Classroom as a Complex Adaptive System

Jul 19 2016

The Classroom as a Complex Adaptive System
Implications for teachers' professional learning.

If teaching was only complicated, and if pedagogy, curriculum and student management processes could be communicated as a complicated but linear process, teacher professional learning would be simple. For example, leaders or teacher educators could teach the elements of the 'formula' for the new pedagogy and expect that, after some practice, teachers would implement the recipe in their classroom. In practice, a great deal of teachers’ professional learning assumes that this is all that is required. No wonder that in-service education frequently fails to change classroom practice15 or that many curriculum innovations flounder over time16.

The reality is that classrooms are fluid, dynamic systems and that the implementation of new ideas and practices in the classroom requires a level of conceptual understanding by the teacher that goes far beyond learning the new recipe.

Ann Burns17 refers to what happens in a classroom as a "kaleidoscopic process that must be viewed holistically rather than in parts." Her attempts to depict this in a diagram give some sense of the real complexities involved. Clearly this is not a context in which a teacher can impose a recipe!

For teachers to succeed in bring their own new learning into the classroom requires them to have a high level of conceptual understanding and sufficient grasp of the rationale to be creative with their new practices. Their creativity, adaptability and flexibility - the hallmarks of a 'knowledge worker' operating within a complex system – must come to the fore. Because classrooms are places of such complexity, and because teachers must be endlessly adaptive to be successful in these contexts, adding to a teacher's repertoire of practice requires some fundamental elements:

  • A deep understanding of the rationale;
  • An opportunity to explore the thinking embedded in the practice;
  • Opportunities to discuss and experiment;
  • Conviction that the effort of adding this new piece to my repertoire will optimise performance.

When leaders try to do the thinking for teachers, there is no possibility that what emerges from the superficial learning that results can survive in the complex adaptive system that is the classroom. When we hear teachers say, with a sigh, "Just tell me what to do," the alarm bells are ringing with the sound of disengagement.

15 Lamb, M.: 'The consequences of In-service for teachers' 1995 and Waters, A: 'Facilitating follow-up in ELT 2006. Cited in Anne Burns, John S Knox: 'Classrooms as complex adaptive systems: a relational model' TESL-EJ, 2011
16 Michael G Fullan: 'Change forces. The sequel.' Routledge, NY 1999
17 Anne Burns, John S Knox: 'Classrooms as complex adaptive systems: a relational model' TESL-EJ, 2011