Monday, September 20, 2010

Living Classrooms: Complexity, Learning and Technology.

Writers such as Siemens (2005) contend that behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism are no longer valid theories on which to base instructional design because of the impact of technology. More importantly, they are no longer valid because of new understandings of the nature of learning (Falk 2005). The view that learning is a linear process determined by simple cause-and-effect relationships, with the same instructional inputs producing the same learning outcomes, is beginning to be superseded. As Falk (2005) states:
“Learning is always a highly personal process, highly dependent upon prior experiences,
occurring within a highly situated socio-cultural and physical context and
involving multiple sources of experience and information”.
If it is assumed that learning is associative and cumulative rather than an instantaneous event, there are implications for what teachers think they are providing in the form of learning experiences. Teachers' efforts are sure to have unintended outcomes and the notion that the classroom can operate as an assembly line is unrealistic. While machines may be taught to compile, store and retrieve information, despite our best attempts at planning learning experiences, human learning is ever present, chaotic and unpredictable. Data does not become knowledge automatically. Understanding, and therefore knowledge follow only after interpretation (Cilliers 2000).

Continuing to view learning in a mechanistic way also undervalues learning outside the classroom and reduces the quality of classroom learning because diversity and interaction are stifled (Stanley 2008). Despite some teachers' best efforts, no classroom is void of interaction but a lack of diversity of interactions diminishes the quality of the learning. Falk (2005) asserts that “in the increasingly technological and complex world of the twenty-first century, it is clear that these institutions (schools) can no longer fully meet the learning needs of society'. The scope of this study does not include philosophical discussion of the role of schooling in education but it is important that students become knowledgeable and leave with enhanced motivation and learning capacity. While not precipitating learning, teachers are occasioning action. The teacher participates in, but does not determine, student learning (Davis et al 1997) and helps develop healthy attitudes or emotional responses to learning.

While Constructivism goes some way in explaining that learning is messy and no longer has to occur in a linear manner, it fails to explain how communities such as the classrooms learn as an entity. A wider understanding of learning is required that encompasses navigating the sea of abundant knowledge, making connections and the individual and communal dimensions of learning. Complexity Theory, when applied to the field of education, challenges the view that learning is something that only happens in educational settings.  This theory also challenges the view that teaching is a mechanical and linear process, but of irreducible complexity (Davis et al 1997). It also seeks to explain the classroom as an entity, community or complex system that learns as individuals do, in a chaotic and uncontrollable manner.  Teachers know that each class has a personality, a “vibe” about it, that is greater than the sum of its parts. Trying to control learning in a classroom is somewhat like trying manage the growth of a fig tree, a system with many bifurcations that is constantly evolving in response to dynamic forces. To support this view of classrooms as entities, consider that if external regulations and prescriptions were effective, every classroom would feel the same. Clearly they do not and experienced teachers know that strategies effective in one class often fail in another. Teachers may either ignore this or take advantage of it in order to benefit students.  If the metaphor of classroom as complex system is applied, teachers can reflect on what successful organisations do in order to survive and grow. They are constantly learning and transforming in response to dynamic forces. Successful organisations are those where creativity, communication, collaboration and diversity are cherished. They are communities where people have opportunities to spark off each other.  Business managers know that change is the only absolute and stability leads to obsolescence (Shelton and Darling 2003). Effective managers offer responsibility to workers, trust them and are comfortable not having to know what each team member is doing at any one time. While in many classrooms, teachers value linear processes, uniformity, silence and autonomy. There are several evolutionary changes, that will make it increasingly difficult for teachers to maintain this industrial age model. One of these is one-to-one computing. Leander (Knobel and Lankshear 2007 p.37) states that some technologies appear to be perfectly suited to traditional schooling, including, the overhead projector, and the duplicating (photocopy) machine, whereas networked laptops would appear to be a disruptive innovation: “You’re kind of opening Pandora’s box [the Internet] and trying to just kind of stick it in a different box [the school].” (Knobel and Lankshear 2007 p.35). For this reason, it is worthwhile studying classrooms as complex systems for the purpose of identifying interactions that are disrupting traditional schooling models and moving participants towards being a more healthy classroom community(SACSC 2004).


All complex systems are characterised by their potential for novel behaviours and unexpected shifts and for this reason, complexity theory as an appropriate framework for understanding classrooms as a learning community. It follows that qualitative methods are most appropriate studying complex systems as they respond differently to identical stimuli, cannot be controlled and exhibit unpredictable behaviours. And as Complexity theory acknowledges the inability to totally understand the whole through an understanding of the parts, this study aims to understand these classrooms by understanding the interaction of their parts (Phelps et al 2005), particularly in the way that technology disrupts traditional paradigms. The focus on individuals will be on the capability of both students and teachers rather than their competency (Phelps et al 2005). Capability is defined by Cairns (quoted in Phelps et al 2005) as ‘...having justified confidence in your ability to take appropriate and effective action to formulate and solve problems in both familiar and unfamiliar and changing settings’. Capable people are those who know how to learn, are creative, have a high degree of self-efficacy, can apply competencies in novel as well as familiar situations and can work well with others (Hase & Kenyon, 2000).

The classroom community is regarded as an adaptive, self-organizing and complex entity. Both the cognizing agent and everything with which it is associated are in constant flux, each adapting to the other in the same way that the environment evolves simultaneously with the species that inhabit it. (Davis et al 1997).  This study will therefore focus on the evolutionary development of classrooms as a learning entity based on a complexivist view (SACSC 2004) of what constitutes a healthy classroom community:

Complexity Happens - Planning allows for many paths to desired curriculum endpoints. Members embrace surprises as part of everyday teaching and learning experiences and all are open to new and often unexpected possibilities.
Interchangeable roles – Members roles vary according to the context of the learning taking place. Members freely exchange roles with students acting as teachers and teachers as students simultaneously. Teachers are participants rather than experts in the community.
Learning is Associative - Learning happens by making connections and is regarded as highly personal. The classroom feels safe, caring and inclusive and learning grows with emotional investment and positive associations. Knowledge is an evolving process resulting from interaction, not an object (Davis et al 1997). Knowledge has a life-span and knowledge is shared.  Knowledge is the “knowers”. Teachers ask questions for which they do not themselves have answers (Gadamer 1990).
Engagement —Engagement is defined as the behaviours that follow from students' cognitive orientations (Munn and Martin 2005) hence it springs from experience, or viewed through complexity theory, “we are our experiences” (SACSC 2004). Complex co-activity is present rather than repetitive, and mechanical exercises.
Diversity – just as successful organisations seek to exploit different talents and personalities, healthy classrooms tap into and exploit member's talents in order to create synergy.
Redundancy – Members share common subject matter, culture, language, history, and expectations and support each other in achieving this commonality so that roles are interchangeable. The skill sets of individuals are developed in meaningful contexts before complex possibilities are explored.
Decentralised Control – Learning activities can arise from the collective actions of the students and the teacher. The members perceive that they have sufficient control to exercise free choice in their learning (Falk 2005 p.8).
Constraints – The rules are set but there are an infinite number of plays just as in a football game. The structures that allow unpredictable outcomes to eventuate are created and maintained.
Connectivity – This is more than allowing students to work in groups. Individual ideas and unpredictable interpretations are able to interact with each other and structures are in place to maintain this interaction as a source of inspiration and planning. Members are led by the conversation (Davis et al 1997) rather than leading it. The conversation is more than the coordinated actions of its members and not subject to predetermined goals. Sources for it include other classrooms, schools and countries.
Balance – a balance of redundancy versus diversity and familiarity verses novelty is maintained.

If it is considered that chaos is inherent in the evolutionary process (Shelton and Darling 2003) and therefore classrooms as entities are in a constant state of evolution, it is worth examining the chaos of classrooms and if they are evolving towards the attributes of a healthy classroom mentioned above. According to Complexity Theory, there is no fixed or linear relationship among the various components of a classroom community. Rather, all the contributing factors in a classroom are connected. This study will attempt to report on the contribution of one-to-one in specific classrooms and the way this technology is affecting this evolutionary process.


Cilliers, P. (2000) Knowledge Complexity and Understanding. Emergence 2(4), 7-13 . Lawrence  Erlbaum Associates. Retrieved from

Davis, Brent, Sumara, Dennis J. (1997). Cognition, complexity, and teacher education. Retrieved September 14, 2010, from

Davis, Brent, Sumara, Dennis J. (2000) Engaging Minds: Learning and Teaching in a Complex World (n.d.). . Retrieved from

Falk, J. (2005). Free-choice environmental learning: framing the discussion. Environmental Education Research, 11(3), 265-280. doi:10.1080/13504620500081129

Gilchrist, A. (2000) The Well Connected Community: Networking to "The Edge of Chaos". Oxford University Press and Community Development Journal.

Phelps, R., Hase, S., & Ellis, A. (2005). Competency, capability, complexity and computers: exploring a new model for conceptualising end-user computer education. British Journal of Educational Technology, 36(1), 67–84.

Phelps, R., & Graham, A. (2010). Exploring the complementarities between complexity and action research: the story of Technology Together. Cambridge Journal of Education, 40(2), 183-197. doi:10.1080/0305764X.2010.481259

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1), 3–10.

Shelton, C. and Darling, J. (2003) From theory to practice: Using new science concepts to create learning organisation.  The Learning Organization; 2003; 10, 6; ABI/INFORM Global pg. 353

Stanley, D. (2009). Complexity Theory: Portraits, Principals and Practices of Imagination? From

The Society for Safe and Caring Schools and Communities (2004) Safe and Caring Schools in a Complex World: A Guide for Teachers. Retrieved from

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