Thursday, December 12, 2013

Educational Complexity and Open Systems

The fourth property of complexity that both Taborga and Lawrimore discuss within the context of modern organizations is openness or, as Lawrimore terms it, adaptability. This is, I think, a particularly critical property of complexity and most relevant to my current conversations about education, especially the conversation about MOOCs. Openness and the concomitant adaptability overturn so much of how we normally think about the world, especially education, that it is difficult to decide where to start, so I'll begin with what our two interlocutors say and see where it leads:

Taborga says:
The fourth property of complexity is that the system is open. An open system responds to its environment. Complexity Theory posits that all systems are open with the possibility that the total universe is the only closed system. Continuing with the project team example, there are numerous external influences that determines the project’s course. Funding would be an important external variable for a project team.
Lawrimore speaks of adaptation rather than openness, but clearly he is approaching the same property of complexity:
Adaptive refers to the fact that living systems constantly adapt to their changing environments. (Adapt means "fit to.") In organizations people adapt to each other, to customers, the economy, competitors and many other things. They are able to adapt through learning. Continuous learning is very important in Complexity organizations.
A view of time, temporality, lies at the heart of what they are both saying. All complex systems have an evolutionary arc that we can trace fairly well looking back on it, but that we find very difficult to trace looking forward. This seems such an obvious thing to say—especially in light of Darwin and our common, everyday experience—but it isn't. Basically, we humans do not like an open future. We spend great resources and energy on trying to fix the future, in all senses of the word fix. This is, I think, the heart of fundamentalism, especially the scientific and religious varieties, both of which posit a deterministic view of reality. The fundamentalist scientists believe that if they can know the position and speed of all the particles of a system (and only they can), then they can determine any past or future disposition of that system. As Lee Smolin describes it in Time Reborn (2013), they believe that systems are path independent and totally controlled by eternal natural laws expressible in timeless mathematical formulae that work each time, every time to accurately describe reality both past and present. The fundamentalist religious believers, on the same hand, believe that if they can properly interpret scripture (and only they can) then they can determine the past and future disposition of all humans on the planet and predict the End of Times. For them, all history is path independent, its arc ordained by the divine from the Beginning and all controlled by eternal divine law expressible in timeless ritual formulae that work each time, every time to accurately describe reality both past and present.

Complexity says otherwise. Eternal scientific laws are not much improvement over eternal religious laws because reality is NOT absolutely determined by either set of laws, certainly not by both. At the heart of every atom and every galaxy lies enough probability to provide wiggle room for almost anything to emerge, including somewhat conscious and intelligent apes, and whatever emerges comes with new laws to follow, as laws, physical and otherwise, are also emergent properties of emergent systems. All complex systems—and for me that includes everything from the most inert rocks to gravity—are open to change. Heraclitus would be proud.

So, one might complain, anything goes in this open-ended, relativistic universe? Don't be absurd, and don't jump off the Golden Gate Bridge to test it. The probability of your death is near certain (about 98%), and as one of the few known survivors (the fortunate effect of just the tiniest wiggle room) is likely to tell you: on the way down, you might change your mind. No, open adaptability is that zone between an anything-goes chaos and an only-one-thing-goes determinism, and life and all that we humans hold dear emerges in this open, temperate zone poised between hot, erratic chaos and cold, fixed determinism. We humans can enjoy the heat of chaos for a time, but too close for too long and we die a hot death. We can depend on the fixed cold of determinism for a time, but too close for too long and we die a cold death. Frost had it right when he said in his poem Fire and Ice that the world would end with either fire or ice and that either "would suffice."

Unfortunately, too much of modern education is based on a scientific determinism, which replaces a religious determinism. Some may see that as progress, and perhaps so, but not much, I think, and certainly not enough progress. We need a complex view of learning based on an understanding of open, adaptable systems. Indeed, if people were not open, adaptable, and changeable, then what would be the point of education? Fortunately, people are open and adaptable systems; thus, education is a worthwhile endeavor. Why, then, have we constructed schools on the factory system for the purpose of batch producing a consistent product? I think I can understand why we did it in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when industrialism was triumphing in business and reductionism in science, but why are we persisting into the 21st century? Ford's assembly line was a fairly decent system for outputting an endless line of black-only Model Ts, but even the assembly line has moved way beyond Ford's early iteration of it. As an aside, I think his fascination with the assembly line goes a long way in explaining Ford's attraction to fascism. The assembly line is fascism for business, and while it  may have narrow benefits for a narrow time, one shouldn't base a life or a nation on it.

Morin helps me understand the implications of this openness and adaptability, especially for education. First, open systems can be understood most completely only if we account for their relationships with the environment. As Morin says,  "Reality is therefore as much in the connection (relationship) as in the distinction between the open system and its environment" (On Complexity, 11). If you want to understand a student, you don't get very far looking merely at GPA, though GPA does have real, if limited, utility. In other words, you cannot reduce a student to one, or even a collection, of objective characteristics and expect to know very much. Students are not closed systems, definable from the outside-in. They are open systems, definable from the inside-out to all their connections and interactions with their ecosystems over time. All complex, open systems must be understood from the inside-out and not reduced to some handful of essential characteristics from the outside-in. This includes school subjects, which cannot be closed into disciplines but must be explored from the inside out into. Morin's thoughts about studying open systems are most apropos to education, I think:
Methodologically, it becomes difficult to study open systems as entities that can be radically isolated. Theoretically and empirically, the concept of an open system opens the door to a theory of evolution, that can only come from the interaction of system and eco-system, and, in its most significant organizational leaps, can be conceived of as the "going beyond," the surpassing, of the system into a meta-system. The door is, therefore, open for a theory of self-eco-organizing systems. These systems are themselves open, of course, because far from escaping 'openness,' evolution toward complexity increases it. In other words, it is a theory of living systems. (11)
 Let me add here that this approach to openness is perhaps what most attracted me to the conversation about Connectivism, a theory of education first formally suggested by George Siemens and Stephen Downes in about 2005. Some have questioned whether or not Connectivism is really a theory, but they are mostly trying to define Connectivism from the outside, to reduce it to a few canonical characteristics. Both Siemens and Downes have also performed this kind of definition in their writings (and, by the way, I do value this kind of definition—I just think it is radically limited when applied to complex, open systems), but what is really brilliant about what Siemens and Downes have done is to pretty much abandon defining Connectivism from the outside as objective observers and turn to defining it from the inside as engaged participants. The result of this switch has been MOOCs, among other things. Connectivism is now defining itself from inside-out, and the definition has gone in directions that I suspect Siemens and Downes would have never explored or pursued. It is a messy definition, but much more real, I think, and infinitely more engaging. Connectivism, then, is being defined not merely on the basis of what characteristics separate it from all other theories but mostly on the basis of what it connects us to, on the affordances that it provides. The boundaries of the theory are better seen from the inside as the outward limits of how far we can take these particular set of ideas.

Of course, I think all theories are better seen from the inside, especially if you want to understand them, but we are in the reductionistic habit of separating to define, not connecting to define. The complexity theory behind open systems will change that, I think. And again: I am not saying that defining from the outside-in has no value. It does. But it is only part of the story, and a small part at that. You will never really understand rap music if you stay on the outside. You have to get inside it to understand it. You have to see what it can connect you to, where it can take you, and that is seen from the inside. Open systems are like that. Everything is like that.

When Morin says that "methodologically, it becomes difficult to study open systems as entities that can be radically isolated", I am reminded of the marvelous work that Jenny Mackness and her associates Williams and Gumtau are doing with emergent learning. Of course, they are studying open systems, but I suspect, their tools are still based too much on a reductionist approach to science that works from the outside-in. Mackness has said to me that merely coming up with the new terms and concepts to describe what they are seeing has been a struggle. If you want to see better how to approach complex, open educational systems, then you should follow their work.
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