Week 6- School Complexity


What makes schools complex?  At the risk of sounding crass, they are comprised of  and surrounded by human beings.  Human beings of all ages, types, and backgrounds; each with their own needs, ideas, expectations, styles, and plans of action for what they think should and shouldn’t be happening in schools.  Human beings engaged in what they all know to be the high-stakes endeavor of educating young people to take their places in the adult world as informed, equipped, engaged citizens.

Systems of Systems

A primary factor of what makes schools so complex is that not only are they systems, but they are systems of systems where each  “is a set of interacting parts behaving as a whole and distinguishable from an environment by identifiable boundaries” (Waks p. 148).  Consider for a moment all the nested sub-systems within a school: Classrooms, departments, course teams, grade-levels, faculties, administrators, students, clubs, and parent groups just to name a few.  Beyond the system that is the school are other systems with which the school is situated and interacts, such as the local school district, the community, constituencies within the community, and grantors.  Then there are the systems beyond this which also impact the school, including state boards of education and other funding agencies.  Beyond the state, still, are federal departments and agencies.

Each of these systems having to do with education act as a whole, separate and distinct from its environment and each other.  Each is composed of its own interacting parts, or agents, which when they follow similar rules or strategies, become a diverse type of agent.  Let’s take just two subjects as an example.  ELA teachers interact with each other and their students in similar ways with regard to their content and instruction.  Math teachers do so as well.  But more often than not, the interactions with the respective content (as opposed to interactions focusing on students) determines the kinds of interactions that occur between “ELA agents” and “math agents”.  These content-based interactions make for differences in how the human agents interact with each other and with the content setting up a level of diverse agency between ELA and math departments.  Waks notes that a system’s function is based on the nature of the agents and how they are arranged.  As the agents interact within the system, they determine the structure of the system  (p. 148), hence the differences we often see between departments, subject matter and how each is taught and learned.  Each system in and of itself has the potential for very intricate and complicated interactions.  Nest these systems within systems as schools are and the complexity that arises is not surprising in the least.

School Complexity
Source: Kolbe and Steele, 2015
Human Systems vs. Industrial Systems

Inasmuch as education still functions within the industrial paradigm, so-called reformers privilege business models of efficiency, applying them to schools as just another type of factory. Such “reform” efforts, therefore, are predicated on the mistaken belief that the functions within schools can be easily modified — as if the agents within the system are inanimate objects moving along an assembly line passively waiting to be acted upon.  Unlike such objects, however, humans are agents whose strong interactions regularly and repeatedly influence future events.  Not only are the people in schools and all the other nested systems agents, but they are diverse agents, and thus more likely to generate strong interactions when they engage with each other.  Plus, “the stronger the interactions, the more difficult it is to interpret, predict, or control the system”  (Waks, p. 148).  Not to mention that “[i]n complex adaptive systems agents seek to adapt to changing conditions in the system or environment to achieve their goals.  Complex human systems are all inherently adaptive”  (Waks, p. 149).  So the more other external systems or internal agents  push to reform the school, the more human agents within the school will adapt to those changes — either positively or negatively as seen from a reform perspective.  As the above graphic illustrates, with all the strong interactions taking place between the diverse agents, school systems are exquisitely complex!  Therefore, if we, as a society, are at all serious about our educational change efforts, we need to design those efforts with plans and timeframes that honor the needs and dynamics of the adaptive human elements through which these systems function.

Over-Simplification: “In two Years We’ll Be On To Something Else”

Over-simplification, treating schools and the human beings in them like factories churning out widgets, results from an inherent lack of understanding about or disregard for complex systems and how they operate.   Such misunderstanding and disregard can be seen in efforts built on the erroneous belief that change in and of a complex system can be fast-tracked, orderly, and controlled.  Thus, over-simplification is dangerous in that it will compromise the health and function of the system by collapsing complexity, treating all agents as if they were homogenous instead of diverse.  In the case of schools, over-simplification is what leads to the never-ending cycle of initiatives, looking for the silver bullet solution that will catalyze the alchemy of school improvement.  When the solution fails or when the next, seemingly more efficient, and “better” solution comes along, the school drops the previous initiative like a hot potato — or worse, lets it fade away without any formal closure or messaging about how it will or won’t continue to live in the life of the school — and lurches towards the new solution.  As new initiatives repeatedly cycle through, agents — teachers and students in particular — experience what is commonly referred to as “initiative fatigue”.  At that point, would-be reformers start to experience resistance, ennui, or outright refusal from faculty and staff to implement initiatives.  When one hears sentiments such as, “In a year or two we’ll be on to something else, so why bother changing what I do?” it is a clear indication that cynicism has taken hold.  Its own particular cancer, cynicism can spread rapidly throughout a system.  With a cynical faculty, the work of change is tripled.  For now not only do change-agents need to effect the desired, root pedagogical change, but they also have to convince the cynics and transform them back into an interactive rather than inert or resistant agent.


Another problem with over-simplification has to do with the de-professionalization that has been wrought on the teaching community, and K-12 teachers in particular.  Most often, schools experience an over-simplified reform initiative hierarchically.  That is, it’s coming from another system above them — either from their administrators, the district, the state, or the federal government — and not as a phase transition emerging from the school’s own edges of chaos.  Such top-down actions feel like they are being imposed on the community by those with little-to-no knowledge of it.  It is condescending and implies that the outsider knows better than the highly educated, credentialed, practitioner working in the community.  At this point, school personnel are little more than the unionized line workers carrying out the orders of their direct reports as opposed to being the rightful decision-makers in the field as the academics and practitioners they are.

Complexity Theory In The Service of School Change

Complexity theory, in a way, is therapeutic.  When we stop to consider all the moving parts, all the interactions, all the places the work can stall or encounter unexpected outcomes, can it be overwhelming?  Sure.  But at the same time, it acknowledges the elephant in the room that few want to recognize.  That is, schools are complicated environments with lots of moving parts that are impossible to control completely.  The work of school change and educational reform is hard by nature and by its nature the work of change is slow.  Complexity theory blows up the overly simplified organizational flow chart view of schools and recognizes they “are not uniform…. Needs at various levels get misaligned…. [R]esults can be almost impossible to predict…[and] inherent unpredictability is an essential characteristic of complex systems. The education system, characterized by the interdependence of many moving parts, the nestedness and interconnections of subsystems, and competition for limited resources, is inherently messy”  (Steele, emphasis added).  Perhaps by messaging the intricate complexity of change instead of the urgency to do something — anything — quickly, we can undertake change with a paradoxically more peaceful approach.  Perhaps what we need in order to feel fulfilled about such complicated undertakings, as opposed to feeling anxious, is to recognize the fact that the work will never be quick and simple.  It will always be slow, unpredictable, uneven, interdependent, and messy; which, after all, any work worth doing, is.

Complexity Labs. (n.d.). Retrieved October 21, 2017, from http://complexitylabs.io/about/

Steele, C. S. (2015, September 8). The Complexity of School Change [Blog post]. Retrieved October 21, 2017, from http://blog.uvm.edu/cessphd/2015/09/08/the-complexity-of-school-change/

Waks, L. J. (2016). Education 2.0: The learningweb revolution and the transformation of the school. New York, NY: Routledge.

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