Why schools avoid complexity and why they shouldn’t

Divide and rule

An excellent and practical guide to why schools need to develop a comfort with complexity.

Teaching for complex systems thinking by Rosemary Hipkins is a powerful look at key aspects of understanding and learning that traditionally have been missing from the experience of an average school student.

One of the driving ideas in the book is the consideration that starting with ancient Greek philosophy and intellectualism and then moving through the religions, an understanding developed that humans were put on earth as it’s masters and we exist separate to all around us. To some extent we understand ourselves as intellectual superiors looking down upon all other things. It was this core way of seeing that led us to design schooling as an approach to understanding things always as outsiders, academically disconnected to what we study and content to isolate anything from everything else.

A Western desire to remain as master pushes educators towards a reductionist approach where we break everything into small manageable chunks and then understand each chunk independently. How all of those chunks directly and indirectly relate to each other can quickly seem complicated and so to maintain a sense of control we keep things separate and therefore simple. Our compartmentalised school systems push against finding relationships between topics.

As controlling masters, it seems okay to study random topic A, check understanding of individual parts before moving on to random topic B. The randomness feels okay because we study from a distance, never connecting to or being affected by or part of what we study. The movement called Place–based education could be argued to be one example of an attempt to reconnect with what we study.

Complex versus complicated

A desire to maintain control drives us to divide existence into departments, subjects, topics, and individual elements with no concern as to how they relate or how we relate to them. It also builds a culture of wanting/needing absolute answers. A desire for a right answer encourages us towards simplicity, away from the complicated, and we run for our life from complexity.

The book points out that a car engine is complicated, it has many connected moving parts that all have their own role to play. It can take some study to understand it but at the end of the day there is a correct answer. A car engine is complicated but it’s correct answer makes it simple when compared with something like a pandemic. A pandemic is complex because the elements and actors at play within the system all affect each other directly and indirectly in unpredictable ways. This means complexity doesn’t have a correct answer and why schools are uncomfortable with complexity.

Ways of knowing – How The West misses the point

As intellectual outsiders, we fear losing control and thus fear the uncertainty of the planet we live on. Picture the fear on a teacher’s face when they realise they don’t know the answer when standing in front of the class. Outsider intellectual control is our way of knowing. Unlike The West’s fragmented and abstract ways of seeing and knowing, Indigenous cultures such as the Māori in New Zealand have tangible and relation-based ways of knowing. Everything is seen, understood, and taught in regards to its relationship with a wider network or community of things. This is even true of te reo Māori, the metaphoric language of the Māori people and other indigenous languages too. This makes their ways of knowing more aligned with the increasing demands for understanding complex systems.

This connectedness to what one studies leads to deeper understandings and a comfort with the complex systems at play and one’s roles within them.

School change – Comfort with complexity

Whether it is the pandemic, the climate crisis, worldwide production chains, or increasing demands for equity around the world, the daily news is compelled to tell us that the world is becoming more complex and less predictable. I would argue that the distant and abstract relationship Western understanding has had with the planet is what has led us to the climate crisis.

To reflect this, schools need to follow the practical examples outlined in this book (including elementary classrooms) and embrace complexity with a comfort that you can’t be wrong because no answer is absolutely right. We need the next generation to understand themselves, their role, their community, and how the elements and actors within complex systems relate to and impact each other.

To avoid another generation leaving school with no understanding of how the world really operates and full of anxiety about the speed of change and unpredictable events, every teacher needs to introduce and refer more often to anything’s “bigger picture” and enjoy it’s complexity.


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