Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Educational Complexity and Organizational Recursion

A second property of complexity is what Edgar Morin calls organizational recursion. Taborga and Lawrimore both use the more common term feedback, which I think fails to capture the richer implications of the complex interactions inherent in complex systems, but feedback provides an easier starting place with organizational recursion, so I start there.

Taborga says:
Feedback is particularly relevant to complexity. The system responds to and acts on feedback within the system and received from the outside world. A project team, for example, can change course when it receives feedback that a risk has been discovered.
Lawrimore says:
Feedback Impacts Systems: The primary way a system interacts with its environment or other systems is through feedback. When you move your hand, your nerves provide feedback signals to your brain so you know where your hand is. When a customer tells you he likes or dislikes something which your organization is doing, that is important feedback. Feedback in the form of information or signals is essential for an organization to be able to adapt to changes in its environment. Feedback within the organization is also essential for people to adapt to each other. Feedback occurs in two forms: balancing, which keeps the system stable by limiting change (like a thermostat), and reinforcing, which intensifies the change or activity.
Most people seem to understand simple feedback—our fingers tentatively touch a piece of metal, and we get sensory feedback that tells us if the metal is hot or cold or safe to handle—but I suspect that most see feedback in this linear fashion, something like a stimulus-response mechanism: we see a piece of chocolate, and our mouth waters. This seems to be the gist of feedback for Taborga and Lawrimore, but it is too narrow a view to explain complexity.

Morin's concept of organizational recursion is better. In his book On Complexity (2008), Morin says that recursion is:
a process where the products and the effects are at the same time causes and producers of what produces them. … The recursive idea is, therefore, an idea that has broken away from the linear idea of cause and effect, of product/producer, or structure/superstructure, because everything that is product comes back on what produces it in a cycle that is itself self-constituting, self-organizing, and self-producing. (49, 50)
Morin uses the recursive loops among people and societies to help us visualize this dynamic feedback loop: "individuals produce society that produces individuals" (49). This is a problematic concept for our view of simple classrooms. As Nicolescu has demonstrated, complexity undermines the hegemony of local causality: that any given event is necessarily caused by (follows from) another, previous event proximate in space and time. Does society follow from the interactions of a collection of people, or do the interactions of a collection of people follow from the society? The answer is yes, and that's a damned nuisance for those who want to find the magic causal bullet for any situation.

Recursive, or circular, causality seriously complexifies our understanding of schooling (as well as everything else), for it suggests that a student is both the product of her school and also the producer, in part, of that school. Without the school, the student would not be quite what she is, for the school feeds back into the student. Likewise, without the student, the school would not be quite what it is, for the student feeds back into the school. This recursive feedback loop constantly changes both agents, which in turn changes the other, again and over again.

This circular causality enlarges our sense of how education takes place. Traditionally, we have assumed that a teacher's instruction is the local, effective cause of a student's learning. Our entire assessment regime for student, teacher, and curriculum is based on this assumption. If the student is learning, then the teacher did something right to make that happen—end of story. However, circular causality says that local causality is only a part of the story, often not the largest part. Rather, we must factor in the recursive, evolving interactions of the student and teacher, then the recursive interactions of the student to other students, then the recursive interactions of the student to the content, to her family, to her outside social groups, and so forth, until we finally realize that the single student's learning can be assessed only in the nexus of all the recursive interactions, what Morin calls retro-eco-interactions, with all of her connections, including whatever local causes are, in fact, present. Measuring a student's learning is like measuring a thunderstorm: a few numbers are a start, but just barely, and those numbers can be as obfuscating as enlightening.
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