The human brain has 86 billion neurons with an average of 1000 dendrites per neuron building a network with trillions of connections. The human brain is therefore one of the most extensive complex systems known to man. Embodied cognition goes further to consider the brain located within the human body where the compounding variables impacting cognition expand exponentially as we consider the complex interactions between the brain and the body’s many interconnected systems (here is an interesting discussion about AI & the role of embodied cognition). Zooming out a little further, we can observe that this embodied mind does not exist in isolation but lives within complex social networks of friendships, the classroom, family, acquaintances and social networks. Each of these social networks exist within evolving physical and virtual contexts with profound a influence on individual and collective cognition. Zooming out even further the connections between social groups in a local area, city, region and global contexts place each individual within an ever deepening array of interconnected networks. This is the nature of complex social systems where we observe complex systems nested within other complex systems producing a fractal phenomenon where zooming in or out reveals complexity at every level. In considering these levels of complexity we are undeniably led to establish that our students exist as a complex system and simultaneously within vast nested complex systems. Reductionist approaches can be an important aspect of a complex systems approach but in isolation, reductionist science is in stark contrast to complex systems thinking.
“Yet some neuroscientists think it is time to tackle the challenge. They argue that we will never truly understand how the mind emerges from our nervous system if we break the brain down into disconnected pieces. Looking only at the parts would be like trying to figure out how water freezes by studying a single water molecule. “Ice” is a meaningless term on the scale of individual molecules. It emerges only from the interaction of a vast number of molecules, as they collectively lock into crystals.” Carl Zimmer, 2011
Reductionist scientific approaches seek to reduce variables and study individual micro components to understand the whole, however, while this research is incredibly powerful, it is not until we take a step back to consider a system as a whole that we understand the meta significance of these component parts. For example, studying an individual neuron provides us with no clues as to how consciousness & self awareness emerges. Similarly, it is only in the context of the behaviour of the beehive that we are able to begin to understand the purpose and patterns of the flight of a bee (see this article on systems thinking in the classroom).
Features of a complex system
While all the complex systems highlighted here – from the individual to the global – differ widely in the detail, they all exhibit the key components of a complex system. That is, individuals (neurons, people, or subsystems such as classrooms) and feedback loops via connections and interactions between these individuals. This results in a deep interdependence between these individuals where the behaviour of one individual is inextricably entwined with the behaviour of the other agents they interact with. The resultant behaviour of the whole (brain, body, classroom, social groups, school, society, and the global community) becomes an emergent property that is determined by these interactions.
This is in contrast to a hierarchical system (such as authoritarian regimes) where order is imposed. Also in contrast is a mechanical system (such as a car motor) where the output is predictable. A motor requires the input of fuel and a linear chain of mechanical processes to produce a known output – we push our feet on the pedal and we know the car will accelerate. These are complicated systems and they are systematic but they are quite different from a complex system. A system like the Dewey Decimal System is a clearly defined and complicated system of organisation but it is not a complex system.
The notable features of a complex system are defined by the interactions and feedback loops between individual entities. These interactions give rise to a number of defining features of a complex system. Complex systems are self-organising where patterns of behaviour are emergent, that is, observed behaviours are the result of interactions between individuals. The rules that define complex systems are rules that impact the interactions between agents. Patterns that emerge from complex systems are therefore difficult – if not impossible – to predict. Learning, whether considered at the individual level or organisational level, can be considered to be an emergent property and therefore, on a deep level impossible to predict. Learning that we are able to define ahead of time – such as learning that is tested by regurgitating facts – is a whole different class of learning and one of the reasons we may feel that this type of learning is shallow because it is disconnected from authentic and meaningful contexts and engenders very little personal relevance. On the other hand, emergent learning, includes the understanding and meaning that an individual student draws from the learning context. The apparently simple idea of “1 + 1 = 2” will mean many different things to students as they apply that idea in different contexts. As educators, we are able to craft learning environments, provocations, experiences and direct instruction to set the stage for learning by increasing a student’s opportunities to be exposed to and interact with new ideas, however, the personal new understandings, meaning and purpose students gain from that learning context cannot be predefined.
For deep learning to emerge the core elements of a complex system are necessary prerequisites:
Individual agents acting with choice (student agency) + interdependent connections building feedback loops = emergent learning.
Implications for libraries
The implications of complex systems thinking for libraries can be considered in light of the interdependencies that exist for students at various levels. Complex systems thinking draws us to consider the agents – that is, the students – in the many different environments and contexts they move through in a day. Student centred practice is therefore at the core of complex systems thinking because we are always considering the student in context. It is the agents and the interactions they have that lead to the patterns and behaviours we observe. Organisational structures, such as scheduling or staffing arrangements, that do not consider the impact on the experience of the student is at risk of missing significant impacts on the interactions students have throughout their day and therefore the learning.
At the micro level is the thinking and embodied cognition of each student. At the meso level are the immediate connections the student has with others and at the meta level we can consider the action of multiple interacting systems (see more on the micro-meso-meta levels of interaction). These interdependencies are present in the connections and feedback loops within these systems so to consider one element in isolation is to miss the very essence of the existence of that element. The librarian as an information specialist has a key role to play in these different levels of interaction. Information science has a long history closely entwined with the development of complex systems so in many ways librarians are well placed to engage with complex systems thinking. To understand the role of the library in learning, we can consider the impact of the library at the micro, meso and meta levels of interaction within the immediate and larger context of learning.
At this point, it is also important to recognise that the emergent properties of a system are not always desirable. Bullying can be the consequence of a positive feedback loop that reinforces power imbalances, disrespect and abuse. Our role then is to consider the various factors throughout the various levels of a complex system that contribute to the emergence of bullying. We are then able, at all system levels, to craft contexts that enrich the feedback loops and connections between agents toward healthy interactions.
In contrast, an isolated once a weekly/fortnightly visit to the library for a lesson disconnected from the life of the the school and other learning contexts greatly limits the impact we can have on learning. Direct instructional lessons or mini lessons do have their place but only in the context of the wider systems of connection that impact the whole learning experience of each student. To have the most profound impact on student learning is to have an impact throughout the various contexts that each students passes through, not just when they are in the library. For example, a librarian who is able to impact the parental understanding of the power of recreational reading and ways to foster pleasure in reading is a librarian who will have a powerful impact now and throughout that child’s life. In the classroom, discussions informed by compelling texts from the library that challenge individual’s world view and invite debate ignite informed interactions between students. This can only happen if the librarian is given time to research and inquire into the very best inspiration, diverse perspectives and creative endeavours the world has to offer – a strong and diverse print collection is a fuel for interactions within a lively complex systems. Library interactions that are embedded within the learning life of the student bring the power of the library into meaningful and relevant perception of the student. On the school wide scale, it is important for the library to be a part of the information landscape of the school – the website, communications between the school and home, student to student interactions and staff to staff connections. When the library is seen as a means to achieve all their goals and fuel inspiration and endeavour then the library is having a broad, deep and lasting impact on all the subsystems and therefore a deeper impact on learning. Relegating a librarian to limited roles, constricting resource budgets, and isolating the librarian from interactions within the school drastically limits the impact the library can have on the learning of every student. An integrated, embedded library is a library that fuels an energetic learning experience for students.
At it’s core, the integration of the library into the learning life of students is based on enabling voice and choice for these agents. Student agency is a vital aspect of a functioning complex system at every level. On the individual level, students need agency to learn. For example, using reading levels to restrict choice (censoring) in selecting books in the library may feel like it is directing students to comprehensible texts but it is in effect limiting the thinking involved in selecting texts, limiting the depth of discussion around literature and story, and missing the rich complexities embedded within the experience of story that inspire, challenge and impel readers to act. Frequently, when a student comes to the library with instructions from an adult to select a text at their reading level, the discussion we have is difficult to move beyond reading level codes to the real wonder of story and new ideas. Reading levels are an example of an imposed top-down hierarchical framework that fundamentally limits the potential of a complex system. Reading level evaluations of our collection are helpful in ensuring we build a diverse and relevant collection but turning those reading levels on students is an act of oppression. A complex systems perspective still recognises the importance of comprehensible texts but takes a more wholistic view that also considers text in the context of the interests, passions, personal experiences, and motivations of the individual. A connection a student establishes with a book through their own choice driven by their own motivations is a connection that is sustained far beyond the conversation with the librarian. The result is reading for pleasure that has far reaching benefits for student learning.
The library environments should also be designed to enable serendipitous discussions about books and ideas. Artefacts, media, furniture, images and student work on display can all be configured to fuel student discussion and collaboration. Interactions that are not reliant on the librarian to directly lead (only nurture) are interactions that will continue beyond the library and be sustained in ongoing conversation. This requires that the librarian releases direct control of these interactions enabling the students to build these connections themselves. Since these connections are not artificially contrived or imposed, these connections are generative in nature because they are based on the intrinsic motivations of students. Our task is to provide an inspiring context that feed the complex system by infusing the student environment with the best of human creativity and ideas.
This leads us onto the resources we are making accessible to students. Canned information sources such as the many student focussed databases are useful but extremely limited because they are not produced by real authors, real artists, real illustrators, real journalists, and real researchers. This is mostly because this level of human creativity and human endeavour is time consuming and expensive. For example, famous children’s authors produce text at a far slower rate than education companies. Education companies produce texts at volume and are distributed on vast scales because this is what is required to make their business viable. It is therefore a business imperative that drives the creation of these texts – not a human desire to create, to share ideas, to share real story and to challenge thinking. It is therefore up to the library to ensure that we reach into the real complex system that is the diverse and interconnected world of real thinkers and creators, people with real experience who are deeply invested in making authentic and lasting connections with their audience. Searching for this authenticity and connecting our students to these inspirations is one of the most powerful ways we can feed the learning at micro, meso and meta complex system levels. A librarian that has the time and support to gather the best the world has to offer and bring these into the school context is able to have a powerful influence on student learning.
Another powerful way to foster feedback loops and amplify the agency of individual students is to display student creativity in the library space. For this to be effective, it needs to be timely. Connecting to what is happening in classrooms and always being ready to notice opportunities to extend what students are doing to present in the library (QR codes, videos, student made books, and writers’ celebrations are a few examples). Presenting student work is an iterative process where learning is fed back into the learning context enabling the feedback loops of sharing, reflecting and collaborating. The creators can see and reflect on their work in a public space, while other students can observe the learning in action and benefit from student perspectives and processes. This fosters a complex system of feedback loops between students, between classes, between teachers and with library resources.
Another example of feeding a complex system of interactions can be in setting up a document scanner connected to a projector + a microphone enabling students to select a book to read to an audience. With very little structure and an open mic platform for reading, the stage is set for students to connect with other students through story. Similarly, providing basic technology such as a video camera on a tripod with a microphone plus technical support to use the equipment enables students to interact in the act of creation. This can be set up as an open activity where students can create anything and share it openly. Anything can happen. The librarian’s role is to ensure interactions are respectful and supportive while helping with technical elements. The content is decided by the students.
The power of complex systems thinking is endless
Complex systems thinking is powerful because children are complex systems. Complex systems thinking is powerful because children exist within many complex systems. To embrace these contexts and the complex interactions that happen throughout the students’ day is how we can have a deep impact on learning that is sustained beyond the library, beyond the classroom and beyond the school.