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Teaching and Learning in a Complex World

Posted By Lisa Kimball, Thursday, August 25, 2011

The word text derives from the Latin textura (web) which, in turn,
comes from the Latin verb, texere (to weave).

Book treeThis reminder of where "text" comes from by Brent Davis, Dennis Sumara, and Rebecca Luce-Kapler in their 2000 book, Engaging Minds: Learning and Teaching in a Complex World (Erlbaum) contains an important insight about the nature of one of the core elements of teaching and learning - the text. Too often, education and educational materials are treated as straightforward, linear, unified and fixed. The authors cite centuries of habits of precise definition, unambiguous classification, and linear logic that have been thought to define good quality thinking. A different view suggests that learners and educators - and even the texts themselves - can be much more dynamic and interdependent - something more like a woven tapestry of ideas, relationships and perspectives.

According to these authors, "Recent discussions of the nature and processes of learning have presented a challenge to the reductive, fragmenting mentality underlying checklists, lesson plan formats, evaluation rubrics, and similar artifacts. Emerging from such seemingly disparate domains as anthropology, neurology, sociology, psychology, mathematics, computer science, cultural studies, ecology, and biology, there has been a confluence of ideas around the embedded nature and adaptive dynamics of that complex process that is called learning." 

Safe and Caring Schools in a Complex World - A Guide for Teachers (authored by the Complexity and Education Seminar Group) provides a framework for teachers interested in re-framing how they approach their work to incorporate principles of complexity. The guide includes ideas about pedagogy and curriculum as well as about the social system that makes up a school. This group asserts that "Knowledge" is not some sort of invisible substance that is either contained in an individual's brain or in books. Instead, they believe that complexity research recasts knowledge in relational terms. A system's knowledge is its range of possible action - that repertoire of doing that enables it to hold together, to adapt, to thrive.

While the group acknowledges the value of analytic methods, they argue that analytic methods are not particularly useful for studying phenomena that learn-that is, of systems that can alter their own behaviors to respond differently to almost identical circumstances. "For example, if you nudge a brick, you can predict the result with great accuracy if you have an adequate knowledge of the initial conditions and the force of the push. It's a mechanical situation that's suited to logical analysis. But the same cannot be said if you nudge a dog. It would not matter how well you measured the initial conditions or how many experimental trials you ran, you could never be very certain of the result. The outcomes would be even more varied and unpredictable if you were to nudge a human. These situations are more organic, and an entirely different sensibility is needed to make sense of them."

Plexus associate Darren Stanley who is based at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada maintains some valuable resource lists including an annotated bibliography of key texts on complexity and one of references specifically about complexity-in-education concerned with the applications of principles of complexity to education and educational research.

Another excellent source to explore the conversation about educational applications of complexity is Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education. Complicity is an open access, peer-reviewed journal that publishes original articles on all aspects of education that are informed by the idea of complexity (in its technical, applied, philosophical, theoretical, or narrative manifestations). The journal strives to serve as a forum for both theoretical and practical contributions and to facilitate the exchange of diverse ideas and points of view related to complexity in education. For example, in the most recent issue in an article, On Improvisation in Teaching and Teacher Education, authors Jean-Francois Maheux and Caroline Lajoie of the Université du Québec à Montréal (Canada) Vol 8, No 2 (2011) explore some ideas about emergent knowledge. "We give such importance to improvisation in one our mathematics teaching courses because we, as educators of teachers, are interested in developing our students' knowing-to act in the moment, and not only in developing their knowledge-about mathematics teaching and learning." The authors quote a paper by Mason and Spence, "Knowing-to act when the moment comes requires more than having accumulated knowledge-about. It requires relevant knowledge to come to the fore so it can be acted upon. That is what knowing-to captures for us." (Mason, J., & Spence, M. (1999). Beyond mere knowledge of mathematics: The importance of knowing-to act in the moment. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 38(3) (p.139)

How has the complexity framework changed your understanding of the nature of knowledge, teaching, and learning? Add your comments.

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