusive in moments when cohesion within the class seems difficult to attain.

It is for this very reason that considering the education through the lens of complex systems theory can bring new understandings and aid us in fostering an environment that provides the greatest opportunity for learning. One of the biggest challenges in education is being able to know what particular strategy or engagement is most relevant to the students, when is the best time to introduce a new strategy or learning context, how to introduce that new element and how to evaluate the effectiveness of that strategy. This is the intangible art of education, the mark of a teacher we have all observed who seems to be able to draw on an immeasurable pool of strategies and approaches to meet the learning needs of their students.

The true professional at work. A complex systems approach does not prescribe specific strategies but defines a disposition or stance that allows the students, as complex systems within a complex system of the school, the greatest opportunity to learn.

Applying a complex systems pedagogy.

Firstly, consider that learning is an emergent phenomenon. This means that we cannot enforce learning, learning in a highly controlled and contrived situation is still possible (since children are adaptable and resilient) however learning is limited. For example, demonstrating all the features of a new toy to an infant results in a limited range of play however modelling an inquisitive approach to a new toy results in a much more creative approach to that toy by the infant (reference needed). An over scripted learning engagement leads to limited learning outcomes with a limited ability for adaptation and creativity.

Secondly, much of the learning that takes place is unobservable. Much of the time, the learning that happens is present in the subsystems within each student and within the community they are interacting with even if an observable or measurable change can be difficult to detect. For example, it is impossible to predict the moment that an infant will learn to walk for the first time however leading up to that moment the many subsystems of strength, endurance, muscle tone, motivation, joint stability and coordination, have all been developing and adapting during crawling and pulling to stand at furniture. It is the moment that all these subsystems combine in a ill-defined threshold that a new pattern of locomotion emerges – walking. The nature of a complex system is that it is not possible to know the change in which of these subsystems was responsible for the emergence of walking.

The unpredictability of the change agent is a feature of complex systems and has significant impacts on our approach to teaching and learning. This means that the most transferrable and adaptable learning cannot be scripted in a linear, recipe like fashion. We have all experience a particular learning engagement that in one context led to the most profound learning but when we tried to replicate that event, it fell frustratingly flat. We may have attributed our initial success to key steps or structures however when replicated, the outcomes can be vastly different. This is simply because the student and the context of the classroom is a complex system. Open, unpredictable and dynamic.

On the flip side. Our natural inclination is often to impose strict guidelines and rules in an effort to more effectively guide the learning journey for our students however, as is the nature of complex systems, over control may lead to specific measurable outcomes but since these are not based on a more open complex systems approach, this learning is limited, non-transferable and not adaptable.

An approach that is more in tune with the students is one that recognises the features of complex systems. Therefore key features of educational approaches that are sensitive to complex systems include a number of key elements.

Features of complex systems pedagogy in the classroom.

Feedback: an environment that fosters effective feedback systems. Feedback feeds the iterative nature of complex systems to foster the adaptive and dynamic change. Therefore, rather than scripting a classroom, we need to build an environment that encourages feedback and encourages constructive feedback.

Diversity: Complex systems are diverse by nature therefore to enforce a limited approach to education significantly limits learning. For example, if the only feedback that is given value in the classroom is the feedback and approval of the teacher, this is limiting and narrow. While still of some effectiveness it does not recognise the far greater breadth of feedback that is already at play in the classroom and does not foster the effective enhancement of classroom feedback.

Relationships: Humans are highly social and these social connections impact significantly on student learning. Constraining and limiting class discussion misses profound opportunities for learning. Building strong, safe and respectful relationships within the classroom builds the interactivity, feedback opportunities, links and networks that are a feature of a robust and adaptive complex system. Further to this is the breaking down of the class walls to build connections to the wider school community, to the librarian, and beyond to experts around the world.

Networks, links and connections: Seen as features of a robust and dynamic complex system, building strong networks, links and connections both within and beyond the classroom is time and effort that support learning. While the inspiration and learning may not be easily measured, we can rest assured that we are building a complex system that supports dynamic and sustainable learning.

Learning is an emergent phenomenon: Rather than scripting change, a complex systems approach seeks to build the subsystems that we know to build a resilient and powerful learner (Guy Claxton). For example, numerous studies attest to the powerful impact of recreational reading on academic achievement. Yet, by it’s very nature recreational reading is intangible, open ended and out of our control. Recreational reading means the student choses when they read, what they read, and where they read with no assessment, no comprehension tests, no prizes, or incentives. The incentive is in the reading itself. Therefore, an attempt to script, define and control recreational reading is in direct contradiction of how it actually operates. Therefore, we are forced to see it as an emergent phenomenon and are reduced to providing the most conducive context for it to occur and simply to wait.

Open system: In keeping with an inquiry approach a learning context that allows for the emergent curriculum is one that gives most opportunity for a complex system to learn and evolve. This requires that we accept the emergent behaviours and examine what they tell us about student learning. We become more like anthropologists as we observe, document and respond to the behaviours that emerge from an open system. This is not a hands-off approach. On the contrary, this requires a deep involvement within the life of the students as we foster feedback links and connections that build resilient learners. An example from the library is that many students given an open opportunity to select any book they like will select a comic book. This causes much stress amongst parents and some teachers who would like to see their children move onto what they see as more challenging texts and higher levels of literacy. The reality however is that comics often require higher levels of literacy to interpret challenging stories. Even more importantly, these comics foster recreational reading habits that yield the academic achievement we wish for the students. This means that even though we may have the urge to control student self-selected books for recreational reading, attempting to control access to literature stifles the very behaviours we are trying to encourage.

Values diversity: A complex systems approach helps to reduce an over reliance on one method or strategy for learning. The concept of the ideal student becomes irrelevant since the outcome of education is not conforming to a closed system of behaviour but accepts what each student brings to the learning context and seeks to feed a dynamic system for learning. For example, recreational reading is open and therefore allows students to approach literature and reading from many different perspectives and backgrounds. Students may select books that we as adults deem too difficult or too easy or not of a literary quality that we approve of yet, given the choice, students that select reading for themselves become strong readers and achieve the academic outcomes we wish for them.

Identity: A complex systems approach does not seek to conform a student to our preconceptions about the ideal learner but turns our attention toward a more holistic acceptance and valuing of the individuality of each student. This requires that we tune into the individual identity of each student and aspects of the culture that they bring to the school context. Rather than determining the type of person they need to be, we seek opportunities to build relationship, foster effective feedback and support expansive connections that will feed a complex system in a way that provides the best opportunity for learning.

Unpredictable: Embracing uncertainty provides the opportunity for sustainable learning to emerge. This is learning that is more relevant to each student because it has emerged from within the student. This kind of learning is also relevant to what is often described as 21st century skills which recognise that the future the students are moving into is unpredictable and changing. A resilient learner is one that personifies a complex system that is adaptive. This adaptability comes about not from linear strategies to approach challenges, but one that  embraces relationships, connections, interactions and feedback to allow solutions and strategies to emerge that are relevant to the context they are a part of.

What does a complex systems pedagogy mean for the library?

In keeping with a complex systems approach, there is no one way to run a library however there are features of libraries that are more open. A complex systems library incorporates all the above features of a complex systems pedagogy as described above.

The modern library is now a place of interactions, collaborations and connection. The view of the quiet contemplative library spaces remains relevant as it is often a place of retreat and quiet reflection for students however if this is the only behaviour allowed in the library then this marginalises a significant proportion of a student population. Expecting students to silently listen to a story read aloud similarly limits the opportunities for them to connect with the story and build a desire to find stories for themselves. A sole focus on print texts similarly narrows the opportunities for diversity and limits the number of ways that students can approach text and build the connections to reading opportunities that they need. Providing literature and resources that represent a limited array of cultural backgrounds restricts the possibilities for connection to text and resources for students.

Implementing a complex systems pedagogy in the library requires the library to be a place that is flexible, adaptive, interactive, dynamic, networked, relational and open. That is, it should become a complex system itself. While print remains vital now and into the foreseeable future, a complex systems library builds connection to a wider range of resources. This includes a diversity of information platforms, a wide range of communication styles, interactivity and adaptive services. The library is built to respond to the complex system within which it is located rather than defining how students must interact with it. This is not easy in the complex information landscape of the 21st century but vital for libraries to respond to the needs of the modern learner.

We know when we have created a great learning environment when we are able to observe the behaviours of a thriving learner who is exemplifying the features of a complex adaptive system. For example, students who would not normally be considered to be the stereotypic bookish type are choosing to read for pleasure. When literature circles emerge during play times when students get together to discuss literature and learning. When students create their own emergent maker spaces in a creative response to an environment that is open, supportive, safe and inspiring. When students who have used the networks they have been supported to build to drive their own research resulting in book requests, journal purchases and assistance to take the next steps in their inquiries. We know when we have a complex systems library when we feel redundant. Students and teachers feel empowered by an open and connected library that has enabled them to feel confident to use their own skills to access library resources.

There is no one way to build a complex systems library however a complex systems approach can give us the ability to gain a focus in library management that builds a library that is adaptive, relevant and connected. Decisions based on relationships, networks and emergent learning are in stark contrast to closed, narrow and tightly controlled library management systems. Therefore, a complex systems approach to education and library management is able to bring a fresh focus to library design, services and management that in turn supports effective and sustainable learning for students.

Further reading:

Stacey, Susan. The Unscripted Classroom: Emergent Curriculum in Action. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf, 2011. Print.

Wien, Carol Anne. Emergent Curriculum in the Primary Classroom: Interpreting the Reggio Emilia Approach in Schools. New York: Teachers College, 2008. Print.

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