The Φ of School Ecosystems

By Christof Koch [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0
(, via Wikimedia Commons

A neuroscientist, Christof Koch, has proposed a fascinating view of consciousness which has some interesting implications for our view of schools as ecosystems. He suggests that a theory developed by Guilio Tononi known as integrated information theory (IIT) can better provide us with a measurable definition of consciousness, which is determined, in a nutshell, by the complexity of a system.

What is interesting about this theory is that, according to Koch, it “does not discriminate between squishy brains inside skulls and silicon circuits encased in titanium.” Consciousness is rather defined by the “degree and extent of causal interactions among all components” of a given system. This suggests that consciousness is on a continuum, with simpler systems possessing some degree of consciousness, which can be mathematically calculated as a measure of Φ (pronounced “fi”). Highly integrated and complex systems such as human brains possess a high measure of Φ, and simpler, less integrated systems possess lower measures.

Building on this idea, Sumit Paul-Choudhury posted a link to an article on Google’s “deep learning computer systems” on Twitter, and Chris Baraniuk responded with the connection to Koch’s argument. In this article, we can see that indeed, computer systems can possibly demonstrate some measurable level of Φ.

This means that for some things, Google researchers can no longer explain exactly how the system has learned to spot certain objects, because the programming appears to think independently from its creators, and its complex cognitive processes are inscrutable. This “thinking” is within an extremely narrow remit, but it is demonstrably effective and independently verifiable.

So if consciousness is on a continuum, determinable by the quality and quantity of interconnections, imagine what this implies about the complex adaptive system of a school. Some schools, due to the greater level of interconnections amongst its diverse constituents, have higher degrees of consciousness, and thus may operate more effectively in response to adaptive challenges.

This also ties back to the idea of “regenerative” schools we’ve discussed here before, with the concept of circulating throughputs, rather than linear inputs and outputs. As Koch puts it:

. . . you can build two systems, each with the same input and output — but one, because of its internal structure, has integrated information. One system would be conscious, and the other not. It’s not the input-output behavior that makes a system conscious, but rather the internal wiring.

This idea of integration and the quality of interconnections within a system is a theme that resonates strongly with the view of a school as an ecosystem. As Kock puts it:

For any one ecosystem, it’s a question of how richly the individual components, such as the trees in a forest, are integrated within themselves as compared to causal interactions between trees. . . it’s a question of the degree and extent of causal interactions among all components making up the system.

Or again, as Koch explains it here:

The more integrated the system is, the more synergy it has, the more conscious it is. If individual brain regions are too isolated from one another or are interconnected at random, Φ will be low.

Schools and school districts (and businesses, and governments), therefore, can potentially hold a greater degree of consciousness as a system, better enabling them to respond to adaptive challenges. This consciousness is determinable by how integrated–and I would suggest, diverse–it’s connections are.


Clark, J. (2013). If this doesn’t terrify you… Google’s computers OUTWIT their humans: ‘Deep learning’ clusters crack coding problems their top engineers can’t. The Register. Retrieved from

Keim, B. (2013). A neuroscientist’s radical theory of how networks become consciousness. Wired. Retrieved from

Koch, C. (2013). Scientific American: A “Complex” Theory of Consciousness: Is complexity the secret to sentience, to a panpsychic view of consciousness? Scientific American. Retrieved from


One thought on “The Φ of School Ecosystems

  1. Pingback: The gestalt of the brain – Schools & Ecosystems

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