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Chaos, Complexity, Curriculum, and Culture: A Conversation

A summary of: Chaos, Complexity, Curriculum, and Culture: A Conversation (various authors-citation below)

The book is set out as a series of four iterations intended to first provide some basic information and then spin that information through a richer set of lenses moving toward applications of chaos and complexity within learning environments.

The portions of the book that lay a foundation in complexity and chaos tread ground that we have covered well. The sense of movement toward a new science and away from Decartes is clear and names like Robert May (who is interviewed), Prigogine and the many others we have seen in the books are here as well.

However, the new material in this book is an attempt to blend chaos and complexity with existing theories of learning and cognition. As an example, the construct of a dissipative structure that reflects the emergence of order at points of instability has parallels to the work of Piaget. Jean Piaget is often maligned and misrepresented as just another stage theorist psychologist. In fact, most of his work examined “how children come to know� science. His observations on a process he called “equilibration� reflect the characteristics of dissipative structures. Piaget felt that “learning perturbations� lead to changes in cognitive structure,s leading to the accommodation of new knowledge. These structures resemble the dissipative structures of Prigogine. Piaget’s student Seymour Papert continued this work in his design of the “Microworlds� learning environment of the computer language LOGO.

While much of the book relates complexity and chaos to learning very nicely, sometimes chapters become too pragmatic. A promising chapter on emergence and classroom dynamics merely provides anecdotes about a specific classroom, using it to make statements of a more global nature. There is little research in this area but there certainly are authors writing in this domain that could have been brought to the discussion.

A restatement of a common definition of teaching from the book is- support of the student’s handling of increasing levels of complexity through communication and environmental design. There is considerable argument over what is more likely to increase learning, complexification of the material or chunking of the complex material in an effort to lower the cognitive load. The former is proposed as further distancing learning from reductionism and allowing for emergent and recursive structures to form. The latter is the domain of the cognitive scientist evaluating brain function. The cognitive scientists are well ahead in the research battle at this point.

A theme across many chapters is that of the classroom as an interactive (complex adaptive) system. In a traditional classroom the roles and avenues of communication are fixed and the possible structures formed by the system are limited and controlled. It is argued that a complexity/ systems aware classroom allows for increasing levels of complexity and encourages the emergence of new structures by reducing the hierarchy created when most or all of the learning is focused through the teacher. The suggested ways to accomplish this vary even within this book. Writers suggestions range from those supporting a completely holistic and autopoetic approach to those suggesting a more intentional design that holds the teacher still accountable for the design and dynamic modification of the learning setting over time. As an aside, we once had a visitied fellow from Apple computer (Alan Kay) stop by one of the alternative schools I taught at. He suggested we walk through the building and see how many of the rooms were set up with the teacher standing firmly between the students and the main technology in the room (the whiteboard) thus establishing a fixed and disabling node through which all accredited knowledge passed.

Finally, the book spends some time examining possible directions for education research within the paradigm of complexity. It is suggested that many of the current research programs continue to be positivistic and reductionist in nature and that we now know that this mostly serves to either oversimplify the analysis of the situation or to oversimplify the experimental condition. Either approach produces results that are of little use in the real (read complex) classroom. One of the authors suggests that this is the reason that so much educational research produces results that are obvious to teachers.

In all, the book was uneven but stayed true to its subtitle, reading like a series of conversations. A recommended read for those in education settings wanting to hear about cantor sets and autopoeisis applied to cognition and learning.

Doll, William E., M. Jayne Fleener, Donna Trueit, and John St. Julien (Eds.). (2005).
Chaos, complexity, curriculum and culture: A conversation. New York: Lang.