Monday, August 19, 2013

The Rigors of Complexity

I read with some interest Arnold Dodge's recent Huffington Post called It's the Complexity, Stupid, though I wasn't so happy with the epithet. It's eye-catching, but I think it distracts us from complexity and reifies the very group of people he should be embracing. Mr. Dodge is a veteran of the New York public school system and currently the chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Administration at Long Island University-Post, so he likely knows a few things about education, and perhaps a few things about complexity.

He starts his post by noting the failure of public education to service our young people so that they can be contributing members of society, lead a full and rewarding life, and understand that they are stewards of the next version of life on our planet. This failure, he says, is the greatest threat to our nation's security. That's a bold statement, and I have no idea if he's correct (a meteor strike or global warming seem a greater threats), but it's an engaging introduction. We like apocalyptic calls to action—they are simple, and this is where Mr. Dodge gets caught by the very drive for simplicity that he is attacking. And why are our schools failing? Again, he gives us a simple answer: because we prefer simplicity over complexity.

Yes, we do. Almost all of us. Fortunately, that does not make us all stupid. It makes us too left-brained, if Iain MacGilchrist is correct about the divided brain, which can leave us blind to some very useful information about the world, but it doesn't leave us stupid. But then stupid is a simple reification of all those people that Mr. Dodge wants to think differently. That seems a problem to me.

Reification is a nice concept that Mr. Dodge picks up from Stephen Jay Gould's 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man, a book I have not read, but it seems that reification, at least as Mr. Dodge is using it, is a kind of reductionism characteristic of the drive toward the simple. As Gould says we "give the word 'intelligence' to this wondrously complex and multifaceted set of human capabilities. This shorthand symbol is then reified and intelligence achieves its dubious status as a unitary thing." Like the word stupid, a simple shorthand symbol to reference a complex entity, but Mr. Dodge overlooks that most symbol systems, language certainly, have this tendency. The name Keith Hamon reifies the complex entity writing to you in this post. The term reification itself reifies a complex behavior and mental process.

Complexity demands that we vibrate, or dance if you like, between the statically reduced and reified on the one hand and the open-ended cosmic on the other. The reified is graspable and useable by the left brain, and the holistic is contemplated by the right brain. We need the simple for power to do and say things, and we need the holistic to make sense of what we do and say. Complexity is the tension and interaction between the two extremes: the simple on one hand and chaos on the other. MacGilchrist makes a strong argument, for me, that our current age is mentally unbalanced in favor of the left brain's drive for simplicity. This explains much of what I see from religious fundamentalism to scientific, technological, political, and business fundamentalism. This is unfortunate, but who cannot have a certain sympathy for those who prefer the simple over the chaotic? Most of us spend much of our time and energy trying to build simplicity into our lives: schedules, relationships, reliable incomes, maps, routines, and more. As Iran just proved to us again, we prefer the simplicity of an awful dictator to chaos. But just as both China and the Soviet Union have also proved, too much rigid simplicity does not lead to a satisfactory society for most people. We want something that oscillates between the simple and the chaotic.

I am not suggesting here some Golden Mean or dialectic; rather, I am suggesting a dialogic in the sense of Edgar Morin and Iain MacGilchrist. In his book The Master and the Emissary, MacGilchrist says that the left and right hemispheres of our brains provide antagonistic visions of the world, and our mental state is a dynamic unfolding of the tensions and interactions between the two visions. Morin says in more universal language that the dialogic "allows us to connect ideas within ourselves that are thrown back on each other" and allows us to contemplate "the necessary and complementary presence of antagonistic process or instances." There is a dialogic, too, between the Mr. Dodge's simple and the chaotic, and this dialogic is necessary for life. We can reify this zone of engagement and call it complexity.

At times, we favor the simple, at other times, the chaotic, and all of us know people who favor too much simplicity or too much chaos. Our lives are an unfolding of the tensions and interactions between the simple and the chaotic, and it may seem that this complex zone is the right place to be, but that isn't quite right. It is not a place to be; rather, it is a place of becoming that exists only as a dialog, or a dance, between the simple and the chaotic. I am not talking about a balance here, but a suspension—a not altogether happy suspension. We must be diligent and vigilant to maintain this dialog, and most of us do not have that kind of sustained energy. Thus, we lapse into the simple or the chaotic when our energies fail us. Some of us just stay there, and I can understand why.

Well, that turned into a real Sunday School lesson, didn't it?

Friday, August 9, 2013

Assessing Complex Systems and Sonnet 73

As my own views about education continue to emerge, I understand them best within the context of the conversation about complexity—complexity as a large, transdisciplinary conversation that has been emerging for centuries, but that was made unavoidable by the emergence of relativity and quantum physics at the beginning of the 20th century. The fact that I just used a form of the term emerge three times in a single sentence suggests how much Complexity has informed my thinking. As I am so very fond of following rabbit holes, it helps me from time to time to gather my thoughts to see if something coherent emerges. See?

I've been reading through a series of articles about complexity and the limits of knowledge from a 2005 special edition of Futures. I recommend it to anyone interested in either complexity or knowledge or the knowledge of complexity or the complexity of knowledge. You can really get tangled up, or at least I can. So I want to do a bit of untangling.

At the largest scale I can think about, complexity is that zone of engagement between the open-ended future and the closed past. We call that zone of engagement the now or the present. I could refer to it as The Now and perhaps win an honorable mention in the next Eckhart Tolle book or a few minutes on Oprah, but I'm feeling sober this morning, so I'll just stick with the now. Complexity is the activity that emerges between the juxtaposition of the hot, open-ended potential of the future and the cold, fixed certainty of the past. Complexity is the result of the tension between hot and cold, or to borrow a phrase from David Foster Wallace, it is the result of the miscegenation between a hot air mass and a cold air mass. That image works for me: we exist in the thunderstorm of the now, and though we may long for the potential of the future or the certainty of the past, we cannot live in either place. Life, and by extension knowledge, cannot exist in the chaotic order of the future or the fixed order of the past, but only in the dynamic, emerging order of the now as the heat of the future slides by and is transformed into the cold of the past (I'm perfectly willing to believe that the transition from hot activity to cold fixity only gives us the illusion of movement, but the visual metaphor is appealing to me). The complexity of the now is all we get, all we have, but because the now is a complex system, it is profoundly affected by and interacts with both the future and the past. Both the future and the past inform the now, and the dynamism of the now informs both the future and past in turn.

So for me, complexity is about as big an idea as I can have—sort of a God idea, but I don't intend to talk about God in this post; rather, I want to talk about knowledge and education and what the overarching concept of complexity has to do with them. How does it inform my ideas of knowledge and education? That's the question.

In their Introduction: Complexity and Knowledge (Futures, 2005, Vol. 37, pp. 581-584), Peter Allen and Paul Torrens note that the study of open systems proved to be very problematic for scientific knowledge in both the hard and soft sciences. They say:
For isolated and closed systems classical thermodynamics gave us the knowledge to predict the transformations and final equilibrium states of a system. Obviously, for frictionless systems such as those involved in planetary motion, Newton’s Laws allowed the prediction of orbits and eclipses, both forwards and backwards in time. Knowledge was complete and related directly to prediction. But, open systems were much more problematic. (581-582)
Closed systems, it seems, function in the simple and complicated domains, as defined in the Cynefin Framework. The simple and complicated domains afford us "the knowledge to predict the transformations and final equilibrium states of a system … both forwards and backwards in time." In closed systems, we can arrive at complete knowledge with reliable—testable and verifiable—predictions. Open systems do not allow such affordances.

This is a big problem, as Allen and Torrens note. So what's wrong with open, complex systems? First, we have a boundary issue. Open systems do not have discrete boundaries. I can see this quite clearly when I try to imagine the boundary between now and the future. The boundary has a thickness. I can feel the future coming and the past slipping, sometimes quite strongly, but I can never quite put my finger on the exact line between the future and now, and as soon as I fix my finger to a line, it slips into the past (the line, not my finger, which fortunately stays with me in the now). So the boundary also has an incredible thinness. So which is it—thick or thin? Well, both, of course. The boundary is open, and the exchanges between the system inside (now, for instance) and the systems outside (future and past, for instance) modify all systems. I really am speaking universally here; thus, I include those systems within the simple and complicated domains. From my point of view, everything belongs to the complex domain, and the simple and complicated are but temporary arrangements that we form for our convenience—like a sock drawer, or a classroom. We can pretend for a moment that our classrooms belong to the simple or complicated domains, but they don't. The classroom is a complex system of complex systems, and to treat them otherwise is to risk complete misunderstanding.

The dynamic interaction at the boundaries among complex, open systems means that it is very difficult to limit ourselves to local causality. In other words, the events in any one classroom are the result of remote causes (familial, social, economic, political, etc.) just as much, sometimes more so, as local causes (say, a classroom lecture or demonstration), and we are unlikely to be able to assess exactly what caused any given behavior in our students. Nor can we predict reliably the effects of any applied intervention or instructional design. As Allen and Torrens put it:
The simplest definition of a complex system is one that can respond in more than one way to its environment. … So, ‘knowledge’ about the future trajectory of the system can be both quantitatively and qualitatively wrong. … Innovation can occur, and it may have untold implications for the future evolution of both the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ the system. Similarly, the same ‘intervention’ may produce two different results on what were believed to be similar systems, since a single complex system can respond to an intervention in different possible ways. The outcomes could differ qualitatively and this surely must therefore introduce some doubt into the ethical basis for the intervention. … These new ideas force us to accept a significant reduction in our powers of prediction, and even in our ability to frame a useful question.
I find myself, here, slipping into considerations about evaluation and assessment in education, and I'm reminded of the recent words by Christina Hendricks, Stephen Downes, and Keith Brennan about how to assess a MOOC. I won't go into the details of their discussion, but I will say that from my vantage point measuring a MOOC, or any other classroom, is more like measuring a thunderstorm than measuring an automobile. That being said, I think we are beginning to develop some useful metrics for measuring open, complex systems. I may need to complete one of Siemens' learning analytics MOOCs to learn what some of those metrics.

I want to add, as well, that I think we literary scholars have been confronting open, complex systems for a long time. Consider a Shakespearian sonnet—Sonnet 73 will do. Almost all the data that I can gather from traditional measurement (meter, rhyme, number of lines, number of feet, etc.) says so very little about the poem. That data can enrich my understanding and appreciation of the poem, but by itself, that data reduces the poem to a closed system, a handy sock drawer, some trivia to answer on a test, and I would never read the poem again if that's all I had. Only when I open the poem to its environment, allow it to breathe, allow it to help me make connections to grandma, winter freezes, and dying embers, to my hopes and fears, only then do I find value and meaning. I find that value and meaning difficult to measure and assess, but I'm hopeful that we are developing the tools that will help us do so. Some very interesting things are happening in the digital humanities that point this way. I'll have to read some more.