Complexity and chaos theory

Picking up the book The Ingenuity Gap by Thomas Homer-Dixon after a Christmas break, I found the author’s comments and ideas generating new questions for me as an educational researcher. For instance, he comments that scientifically it is difficult to understand the complex, and at times chaotic systems, of our economical, ecological, social,and technological worlds – thus, increasing the difficulties of finding innovative solutions to their problems. He stated, “Chaotic behaviour arises from a conjunction of some of the key characteristics of complex systems … multiple components, dense causal connections among these components, feedback loops, synergy, and nonlinear dynamics” (2001, p.124). That is, components and initial conditions that might affect systems are hard to determine.

He also stated scientists have found behaviour in any system less predictable due to:

  • their different reactions to varying, and changing conditions, and
  • their multiple states of equilibrium.

Using these theories in terms of understanding an organism like humans, thus students, increases the difficulty of teaching them and understanding how they learn. If our personal environments, past experiences, and current physiology affects our reactions and behaviours, then how can teachers/instructors teach to such diversity? Is creating less formal, less structured, and open learning environments the answer? However, from my understanding of Homer-Dixon’s explanation of these theories, neither negates structures indicating systems don’t necessarily need to be free flowing. Perhaps, no or little structure creates more chaos?

I think the question then becomes how to work with unpredictable organisms, such as humans, and create learning structures that produce significant and interesting results (learning outcomes, in a rough manner of speaking), that might in turn solve problems of our increasingly complex world. When I look at teaching in this way, it becomes overwhelming. However, I think current thinkers, such as Stephen Downes and George Siemens, are starting to examine new ways of learning, which I consider draws somewhat on complexity theory.

One philosopher that might be helpful for this inquiry is Anthony Giddens and his theory of structuration. In his theory, both structure and agents (individuals) are valid and affect each other. That is, structures are necessary and enable humans to act. What, then, are the structures that would enable good and useful learning for today’s students? Additionally, how does technology factor into that? I believe it is time we re-examine learning for the 21st century.


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