Each human is a complex system.  Each person’s actions, thoughts, beliefs, values, and emotions are the product of a massively complex set of interactions among billions of neurons, a body, other bodies and minds, institutions, environments of all different changing sorts, and a myriad of experience across time.  This complexity is surely on the order of other complex systems like atoms, cells, weather, economies, the rise and fall of civilizations, and the universe.

When we have a classroom, we have a larger system composed of a set of interacting complex systems (individuals) and that larger system is itself linked with, and interacts with, other systems like schools, neighborhoods, communities, family backgrounds, social and cultural groups, other institutions, the country, and the global world.  This is complexity squared and I mean by “complexity” the technical sense of complex systems, that is, systems that are so complex that even the slightest variation in their initial conditions can lead to large and unpredictable outcomes when we run them (or see them run) multiple times.  Such systems are not open to study by controlled studies, but require different sorts of research tools, as in much of physics.

Yet many educational researchers and policy makers argue that controlled classroom studies are the gold standard of educational research.  These people must believe that humans and interactions in a classroom across time among a teacher and 28 kids are not complex systems in the technical sense.  This seems to me absurd and is, perhaps, one reason why such studies have never definitively settled an important issue in education and why their results “never work in Detroit”, as they say.  At the very least we need an argument why classrooms are not complex systems, though they are composed of individual interacting human brains and bodies.

In a sense, controlled classroom studies are not research on individuals (teachers and students) in a classroom.  They are research on “averages” (“average” children and teachers of certain sorts of classes and categories), abstractions that do not exist in the real world.  Such studies can be meaningful in certain cases, of course, but we need to be clear when we have entered realms of complexity where they do not apply and where their application may harm both understanding and people.  The minute Hermione is in the picture, all bets are off and we need to change research tools.


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March 29th, 2018

The Interpreter System (7)

Let’s return to our diagram of a human being (or, “an enviro-human system”).  I want now to look just at […]

March 27th, 2018

Joint Actor Systems (6)

The diagram I used in the last post is misleading in that it makes things look more contained and bounded […]

March 26th, 2018

A Human Being (5)

Last time, we raised the question: “What is ‘Jim”?” (substitute your own name for “Jim” here).  We think of ourselves […]

March 25th, 2018

Jim and Identities/Discourses (4)

When we make a choice, who is making the choice?  We have already seen that there are lots of things […]

March 10th, 2018

Alternates (3)

When we make a choice about ourselves often that choice is vastly undetermined by the information we have available.  Say […]

March 7th, 2018

Flourishing (2)

It makes little sense to see a human being (or any other animal) as an individual making free choices.  In […]

February 25th, 2018

Free Will (1)

Note that the question of free will simply does not arise for animals.  We think that, even for intelligent species, […]

October 29th, 2017

The Principle of Charity

October 8th, 2017

Character Education

Recently, the College of Education at Arizona State University—where I work— received funding from the Kern Family Foundation to make […]

June 15th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 6 (The End)

What killed people’s sense of mattering was the growth of very high levels of inequality.  What caused such high levels […]

June 14th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 5

Many of us tend to think of history as a march forward and upward. So, we tend to interpret the […]

June 14th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 4

The Catholic Church declined in three stages. The same was true for many other institutions.  “The Sixties” (roughly from 1963 […]

June 12th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 3

Today, we have among the highest levels of inequality we have ever had.  Drug addiction, environmental degradation, flows of climate […]

June 11th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 2

The British economist John Maynard Keynes and “Keynesian Economics” were foundational to the Bretton Woods Agreement and to the world […]

June 10th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 1

Though neo-liberalism is the “usual suspect” for the miseries of our institutions and society, it is not nearly as relevant […]

May 30th, 2017

Main Points from My New Book

Teaching, Learning, Literary in our High-Risk, High-Tech World: A Framework for Becoming Human (Teachers College Press, 2017). Ignorance We humans […]

April 17th, 2017

The Importance of Discourse Analysis:
Step 10 The End

Neither love nor liking is necessary for the sorts of critical discussions among different frameworks that might lead to shared […]

April 15th, 2016

The Importance of Discourse Analysis:
Step 9 Interpretation

Goodwill.  What could possibly encourage people in a fractured and inequitable world to have goodwill?  I, for one, do not […]

April 14th, 2016

The Importance of Discourse Analysis:
Step 8 An Example

I want now to give an example of two different frameworks that certainly appear incommensurable.  My purpose here is make […]

April 12th, 2016

The Importance of Discourse Analysis:
Step 7 Discussion

We are at a critical juncture now in our attempt to understand why frameworks can cause us humans such grief.  […]