Schools are Complexicated

A 6th century Coptic frieze

When I first started this blog, I hoped–as my younger, more idealistic and grandiose self–that we would uncover ecological principles of complex adaptive systems that could be applied in everyday practice.

While I have certainly uncovered many interesting themes and patterns along the way (such as obliquity, or the influence of unconscious bias on behavior), my slightly more hoary-eyed self can say, in an honest moment, that I have not discovered an alchemical praxis that will transmute principles of self-organizing systems into pedagogy or school organizations. Sorry!

A blog post, “Life Is Complexicated,” by Benjamin Goertzel helped me to clarify a reason why it might be so difficult to distill principles of complex adaptive principles into readily applicable practices.

Goertzel critiques the “Santa Fe Institute” concept of complexity, which has examined complex adaptive systems that have qualities of self-organizing emergence to identify universal principles. For Goertzel, the problem is not that there aren’t such systems, but rather that the real world systems that we wish to most understand aren’t simply complex—they are an admixture of both complex and complicated:

They are complex (in the Santa Fe Institute sense) AND complicated (in the sense of just having lots of different parts that are architected or evolved to have specific structures and properties, which play specific roles in the whole system). . . .

They are messy in a lot of different ways.  They have lots of specialized parts all working together, AND they have complex holistic dynamics that are hard to predict from looking at the parts, but that are critical to the practical operation of the parts.

When considering a school or a school system, this messy confluence of self-organizing emergence and highly specialized roles and frameworks sounds like a more apt description. Our analogy of a school to an ecosystem is meant to push back against the linear thinking that many apply to schools—but I will readily acknowledge that a school is far from an actual ecosystem (really, it’s perhaps more akin to a garden). Schools are institutions embedded within a wider complexication of bureaucracy, policy, culture, economics, and politics.

So perhaps I shouldn’t feel bad about having difficulty in simplifying the realm of education based on an analysis of schools as complex adaptive systems. Schools are complexicated.



Move Away from Hierarchical Structures

Complexity Theory experts suggest that when systems are complex and less predictable that we should consider moving away from hierarchical, to more heterarchical structures – where information and decisions are shared and made locally. Heterarchical literally implies that the components are connected with no “up-down” relationship between them, and the most effective systems structured this way are termed self-organizing “complex adaptive systems.”

—Roy Smythe, “Applying Complexity Theory To Healthcare Delivery Is Not Complicated” on

Intro to Complexity Theory

Check out this beautiful short film introducing complexity theory. Try to view with the lens of school systems: