Coping with Complexity


Viewing a school as an ecosystem requires acknowledging that school communities are complex. Recognizing this complexity does not mean throwing up our hands because problems are too difficult to solve. It rather entails that we shift the manner in which we approach problem-solving, as well as the mental models we use to discern problems (this primary mental model is what Herman Daly termed “preanalytic vision”).

I’ve been picking up a common theme emerging from some diverse sources I’ve been reading in regards to complexity and enacting change to complex systems. I’d like to draw some of those threads together here in this post. The first quote is from a book I happen to be reading on the Royal Society, from an essay specifically on our scientific understanding of biodiversity from Darwin onward:

“In the past few years, a new notion has emerged: that community structure can best be explained with a radical and at first sight absurd assumption that, in effect, all the species involved are equivalent and that their abundance turns on random fluctuations for survival and in reproduction (reviewed in Leigh 2007). . . In ecology, too, a random model of communities may carry more general conviction that does a series of special cases that explain some patterns in some places but have little predictive power overall. . . .

 As in genetics, there are many non-linear interactions in ecology (Andersen et al. 2009) and, as in the weather and the stock market, a small disturbance can lead to a sudden and unpredictable change in state. An attempt to shoot foxes to increase the numbers of red grouse prey backfired, for the predators normally caught only the birds most filled with parasites and once they were removed disease spread and killed many more birds than before. . . The same is true of the world beneath the soil, whose organisms differ wildly from place to place, but generate roughly the same mix of nutrients. Perhaps each of those habitats really is filled with a chance assemblage of ecologically equivalent creatures, each arriving more or less by accident. . . . The same is true of patterns of diversity in mature forests.

Temporal shifts, too, hint at an underlying lack of order. . . Natural ecosystems can also remain stable until a threshold is reached and then collapse. . .

A recent review claims that ‘ecological surprises’ of this kind have proved to be almost universal (Doak et al. 2008). Not only do they reveal our ignorance of the laws behind biodiversity, but they hint that chaos and complexity may be the rule rather than the exception. . . .The tension between order and disorder remains unresolved and more than a century and a half since that remarkable work [Darwin’s The Origin of the Species] we may understand rather less (although we know considerably more) about the patterns of nature than we imagined just a decade ago.” (Bold added)

Ten Thousand Wedges: Biodiversity, Natural Selection and Random Change by Steve Jones, an essay within a compilation of essays on the Royal Society, Seeing Further: Ideas, Endeavours, Discoveries and Disputes — The Story of Science Through 350 Years of the Royal Society edited by Bill Bryson

Our next quote is also from the same book in a subsequent essay that takes a slightly different perspective on the matter of complexity:

“An important feature of chaotic systems is that, although they become unpredictable when you try to determine the future from a particular uncertain starting value, there may be a particular stable statistical spread of outcomes after a long time, regardless of how you started out. The most important thing to appreciate about these stable statistical distributions of events is that they often have very stable and predictable average behaviors. . .

 . . . However, it can be difficult to predict when they will.

. . . Among complex outcomes of the laws of nature, the most interesting are those that display forms of organised complexity. . . Structures are typified by the presence of feedback, self-organisation, and non-equilibrium behaviour. . . . The defining characteristic of the structures. . . is that they are more than the sum of their parts. They are what they are, they display the behaviour that they do, not because they are made of atoms or molecules (which they all are), but because of the way in which their constituents are organised. . . .The laws of electromagnetism alone are insufficient to explain the workings of a brain. We need to know how it is wired up and its circuits inter-connected. No theory of everything that the particle physicists supply us with is likely to shed any light upon the complex workings of the human brain or a turbulent waterfall.

 . . . Chaos and order have been found to coexist in a curious symbiosis. . . . At a microscopic level, the fall of sand is chaotic, yet the result in the presence of a force like gravity is large-scale organisation.  . . Order develops on a large scale through the combination of many independent chaotic small-scale events that hover on the brink of instability. Complex adaptive systems thrive in the hinterland between the inflexibilities of determinism and the vagaries of chaos. There, they get the best of both worlds: out of chaos springs a wealth of alternatives for natural selection to sift; while the rudder of determinism sets a clear average course towards islands of stability.” (Bold added)

Simple Really: From Simplicity to Complexity — And Back Again by John D. Barrow, an essay within a compilation of essays on the Royal Society, Seeing Further: Ideas, Endeavours, Discoveries and Disputes — The Story of Science Through 350 Years of the Royal Societyedited by Bill Bryson

Our following quote is from a fascinating article on a sports therapist and his approach in working with professional athletes. The author uses the backstory of the therapist’s work with Felix Baumgartner, the man who leapt from the outer limits of the atmosphere back down to earth for the Red Bull challenge, to ground the narrative:

“Gervais and Walshe traded worried glances. Maybe this wouldn’t work. But allowing him to take off the suit at the moment of extreme anxiety would just reinforce the fear. Gervais had another approach for Baumgartner—taking his mind somewhere else. Our brains can quickly shift between thoughts, but we can’t think about two different things at once. As the anxiety rose, Gervais had Baumgartner spell words backward or do simple math calculations, just enough mental effort to take his mind off the suit. 

“We’re not leaving,” Gervais told him. “You’ll have to fall asleep in this thing.” 

Those small, progressive steps had led to a turning point. “Guys, I’ve got it,” Baumgartner told Gervais and the others a few days after his last panic attack. “I’m fine.” Gervais stayed on as the Stratos psychologist, sitting in the mission-control room during the test jumps and the final record-breaking leap last October, but Baumgartner never had another problem wearing the suit.” (Bold added)

The Sports Shrink: Michael Gervais, Psychologist to the Stars by Brian Mockenhaupt in Outside Magazine

Our final quote comes from an intelligent exploration of the genre of self-help:

“Or maybe we humans change the way species do: through random variation. If that’s the case, then the strategy we’ve arrived at out of necessity might be the best one anyone could design. Try something. Better still, try everything—throw all the options at the occluding wall of the self and see what sticks. Meditation, marathon training, fasting, freewriting, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, speed dating, volunteering, moving to Auckland, redecorating the living room: As long as you steer clear of self-harm and felony, you might as well do anything you can to your inner and outer ecosystems that might induce a beneficial mutation.” (Bold added)

The Self in Self-Help by Kathryn Schulz in NY Magazine

So what are the common threads here, and how do they tie in to the concept of a school as an ecosystem?

Essentially, when it comes to complex adaptive systems, chaos and complexity are the rule, rather than the reverse, and this can apply just as readily to the microcosm of the individual self as it can to the macrocosm of the biosphere. Given this reality, then, how can one enact positive change to such systems?

This is where Schulz’ and Mockenhaupts’ examples of self-help and professional sports therapy, respectively, come into play. As Schulz advises, try almost anything, because you never know exactly what will be effective. And as the top-of-the-line sports therapist Michael Gervais demonstrates, this willingness to push through even in the face of failure can lead to a breakthrough, an emergence after crossing some unknown threshold.

But building on Gervais’ focus, our second quote on complexity suggests that even in the midst of what seems like immediate chaos, there are long-term trends and patterns that establish a level of predictability and stability. These long-term patterns can be recognized and harnessed.

I’d like to quote some further insight on this, which I’ve linked to before (“No Climax, Perhaps: Ecosystems Must Be Intensively Managed“):

“In her remarkable new book “The Rambunctious Garden,” Emma Marris explores a paradox that is increasingly vexing the science of ecology, namely that the only way to have a pristine wilderness is to manage it intensively. Left unmanaged, a natural habitat will become dominated by certain species, often invasive aliens introduced by human beings. “A historically faithful ecosystem is necessarily a heavily managed ecosystem,” she writes. “The ecosystems that look the most pristine are perhaps the least likely to be truly wild.”

. . . So what’s a good conservationist to do? Ms. Marris sets you free: “In a nutshell: Give up romantic notions of a stable Eden, be honest about goals and costs, keep land from mindless development and try just about everything.”” (Bold added)

This places the efforts of school reformers, which so often leads to reform fad weariness on the part of educators in the field, in a somewhat new light. Perhaps trying many different tactics is not such an inherently bad thing.

The next step, however, is to consistently push through long-term efforts even in the face of short-term failure, not simply to abandon efforts and shift to the next new thing. Because the threshold that must be crossed may be just beyond the horizon. The fact is, we simply don’t know exactly when that threshold will be crossed.

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