Getting lost in the branches of the fractal tree


If knowing and learning are dynamic processes, then teaching should be too. Complexity science, Chaos theory and Emergence all have very powerful metaphors and implications for education. However, it is NOT a prescriptive method of teaching, and it is NOT a way to teach. Rather, it is about a mindful awareness of the environments that we inhabit, whether they be biological, cultural, or environmental. An understanding of how the characteristics of a complex collectives learning system operates could potentially help teachers to create occasions to allow the emergent nature of these activities to come to life. And in the end, that is what learning and teaching is all about to me.  Life.

Scanning the literature of complexity science across a broad spectrum of domains and disciplines, it is apparent that their is no simple definition of what a collective is, or what a complex adaptive system is, or how to define an emergent moment. There is no clear guide to complexity or emergence. It is an elusive thing to define, partly because it is not a thing, and partly because we are so embedded in it that is makes seeing it troublesome. Like Maturana and Varela said, a fish does not understand water because it spends it whole life in it. If a book arrives on your doorstep that claims to show you how to teach a collective, or how to control a complex system, I would be wary and skeptical of such a claim. It is about seeing, understanding, and being aware. It is NOT a standardized formula.

Even within the discipline of education and complexity, there is no clear consensus on what it means. If a joint definition of complexity in education emerged, I feel it would dampen the diversity of the system and take away from the robustness of education. My own ideas about this topic are formed by my own research and understanding. A different person who considers themselves to be a complexivist (I use this word not because I like it, but rather because I cannot think of a more appropriate noun) will have a different approach and definition. And, those approaches and definitions will change. They will evolve, and they will grow.  They may merge, they may bifurcate, they made collide, they may contrast.  Whatever the result, something new will come from the intersection of new ideas.  Different teaching styles need to bump into each other, they need to come into contact, and they need to grow together.  The diversity of teaching is its greatest strength.

So, what would be the common thread that exists between teachers and their interpretations of teaching, and what would be the similarities between teachers? I believe this has to do with a mindful awareness of complex learning environments. An acceptance of the adage, life is complex. It is a tuning in to the life of the classroom, and a desire to continue to hone and practice the ability to skillfully regulate and amplify that environment. Also, there is a shared understanding in the role of education as more than learning facts and skills, by helping kids to be aware on a conscious level of how the nested circles of co- implicated learning systems affect and influence their lives. This, to me, is one of the central aims of education; to be aware of the stories and narratives of life.

Complexity science is a lens for living in the world. All collectives are complex, and all classrooms are adaptive systems. Having a sense of where you are in the system, and what is happening around you is a skill that I will continue to practice mindfully throughout my teaching career. My definition of teaching; Teaching as orienting occasions for emergence, is one that will continue to evolve and change. I hope to continue to travel along the branches of the fractal tree and see what new possibilities arise and emerge. Most importantly, I hope that this self-reflection and attention to my environments translates into greater learning possibilities for my students, and expands the space of what is possible.

The point of the whole journey is not to arrive at a predetermined place, but rather to arrive at different interpretive possibilities. Education has too long been focused on the predetermined place, and not on the multitude of possibilities.  The creative fires of chaos, the amazing powers of self-organization, and the harmony of an emergent moment; to attempt to understand any of these factors in a dynamic learning environment require a teacher to be aware.

Mindful awareness.