The Complex Classroom

As the school year begins and students start coming back into class, I felt it was time for me to refresh the conditions necessary for my classes to operate as complex, living networks. This is a quote which I have loved since first reading it and it is something I strive to achieve:

In this context, the practitioner is less like the bulldozer driver carving a way through the landscape to a pre conceived objective, more like a combination of canoeist shooting the rapids and creative artist exploring possibilities and waiting for inspiration.

(Mike Radford, 2007)

To view education as a living system we need to note the existence of four requirements of a complex system:

  • Redundancy
  • Diversity
  • Interaction
  • A Decentralised Structure

Redundancy is about members of a class having some familiarity with issues or common experiences to call upon. In classrooms, diversity normally presents as differing perspectives so that conflict occurs to change or maintain an opinion. All classes start with both redundancy and diversity already in effect. As classrooms are a social system  communication is the prime way that interaction occurs. Communication and collaborative learning allows for connectedness in the classroom. Connectedness assists students learning through recursive feedback loops in their collaboration.

A distributed control structure in the complex world of the classroom implies participatory pedagogy that breaks down the traditional hierarchical teaching model with the teacher as font of all knowledge. Classroom events are subject to many variables interacting in a dynamic, non-linear fashion. This results in educators viewing learning as the product of interaction amongst learner, classmates, teacher and classroom culture. Meaning is co-determined by the learner and the environment.

Decentralised control of a classroom means that teachers cannot predetermine the understandings for students to learn, these will emerge through shared projects. Teaching under Complexity is a far more participatory process than other pedagogies. In this fashion, teachers are teaching in the ‘middle’ and listening to the students, so they may become aware of the possibilities that arise rather than determining in advance what pathways students will choose.

Teaching under a Complexity approach does not mean there are no constraints within the learning environment. Sufficient structure and sufficient openness are both required to enable creativity in learning. Davis et al. give the example of a learning intention “Students will write creative poems this lesson” as one that is too open and requires more structure for learning to be successful. A more enabling learning intention would be “Students will explore poetry-writing processes through inventing characters and plots based on unfamiliar items and unexpected juxtapositions”. This learning intention has sufficient constraint and openness to produce the creative mix necessary for complex emergence to unfold.

So, the big question is how to provide a decentralised, participatory structure with enabling constraints that allow students to interact with each other frequently. If you have your own classroom then you have the flexibility to change your space to assist with this (Check out Chris Bradbeer’s blog for great examples of this). My issue this year is that I am teaching in 6 different classrooms that are controlled by 6 different teachers. My intention is to focus on the participatory pedagogy and work on the interaction through cooperative learning where I mix up the groups regularly and go for some 1990’s style get the students moving around the classroom (or as often as possible – moving around the areas outside our classroom).

Bring on all these new students, I’m ready (I hope!).

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2 thoughts on “The Complex Classroom

  1. Pingback: NZC and Design Thinking Part 1 | Steve Mouldey

  2. Pingback: How will I inquire into Design Thinking? | Steve Mouldey

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