Towards a more humane and relevant education
This is a second article discussing difference between complicated, complex and chaotic systems, with possible implications for education. Read the first article here.
Instead of broadcasting the truths of yesterday to kids in a top-down fashion, and instead of setting very narrow and rigid goals that can be gamed or even create unnecessary rivalry between kids (competitive marking), we try to nurture their interests, collaboration and skills by catalyzing coherence around attractors – a 3D printer, a ball, a set of measuring devices, etc.
This is relatively a new field, some 40 years ago, people even didn’t understand the distinction between complex, complicated and chaotic systems.
Complicated systems have various levels of complication and can be divided into two – an obvious system and a complicated system, together they can be described as ordered systems. So an example of we drive on the right in Slovakia, but Brits do drive on the left, is an example of an obvious system, with rigid constrains, and an obvious best practice – drive on the “right” side of the road as everyone in your country. Of course, there might be exceptions, when a kids is crossing the road and you want to avoid them, you can temporarily go on the other side in order not to hit them. But the system is obvious for everyone and you don’t need to study for 5 years to understand it.
On the other hand, if you need an expertise, e.g. as a doctor in the operating theatre, and the system is not obvious, but rather complicated, you are constrained by governing constrains (first you need to graduate and get experience, then you have degrees of freedom and deliberation) and enter a realm of a good practice. So there is no single best practice, but various good practices, so you have a degree of freedom, provided you are an expert, and you have experience e.g. by serving as a doctor for 10 years. So in complicated systems, such as operating theaters, you have a crew of highly trained doctors, and various procedures, such as counting the numbers of surgical instruments before and after operation, so no instrument is left in the body of a patient. The doctors have also set of rituals that alight their identity temporarily with a role, e.g. putting on gloves.
On the other hand, chaos is a system where there are temporarily no constrains and no connections and this can result in a catastrophe or a novel practice and innovation. But this requires lots of energy and is only a temporal phase, after a certain time the chaotic system shifts back to complex, or to complicated system, through a phase shift. An example of a chaotic system put to a good use is a wisdom of crowds phenomenon. Where lots of people are made to guess e.g. a weight of a cow, with wildly differing estimates, but if you average them, you can get a result very close to truth. But the key is that these estimates are independent of each other, only written on a piece of paper silently.
Lastly, the complex system, is a system where everything is interconnected and one cannot establish causal relations, only disposition of the system to produce certain results (because of such and such attractors, potential energy…). The complex system has enabling constrains, e.g. certain boundaries that we set and that enable us to be more productive.
This is just an introduction to the topic. Dave Snowden has a framework to distinguish five domains where we might find ourselves, he calls Cynefin, and in Welsh it means something like a habitat.
We mentioned ordered system, that can be divided into obvious and complicated (not a phase shift between them, only a scale of complication), we mentioned chaotic system with temporarily no connections and no constrains, and we mentioned a complex system, an interconnected web of relations. The fifth domains, is a domain of disorder, and this is a place where we don’t know in which out of the four systems we are currently in (obvious, complicated, complex, chaotic)
I hope at least the children’s party story might have been illustrative of how excessive bureaucracy and excessive constrains from engineering paradigm, when applied to complex systems, such as education can cause a lot of unnecessary stress and unintended consequences (teaching and learning to the test, and not learning to learn, etc.).