Wouldn’t it be great if students arrived to class each day cheerful and eager to learn? Teachers could simply open their mouths to bestow wisdom and knowledge, and students would listen, absorb, and then dazzle everyone in earshot with their brilliance. Though teachers’ lives would be easier if the good, old-fashioned direct instruction approach worked every time, this simple model of education does not suffice for one important reason: students are not simple. Sure, they want to learn, but about the Russian Revolution? Students can’t see how it relates to them. What about the rich ecosystem just beyond the school walls? Are there power outlets out there? Students are hard-wired for learning, but they can fail to retain what they’ve been taught if they don’t see why it is important to them.

So, what is important? Friends, sports, music, the environment, human or animal rights. . . and sometimes they do get excited about school, too. I’ve seen many students engage actively when confronted with subjects like the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, or issues that hit close to home. When students are fully checked in, teachers can read it all over their faces, not to mention their work. When school topics connect to their personal experiences or challenge them to grapple with questions they feel are important, they react and respond.

Still, some students evade all hooks. Despite teachers’ best efforts, some kids will still text message on their phones when they should be listening, hide ear buds under hoods, and pass long notes that ignore every grammar lesson they’ve ever had. But, they do care. Maybe it’s about a band they’re starting up, a new game they’re playing, or a new love. Maybe it’s a struggle they’re having with body image or a home without heat. Students are complex beings, and that complexity influences their learning.

Students’ learning is affected not only by the strengths and limitations they bring with them—as well as the strengths and limitations of their teachers—but also by the school, its community, and all of the relationships within it. In these days of mass media and information being a click away, learning is affected by an increasingly broad scope of global events and realities. Education is a complex system.

This all seems fitting. We are, after all, educating our kids so that they may thrive in a diverse and ever more interconnected world. Teachers have heard that by the time their students graduate from college, they will be assuming jobs and careers that don’t even exist yet. They will be living in a complex world full of complex systems—biological, ecological, political, economic, and social—all nested, overlapping, and interdependent.

Many authors have made the case that systems thinking is critical for addressing modern problems that cross traditional disciplinary boundaries—problems like climate change that exist at the intersections of politics, religion, economics, and conservation.1-5 Several have argued that if we want to prepare students to thrive in a complex world, we need to teach them systems skills, which include the ability to see connections between diverse subjects and contexts, view any given situation from multiple perspectives, and recognize patterns of change over time.6-9 However, teaching about complexity is not just about preparing students for future challenges or opportunities. It is also about helping them to orient themselves in their world today.

The language of systems can illuminate direct connections between the curricular content of schools and the world that surrounds them. Meadows and Wright define a system as “a set of things—people, cells, molecules, etc.—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time.”10 There are simple, linear systems in which “each part works in a lockstep way with the other parts.”11 Think of the coffee pot sitting on your counter at home. Add coffee grounds and water, turn it on, and you can pretty much predict what it will do. That is one of the primary characteristics of a linear system. It is predictable, and so it is controllable.12

Teenagers, of course, aren’t linear systems. They are complex. Unlike the coffee pot, students don’t behave predictably at the press of a button. They have the capacity to learn and grow, and to respond to feedback from teachers, their peers, and the greater systems of which they are a part. The complexity of each individual’s lived experiences is an example of complex systems in action.

A complexity-oriented perspective is both an academic and intuitive way of looking at the world, a way of studying patterns of behavior and relationships over time. In research and in practice, complex systems approaches have been used to advance knowledge across a range of disciplines from computer science and engineering to archeology and public administration.


Caitlin Steele

Caitlin S. Steele is a graduate teaching fellow and doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Vermont (UVM). Her research focuses on complex systems as an interdisciplinary...

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