Saturday, November 23, 2013

Complexity and Systems

I've reviewed my posts, and I notice that complexity has been dominating my writing for the past several months. I've looked at my reading list, and it appears that it will dominate for several more months. I'm plowing through lots of ideas that are new or almost-new to me, but I feel some need to stop pushing outward and pause long enough to see where my boundaries have gotten to. I feel the need to define. Of course, this is definition from the inside-out, not the outside-in. I'm not trying to limit my sense of complexity by separating it from other concepts; rather, I'm trying to see what new shapes have emerged to give form to the new ideas I'm working through. More importantly, I want to see what new gateways, or connections, are emerging as the new ideas interact with other things I know. What affordances do my thoughts about complexity provide me, especially as I think about education, more especially as I prepare to facilitate today's class about writing arguments.

This drive to define has been clarified for me by a couple of posts Complexity is … Complex on the Saybrook University blog site and Complexity: Introduction to the Basic Concepts. In both posts, the authors Jorge Taborga and E. W. Lawrimore list the characteristics of complexity thinking that they find particularly relevant to organizations. I've seen other lists, most differ in some lesser or greater way, but given that complexity is itself complex and may never be a well-defined scientific theory, then these two lists are as good a place to begin as any other, and because I want to talk about complexity in education, then it may be better than other lists that tend to focus on the sciences rather than on organizations.

Both Taborga and Lawrimore begin with the idea of systems. Taborga says: 
Complexity relates to a system—a system is a collection of many interacting objects or "agents." These agents can range from atomic particles to humans and, in an organization, they include processes and procedures. … A system … can have agents and networks. A network in a project team could be the leadership team.
Lawrimore says much the same:
Any system is a group of two or more parts which interact to function as a whole. (The root word systema means "organized whole.") The parts of a system are interconnected and interdependent. Every system is composed of subsystems and is nested within larger systems. A person is part of a department, which is part of a company, which is part of a community, state, nation and world. They are all systems. The important thing to understand whenever we talk about systems is that we are emphasizing that everything and everyone are interconnected and the whole has characteristics different from the parts. For example an organization has a "personality" that is more than just a group of people.
Systems thinking is a great place to start with complexity. It's where Edgar Morin starts in his book On Complexity (2008), and in some ways, systems thinking includes or leads to most of the other characteristics that Morin, Taborga, and Lawrimore discuss. Morin defines a system as "a complex unity, a whole that cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts" (10). Thus, systems are assemblages of different elements which work together to do things that no subset of the assemblage could do. Open systems interact with their ecosystems by exchanging matter, energy, organization, and information, and all living things are open systems. This leads Morin immediately to two major implications of systems thinking:
  1. The organization in a system is not determined by equilibrium, but by the tension between equilibrium and disequilibrium (order and chaos), or "stabilized dynamics" (11). Thus, a complex system is never static; rather, it always has an evolutionary arc which is the result of its unfolding, internal dynamics, which is the result of its juxtaposition between cold, fixed order and white hot chaos.
  2. The intelligibility of a system depends as much on its relationship with its environment as it does on the internal constitution of the system. A system cannot be defined by reducing it to the collection and organization of internal parts, but must include its interactions with its ecosystem.
These are profound changes in the way we normally think of the world, and many late 20th century thinkers have explored these implications. For instance, in his Philosophical Investigations (1953) Ludwig Wittgenstein contrasts his view of language with Augustine's attempt to define language, and systems thinking provides the coherent context for Wittgenstein's departure. Augustine defines language in our commonsense, dictionary sense that a word stands for some stable object or idea. Rock stands for an actual hard, collected mineral form. This approach tries to reduce the meaning of the word rock to its barest essentials, fixing it as a word separate from all other words with a reliable, fixed relationship to some real thing. Such a definition ignores the internal construction of the word, the evolutionary arc of the word, and the use of the word among other words. In other words, it ignores the word rock as a system with its own internal constitution (four letters) and arrangement, its own history of usage, and its relationships in any given text to all the other words in that text, to the writer who chose the word for various rhetorical purposes, and to the readers who read the word according to their own strategies for understanding, and the collection of literature in which the text exists. Wittgenstein says pointedly that "for a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word ‘meaning’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (PI 43).

This statement makes sense in a systems approach to reality. For Wittgenstein, the meaning of even a single word cannot be reduced to a single, discrete chunk that humans can pass back and forth among themselves like a coin. Rather, it is a living, evolving entity with its own DNA (in the case of rock, four letters of 26 with a particular arrangement), but also its own evolutionary history and its own interaction in the current conversation. While the word rock brings its own DNA to any conversation, it also has agency (a concept we'll explore later), and it can expand, restrict, or otherwise shift its meaning to make space for itself in a given context.

This changes everything, certainly everything in education, which is so preoccupied with meaning. We speak casually, day-to-day about our classes, for instance, and we think we all understand the meaning of the word class, but even to ourselves in the solitude of our own minds, the meaning of class in reference to my 12:30 Argumentative Writing class this term is quite different than the meaning of class in reference to last term's 6:00 World Literature I class. Meaning, then, is not some nugget that we find and can use. Rather, it is something that emerges in the engagements and interactions among speakers and that changes as speakers and engagements change.

This is a profound shift in how we commonly think of meaning and conduct our school business. We can no longer speak of transferring knowledge. There is no nugget to transfer. Rather, we can only speak of engaging other active minds with the resources at hand (including words) to create a space, a field (another systems concept), in which meaning can emerge. We can trust that the meaning that emerges for me is similar enough to the meaning that emerges for you that we can work and play together, but life is full of examples that prove to us time and again that meaning is fluid and shifty and that agreement takes lots of hard work or an exercise of power.

Of course, systems thinking not only changes the way we think about meaning but also how we think about physical reality itself. Michel Serres makes this clear in his Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (1995) with Bruno Latour. As just one example, Serres explains that time can not be reduced to the flat, fixed tick of a clock that measures in a locked, laminar fashion the succession of moments throughout the universe. Time is not a fixed progression of numbers along a single line. Rather, time is topological, like space. Serres says it better:
The usual theory supposes time to be always and everywhere laminar. With geometrically rigid and measurable distances—at least constant. Someday it will be said that that is eternity! It is neither true nor possible. No, time flows in a turbulent and chaotic manner; it percolates. All of our difficulties with the theory of history come from the fact that we think of time in this inadequate and naive way. (59)
This kind of systems thinking seriously undermines the way that we conduct education, especially a K12 education that streams cohorts of students along the factory assembly line in laminar fashion, expecting for instance, that we can reduce every nine-year-old boy and girl to a Fourth Grader to be stamped in the same machinery, or curriculum, to produce a consistent, consumable product. Many of our difficulties in education "come from the fact that we think of time in this inadequate and naive way." Systems thinking allows us to see each student as an unfolding, emerging agent with a meaning that emerges from the dynamic tension between a shared physical and social DNA on one hand and a unique trajectory full of potential on the other. Each student will emerge differently, and we need a school system that embodies that systems approach.
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