Our human state is one of a continuous exploration, growth and discovery. When we land on the shore of discovery, the next beckons.
We witness moments of discovery everyday. That moment when you see a spark in a student’s eyes, they exclaim “I did it!” or with a fist-pump of “yes” at a moment of a new understanding, a success, or a personal victory. Or that moment when they go “Woooh!”, or their head tilts to one side and you know that something has connected very deeply with them and that somehow, in some small way, life will not be the same for them. I have seen this happen in our libraries and classrooms every day leading me to wonder about what is going on in that moment. What neurological connections are being reinforced and how can I help create the conditions where students continue to experience these moments of discovery.
The reason why I write blog posts or do presentations at conferences is as much about engaging with an idea, wrestling with it, and presenting it to a public as part of that inquiry process. To put the idea out there and see what kind of response I get. This blog post is based on a presentation I gave at the 21st Century Learning (http://www.21clhk.org/) conference in Hong Kong in Jan 2018. Complex systems theory was the lens we used to observe the idea of discovery, while we also considered the prerequisite for discovery to be student agency. I posited that the process through which discovery happens is an emergent process characterised by some key features.
Before we dive into the idea of discovery, let’s pause to consider what ideas come to your mind when you think of the word “discovery”. What are your first thoughts? Do emotional memories come to mind? Was it a positive experience? Was it a moment of discovery for you that was life defining? If it is a moment of discovery that comes to you mind, what was the context? When did it occur? Was it a sudden light-bulb moment or a gradual process of unveiling? I would hazard a guess that your thoughts about discovery and your experiences are highly personal, uniquely connected to your experience. This was certainly the response when I asked the audience at the conference. The words they used and the experiences they connected to varied widely. All valid, all clearly connected yet widely diverse. It is at this level of a shared yet diverse understanding of discovery that a complex systems perspective has helped me to pull together commonalities without the need to homogenise, standardize and lock down exact definitions.
There is no doubt that individual students are themselves a complex system, and so are the classes they participate in. The school administration is a complex system, as are family networks, social environments, learning itself is highly complex, political landscapes and the many other connections to our society all form an ever evolving dynamical system. This can be quite overwhelming from a school library point of view because our mandate is to have a positive impact on all these aspects of a school community and enrich the learning of every student. Embracing Complex Systems thinking has provided me with a framework for understanding these intertwined and highly interdependent realities, helping me to not become overwhelmed by the complexity, without the need to reduce and isolate parts of these systems so I have a feeling of control. Instead, looking at learning through the complex systems lens helps to reduce my anxiety, to release the need for control and has provided me with a language to discuss practice, make decisions and plan for the future.
Let’s begin with student agency. Discovery is entirely dependent on student agency where their experienceis one where they know and feel that they are the active agents in their learning. Where they do not feel like education is something that is done to them and in order to learn they must first submit and comply. Instead, they develop a growth mindset that leads them to take action to pursue learning for themselves. Students with agency take learning into, through and beyond school.
Why is agency so important for discovery? Tapping into student agency is a primary vehicle for us to embrace the complexity of each individual and the many contexts they pass through each day.
One key reason why agency is so important is that discovery is an emergent phenomenon. It emerges from the complex interplay of all the variables that impact learning and all subsystems that make up each individual. The ideas we attempt to teach are perceived, interpreted & made meaning of in different ways by every student. At a superficial level of content knowledge acquisition there may be some convergence toward a shared understanding however if we had the time to sit down with every student to dig deeper into their thinking we would uncover a diverse array of what that content means to them.
Therefore, since discovery emerges from the complexity within each individual, discovery is unpredictable both in when it happens, where it happens and probably most significantly, what causes it to happen. As a result, we cannot script a moment of discovery. Uncertainty is a defining feature of a complex system.In contrast, a motor vehicle is certainly complicated, but due to the fact that it is largely a linear mechanical system, we know that if we input fuel, ignite that fuel, engage drive and push down on the accelerator pedal, we will surge forward in a mostly predictable manner. Luckily for us, the designers also added some other features such as the break pedal so we can predictably bring the car to a halt. This is in stark contrast to the organic complex system of the human. Inputs do not predictably result in exact outputs. We can make predictions, we can increase the probability that certain outcomes may occur but we cannot script outcomes without removing the humanity from our experience. Rather than thinking of education in terms of mechanical inputs and outputs such as the analogy of a car or even a computer system, an analogy that respects the complexity of the human experience can consider education to be more like an ecosystem. We know that a healthy ecosystem such as a tropical rainforest can be protected and nurtured to produce a flourishing diversity of life but how that life self organizes and evolves over time is unpredictable, messy and beautiful.
To look at emergence in another way, this schematic representation of thresholds for emergence demonstrates how many interdependent subsystems change over time to eventually reach a threshold of discovery.
Key features of this diagram:
1. The bars represent just a few key variables (subsystems or factors) that impact learning and growth.
2. Many (or most) changes occur below the threshold line where they may not be observable or not noticed. When we consider the complex nature of each student, we can recognise that the vast majority of change in each of these subsystems happen below the surface, the submerged part of the iceberg (Peter Senge).
3. At a the tipping point or threshold where the necessary combination of all these subsystems is reached, the result is an observable change, a discovery, a eureka moment.
Change in each variable is not always consistent and sometimes progress seems to be in the negative direction. For example, if we are placed in an unfamiliar environment then our mindset may suffer, or our skill set become irrelevant to that context.
Then when the right combination of all the variables is reached, we notice a change, a discovery where a tipping point of understanding is reached or a new meaning constructed. There maybe different combinations of the variables that could lead to the same change that we can observe. This means that for each individual, that combination of variables is deeply personal. The implication for education is that in order to reach these moments of discovery, a wholistic view of the student is required to consider all the variables at play. For example, a focus on knowledge that does not address mindset or provide experiential learning opportunities reduces the potential learning outcomes for a student. Building student agency is a critical element however without adequate opportunities to build knowledge and refine skills, a student will have limited options to act with agency.