The Complex Adaptive (Education) System




One of the great things about travel is that a person gets exposed to different media opportunities and (often) new perspectives that come with that. Today, I had delivered to my hotel a copy of the Ottawa Citizen, which featured a opinion piece by David Warren titled: “End Our Multiversities“.  It was a very provocative, interesting piece. By interesting, I am not suggesting it was well-argued, historically accurate or reasonable, but it did make me think.

While Warren longs for the Middle Ages and grumbles about liberal education while (quite inaccurately) suggesting that all the world’s greatest universities are private, he brings up an issue that is relevant today for both public and private schools by seeking space for significant personal growth through education:

Now, do I propose that we go back to the Middle Ages? I would if we could, but since we can’t, I propose something more subtle: that we create the conditions in which significant intellectual and spiritual growth (as opposed to mere technological accumulation) would become possible again.

While I have little use for his recommendations or “analysis”, creating space for growth is important to consider and something I do agree with. Growth comes from change, adaptation and integration of new information (which is ironic, given Warren’s argument and desire to go back 500 years). Learning is, by its definition, designed around change, not stasis:

learning |ˈlərni ng |noun . the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, practice, or study, or by being taught : these children experienced difficulties in learning |[as adj. ] an important learning process.• knowledge acquired in this way : I liked to parade my learning in front of my sisters. [Oxford English Dictionary]

Education on the other hand, is less dynamic than learning, but still evolves to meet the demands of society, the market, and the educational institutions themselves. This is not perfect, it is not rational, or based solely on evidence or experience, and sometimes it works well in spite of that. Thus, to be effective at education and learning, the system must be designed to be agile and support change.

Craig Newell, before his untimely death [pdf], wrote about this need for adaptation by comparing the classroom to a complex adaptive system [PDF]. He argues that:

Complex systems are self-organizing and self-maintaining, but many also have the ability to adapt in changing environments. Complicated systems transfer and transmit energy and information; complex systems have the ability to transform. (p.7)

This is where I agree with Warren’s frustration with universities. Transformation is a very difficult thing to achieve and I am not certain that the modern university is doing a good enough job of fostering transformation in itself or its students. One of the main reasons is that education, like healthcare, has become institutionalized to the point of being bureaucratic (as in, being designed to support themselves before their intended audience).

With shrinking or static budgets, coupled with rising pressure to meet admissions targets, expand programs, while maintaining quality, universities are being forced to transform. The question remains as to whether this transformation will be accompanied with strategies to support the personal, healthy transformation-through-learning that education is supposed to provide, or whether it will fall to protecting the bureaucracy.

One of the serious challenges to this will be time. As mentioned in previous posts, time is becoming a serious challenge to our ability to learn and adapt. Time offers us opportunity to consider different options and relax, rather than do things based on stress. If we don’t provide the time to learn, our systems will transform by force of momentum, rather than conscious direction. Thus, if we are to create bigger classes, more requirements, greater professionalization, and less reflection time, momentum rather than contemplative inquiry will lead decisions. That will also create a less adaptive organization through adherence to path dependencies that will become more entrenched within the system. The dominant design [pdf] of a system created to support itself, rather than adaptation and creativity, will ultimately fail our students, our faculty and our society by limiting the innovation potential that comes complexity.

If that happens, then we will be going back to the Middle Ages, when everyone who went to school was the same, the lessons were limited to single subjects of interest only to the elite, and all the students were men. David Warren might be thrilled.

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