How can complexity science improve education?

How can complexity science improve education?

One frequent mistake in social innovations and education, is to assume one-fits-all approach to solving social problems. We need to realize that managing in complex systems requires radically different tools than managing in complicated systems or chaotic systems. These three, or rather four systems, as we will show, are quite different. And what makes them different are the constrains, or their lack of.

Dave Snowden is the founder of a complexity science field focused on humans, also called anthro-complexity. He argues that we were used to manage systems for robustness and we need to switch into managing for resilience. Robustness means that one gets out of a situation or crisis unchanged. Resilience means that one can get out of the situation changed, but their fitness and adaptability is improved in the process, without losing their continuous identity.

One can see how this is relevant in the age of AI and automation. If we teach children how to do their job effectively despite stress and tight deadlines, we are trying to increase their robustness. But what if the character of their job changes rapidly, and they need to reinvent themselves in the process? This would be something we call “learning to learn”, or metacognition and it would mean shifting focus on resilience.

Managing a children’s party

Dave Snowden often mentions a funny example that illustrates how management styles differ, if we assume that system is either chaotic, complicated or complex. I will try to paraphrase his example.

He jokes that parents often make a mistake of organizing the children’s party in their own homes. But usually community centers are more practical, because they have fire hoses, that can be used to prevent fire, do a cleanup after a party and sometimes can be used also for a crowd control.

If parents assume the system is chaotic, they will not set any boundaries and allow everything, and children will embark on a journey of self-discovery, and might discover alcohol and drugs in the process and this might result in a house burning down. Which is a very expensive experience and parents might not try it another time, even if they belong to a very open minded group of people who go to Burning Man festivals.

On the other hand, if parents assume the system is complicated, they will create motivational posters with a vision for the party. They will hand out kids some Disney themed cards with a mission statement for the party printed on the back and they will start a party with one adult, a party leader, presenting the goals and KPIs for the party using a PowerPoint. If the kids are for some reason not happy with the party, the adults will call in happiness consultants that will instill kids with happy mental models and teach them mindfulness techniques to relieve stress and adjust to the party culture. After the party is over, parents will write a report and lessons learnt and will record those in the party knowledge database for future reference and improvement. This scene reminds me of some Wes Anderson movies, such as Royal Tenenbaums and the fire escape drills scene.

But if we assume that the system is complex, as many ecosystems are, e.g. nature, society, economy, our mind and health, we might manage the system in a much simpler, clearer and humane way.

First, we will gather children, draw a line on the ground, look them straight in the eyes and tell them “If you cross this line you will die”. Of course this is a joke, but basically you tell them that “the party is over if you cross this line”. Then you place various activities and objects (a video game, a ball, a grill, etc.) that might serve as attractors and catalyze a positive coherence (children playing happily and peacefully without damage). And you run parallel catalytic probes, to test which of these attractors create positive coherence, and which don’t. You increase resources and energy for those that bring positive results, and decrease energy and resources for those that don’t. Everything depends on context. For example, a ball placed outside might result in a positive play, but a ball placed inside a house might cause a lot of damage. So managing in complexity aims at catalyzing positive coherence within attractors and within boundaries and it is adjusted according to a changing context (children might be tired, dehydrated, it started to rain…).

Read the follow up article to read more on complexity and education.

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