Toward Systemic Educational Change: Questions from a Complex Systems Perspective

Jay Lemke & Working Group 3 Collaborators

(Part of Planning Documents for a National Initiative on Complex Systems in K-16 Education)

I. Introduction: New Problems, New Tools, New Questions

Researchers in Education and in Complex Systems Analysis have a unique opportunity to help strengthen the U.S. educational system and bring new tools for thinking to millions of Americans. These tools can help prepare students to meet the challenges of an increasingly complex environment, both at home and at work.

This Report both highlights the prospects for a complex systems approach to educational change and invites wider participation in the next stages of formulating a research and action agenda. The aim of that agenda is twofold: (1) to find the best ways to bring these new tools for thinking to the largest numbers of students in every area of the curriculum, and (2) to apply the insights of complex systems analysis to one of the most complex systems of all: our contemporary system of education.

New conceptual approaches to the study of complex systems have been developed in the last two decades by mathematicians, physicists, chemists, biologists, and computer scientists. They are being applied and extended by economists, psychologists, organizational scientists, and researchers in many disciplines whose insights are being scaffolded not only by new quantitative techniques, but by new qualitative conceptions of phenomena common to many different complex systems. Concepts such as multi-scale hierarchical organization, emergent patterning, agent-based modelling, dynamical attractors and repellors, information flows and constraints, system-environment interaction, developmental trajectories, selectional ratchets, fitness landscapes, and varieties of self-organization are becoming key tools for qualitative reasoning about complex systems as well as for quantitative modelling and simulation.

At the same time, new technologies are making possible new avenues of learning about the natural and social world, but there is increasing public concern about whether the U.S. educational system as presently constituted has sufficient institutional flexibility and resilience to prepare citizens for the rapidly changing and increasingly complex world of the 21st century. Many individual educational projects aim to contribute at various levels to overall systemic reform, but we need to find ways to better understand how these projects may interact with one another and with the existing educational system as a whole.

Can the new tools of complex system analysis help us understand the potential impact on the educational system of new technologies and efforts at systemic reform? Can they help us design new educational systems to meet the needs of all citizens in the new century? Can they help us identify critical relationships within the educational system that resist systemic change or afford opportunities for new alternatives? Can we realistically hope for an educational system that will teach large numbers of students to use the new tools for thinking that complexity theory has developed? Can we find ways to make the value of these tools sufficiently evident and attractive to large numbers of students and teachers so that they will seek them out (as was the case, for example, with spreadsheet-based analyses in the business world)?

If the answers to any of these questions are to be 'yes', we will require collaboration within a diverse new community of researchers seeking a common framework for sharing ideas from different disciplines and approaches to both complex system analysis and to education. There is an urgency to the formation of such a community. If the response of the educational system to the new demands of the public for reform and to the new opportunities technology affords is not guided by the best ideas of the research community, and by research- and data-driven decision-making, it will be guided by other forces.

In the sections that follow the Report will identify a few initial concepts from complex systems analysis that may be of use in analyzing problems of systemic change in K-16 education, highlight several critical areas for potential educational change that require detailed analysis using complex system methods, and extend the invitation to join this new community to a wide range of potential contributors to our efforts.

II. Developing a Conceptual Framework

It is not the aim of this Report to present a complete conceptual framework for the analysis of education as a complex system. Our purpose is to begin to define possible agendas for further research toward such framework. Even within what we might eventually agree on as a common framework and terminology for describing such a complex system, there will continue to be room for many existing alternative models and, over an extended period of research, for the emergence of new data-driven models and syntheses appropriate to various specific tasks.

Defining the System

The U.S. educational system can be narrowly defined in the context of this Report as the system of public and private schools and colleges that offer students formal education from kindergarten to college graduation. Ultimately the system must be defined by our analysis of its dynamics: which institutions and social practices, which sources and users of information and material and human resources are tightly enough coupled and interdependent in their behavior that they must be included within the system? Likewise, what are the range of timescales characteristic of the critical processes that enable the system to maintain itself? What are its significant levels of organization, not simply or primarily in terms of lines of authority (control hierarchies), but in terms of characteristic structures and characteristic emergent processes and patterns at each level? What kinds of material resource and information flows connect adjacent and non-adjacent levels? How is information transformed, filtered, re-organized, and added to from level to level? How is information-overload avoided by emergent systems for pattern-recognition that extract from large data-flows only what matters for the dynamics of the next higher level?

If we consider the longest timescales experienced by students within the system, we will need to extend its definition to consider pre-school education, post-graduate study, and continuing adult education. If we examine all the source institutions that contribute to students' understanding of particular topics within the formal curriculum, we must include informal educational institutions such as science museums and information sources and learning sites afforded by mass media, print publishing, and interactive communication technologies. If we look at resource constraints and decision-making bodies, we will add school boards and trustees and state education authorities. If we include ourselves within the system, we will consider our roles as teachers and researchers, and the relationship between research institutions and sponsors and the communities which make use of research results.

Structural Analysis

Architecture and formal organizational hierarchies propose one starting point for identifying levels within the core educational system: individual learners and teachers, small groups, classrooms, departments, schools, districts (LEAs), states (SEAs), federal agencies, the total system. What would a dynamical analysis propose? If we analyze the system in terms of dynamical processes and emergent phenomena on different timescales, what would the units of analysis be? How do brief actions by teachers and students add up to coherent activities over periods of minutes and hours, days and months? How do curriculum change processes that occur over periods of years exchange information with classroom activities that occur over periods of minutes? How do learning events in a laboratory or at a computer workstation and those in classrooms and hallways and cafeterias add up to a coherent longer-term process of educational development, or perhaps the development of facility with a particular concept? How do networks of social interaction with peers in the classroom, in the wider neighborhood community, and in virtual online communities contribute to longterm processes of identity development and formation of lasting attitudes and values, which affect decisions and actions on very short timescales? How do the changing priorities, populations and problems of a local community influence the larger educational system's agendas and programs?

Having focussed on some of the characteristic educational processes that involve the student, we could raise similar questions about those in which teachers participate but which may not always involve students, and like questions about supervisors and administrators, teacher educators, curriculum developers, educational materials publishers, and we ourselves as researchers.

Relationships Among Subsystems and Levels

Whatever level of organization or subsystem is the focus of our concerns at a particular point, we can always ask a series of key questions motivated by the perspectives of complex system theory. What next higher level of organization determines constraints on the dynamics at the focal level? How do all subsystems subject to those constraints interact to constitute the dynamics of the higher level? What degrees of freedom remain at the focal level after the constraints are allowed for? What units of analysis at the next level below interact to constitute units (or processes or patterns) at the focal level? What characteristics of those lower level units determine the range of dynamical possibilities at the focal level? What are the typical attractors of the focal level dynamics? Under what conditions is each attractor dominant for the (sub-) system? How do new attractors emerge over the history of the system's development and the evolution of this kind of system? Which features of system behavior are determinate and which are not? Which regions of the space of possibilities are accessible and which are not? What manifolds describe the conditions on the range of values of all other parameters that must be met to achieve some value of the parameter of interest?

At a given level of organization, how are the different units and processes coupled with one another? What kinds of matter, information, and energy do they exchange? How tightly coupled are they and what is the topology of the coupling network? What are the significant branchings, closed loops, and connectivity decompositions? What is system and what is 'environment'? and how do system and environment form a supersystem from the viewpoint of some still larger-scale unit or process?

Drivers for Change

How is the educational system as a whole driven by external events and pressures such as advances in scientific understanding, the increasing complexity of problems addressed by communities and societies, changing technologies, and public demands for reform? How is educational change constrained by resource limitations, standardized curricula and testing, or deeply held cultural beliefs? How is educational change enabled or made possible by bringing new kinds of people into contact with one another or utilizing new technologies (e.g. cross-age tutoring, or tele-mentoring)? How would educational processes be affected by creating new feedback loops, such as research data which systematically describes outcomes back to teachers, students, and parents? How might new educational institutions (charter schools, online courses) create niches for themselves in the educational ecology? Or new spontaneous networks, such as online communication groups of teachers within a school or across the country, affect the rate of educational change? Or new economic relationships among elements, e.g., software developers, publishers, schools/districts, authors/publishers,…?

Modeling Methods

How would we model and analyze issues like these using the concepts and techniques of ecosystem theory, developmental biology, reaction-diffusion chemistry, non-equilibrium statistical mechanics, nonlinear dynamical systems analysis, cellular automata models, artificial life systems, neural networks, parallel distributed computation, agent-based modelling theory, informatics and infodynamics,…? Given access to data and expertise about the educational system, how would you yourself approach one of these issues? Given the collaboration of others, who could offer different insights about complex system behavior, how would you and other educators and researchers begin to formulate any one of these problems for actual study?

III. Identifying Opportunities for System Change

In studying a system of the degree of complexity found in education, as with the study of eukaryote cells or rainforest ecosystems, we may begin with only rather coarse-grained and inadequate models of the system as a whole, but we then focus on specific and critical phenomena of interest and build our models out from detailed studies of these phenomena and their contexts. What is of primary interest in the research initiative being proposed here are phenomena critical to meaningful and useful educational change. What changes within the system are most likely to be relevant to curriculum reform? To bringing to students the opportunity to learn new tools for thinking that have emerged from research on complex systems? To providing students with new activities and experiences to aid their learning? To preparing teachers to bring greater insights into learning processes and specific concepts to their work with students? To enhancing the effectiveness of the educational system in promoting problem-posing and problem-solving, model building and model testing, data interpretation and critical questioning of interpretive frameworks and assumptions? To enhancing the flow of new ideas and practices from innovators (in software, curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, organizational structure) to policy makers and practitioners?

Roles of Testing and Assessment

From a complex systems perspective, for example, we might consider the role of high-stakes standardized testing and assessment schemes in the present educational system as imposing an artificial fitness landscape that pulls the system toward behaviors that maximize test results rather than deep conceptual understanding (unless, of course, these are the same). We could pose questions about whether or not it is reasonable to expect that the same assessment system could be optimal for both the purposes of diagnosing and providing feedback on learning to individual students and for the purposes of comparing overall performance of programs, schools, districts, and states, or colleges and universities. How could we devise multi-dimensional assessments, reporting a large number of outcome measures and indices, that could be complemented by distinct and specialized schemes for re-weighting component measures in different ways to optimize different final single-valued scores for different social purposes? How might we specify such vectorial measures and their dual-vector weighting schemes so that one derived composite might indicate a student's readiness for a new program or for advanced study, another his or her qualifications for a particular job; still another be more appropriate for program comparisons, another for budget incentives to departments or schools, and yet another for year-to-year or state-to-state aggregate comparisons?

We need to broker collaborations between researchers with long experience studying the relationship between testing and the educational system as a whole and those who can help formulate these issues within a common framework in which research results can be connected to studies of other aspects of the educational system.

New Channels for Interaction

It is a common phenomenon in complex systems of many kinds that system behavior is limited because some elements are decoupled from others; interactions that might otherwise be expected to occur are blocked or strongly buffered. There are many examples of this in the present educational system and each one offers an opportunity to unleash educational change by providing a new channel for interaction.

Schools today have very limited and controlled forms of interaction with the surrounding community and even with students' families. There are many researchers in the field of education who are studying various experiments in closer school-community collaboration and new ways in which parents can participate in the life of schools. How can we enhance these studies to examine the potential of such new forms of interaction for accelerating educational reform? How can we focus on system change?

Within the school, there are two classic forms of segregation barriers: those between disciplines and those between grades. What are the actual functions and consequences within the system of these barriers to mixing? Are any of the purported or historical functions still necessary or valid? Apart from complete random mixing, what other forms of organization across disciplines and between age-grades make educational sense, and what would be the likely system consequences of large-scale interaction between teachers of different subjects and students at different ages? Again, there are existing research programs that have examined inter-disciplinary curricula and cross-age tutoring; the experiences of these researchers can provide valuable data and perspectives for models of educational change that focus on creating new couplings between existing system components.

Links between Education and other Activities

There are many other ways in which the existing educational system of schooling isolates students and teachers from the wider community. Even young adult students in our society are not given significant opportunity to take on real responsibility or experience the satisfactions of making real contributions to the wider community; how is their rate of social maturation affected by this? their motivation for learning? Researchers studying the many experiments in integrating community study and workplace participation with academic learning can contribute to understanding this dimension of potential system change. Teachers tend to be isolated by the structural arrangements of schooling from significant professional contact with other teachers in their field, not only within the school, but more widely, as they are also isolated even more from teachers in other fields -- even from their colleagues in the same school who teach the same students on the same day. How do new opportunities for interaction and communication among teachers online, within schools and across the country, within disciplines and across them, along professional lines or as teachers of the same students, open up new possibilities for wider system change?

Changing Roles and Relationships Among Participants

Another potential approach to the dynamics of system change in education would look at the effects of shifts in the definitions of roles and the distribution of the kinds of people filling them. In the case of teachers, what are the new definitions of teachers' changing professional roles, and the kinds of preparation and training appropriate to such new roles? What happens when teachers become teacher-researchers? or student advocates? or paid curriculum authors? What do teachers need to know in order to use new technologies in the classroom effectively? and what then are the implications for teacher education programs in colleges? for the recruitment of teachers, teacher payscales, school budgets, and community taxation? for the hiring of teacher education faculty and the resources needed by doctoral programs preparing future faculty? How do we model the interactions in just this part of the system?

Or suppose we imagine that students would benefit greatly from more contact with a wider variety of adults who can help them with their studies. The diversity of people filling the formal role of Teacher in our schools, or our colleges, is far less than that of the community or population as a whole, in many ways, including many ways irrelevant to their ability to assist a student. What would be the consequences of giving students online access to: older students, retired professionals, workplace specialists, community volunteers? What happens to the constraints under which students' independent study or group project work is currently limited by the amount of time that professional teachers can devote to their guidance? If such project work expands significantly, what happens to the existing rationale for rigid divisions of the school day into brief classroom periods? What happens to patterns of student learning if they have the opportunity to address the same question to different authorities and need to reconcile differing answers? If they can continue working on a project or problem until they reach a natural stopping point rather than living their lives according to a bell schedule?

Impact and Affordances of Technology

How do we model the potential impact of new information and communication technologies on education and educational change? If the new technology merely substitutes for an older technology with no structural changes in the organization of interaction or time within the system or between it and its environment, we expect minimal systemic change. What would be the most radical changes possible for the educational system given existing and predictable technologies? What sets limits to these changes? How do we evaluate a scenario that envisions the end of schools as physical institutions, with students working at home from high-end high-bandwidth workstations with access to intelligent tutoring systems, collaborative networks of learning peers (who might be of any chronological age), virtual environments, real-time remotes, modelling and simulation design programs, and intelligent agents to seek information and organize it appropriately for their needs? Learning through individualized and collaborative group research projects, creating multimedia hypertext products that can be evaluated by anyone to whom they give access and by whatever criteria are appropriate for the purpose at hand. How do we judge whether this is a realistic or an impossible scenario? How do we predict the impact on the existing educational system of interaction or competition with such an alternative educational paradigm?

How well could we design today a 'SimSchool' or 'SimDistrict' school- or school district- simulation program? Not just to model an existing system, but to enable us to create alternative systems and study their evolution over time, their needs and problems, their probable outcomes? What kinds of schools would students or policy-makers design if given access to an appropriate version of this software? And how would they evaluate various designs proposed by others? Who would we enlist in the team to create such a software package? What research literatures would we want to consult? Does data exist that could be used to test such a model of existing systems? Is such data possible? What is not yet known that would be needed to make such a project credible?

Studying Implications of Alternative Systems

Finally, what happens when we really redefine our perspective on education as K-16? Or birth to death? What happens to the stability of the present educational system if students at any grade level can choose to access online courses offered by colleges and universities rather than those given by their local schools? Or courses offered by commercial agencies and accredited by the state? If colleges, universities, and other entities begin to compete seriously in the secondary education market, erasing the distinction between 'remedial' or 'developmental' education, already practiced by nearly all colleges today, and normal secondary education -- for teaching writing skills, mathematics, computer literacy, introductory level foreign languages? What happens if the distinction between community colleges and college preparatory courses in high schools blurs institutionally as well as in academic content?

How do we model the existing and various potential future relationships between K-12 education and undergraduate study? Historically it is well known that K-12 curricula, and especially secondary education curricula tend to follow, and lag, college curricula. College entrance examinations may increasingly merge with high school exit examinations. What implications does the K-16 joint system perspective have for educational change in both schools and colleges?  And for the social stratification that is associated with the historical division? What do we know from existing research about educational innovations introduced into the schools that did not reflect already existing concepts and practices needed for college education? What are the relative rates of adoption of curriculum innovations in schools for well-established elements of undergraduate curricula vs. new elements that entered the college curriculum at about the same time or not long before they were proposed for the K–12 schools? How might the situation for pedagogical change be different from that of curricular change?  If concepts and tools derived from the study of complex systems are not first widely adopted into the undergraduate curriculum, is there any chance they will be successful in schools?

There are no doubt a number of other areas that are likely to be critical ones for studying potential systemic change in education, but it seems clear that in each of these cases the nature of the key questions is amenable in principle to a complex systems analysis. Indeed in most cases it seems impossible to imagine a coherent research approach that does not call for following through the antecedent conditions and distal implications of changes in any one subsystem through other components of the wider educational system as a whole. In the study of educational change, researchers working in any one of these subsystem areas must often wish that there were a common framework within which to connect their results to the interests of others and understand how other research linked to their own area. Globally, that is perhaps a dream for the more distant research future, but locally it is surely possible to begin making connections now, to broker collaborations that enable projects over time to trace out the linkages from any one point further than we usually do. To follow the path where it leads, even beyond the limits of our own expertise, in collaborations, direct and indirect, immediate and remote, that are supported by the beginnings of a common research framework made possible by new concepts and methods emerging from the wider study of complex systems.

The Role of Federal Initiatives

A complex systems perspective envisions qualitatively more effective results emerging from existing programs and initiatives if they can learn how to interact productively with one another. An independent projects approach takes advantage of individual creativity and sensitivity to local needs, but it rarely leads to a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Top-down coordination and central planning assumes an ability to reckon with the vast scale of educational systems that is essentially unrealistic. It should, however, be possible to discover what kinds of networking, information sharing and collaborative planning among individual projects produces more than proportional effects. We need to understand better what researchers, educators, and administrators need in order to more effectively develop structures of coordination 'from the bottom up' and at each level of organization of the system as a whole. How can federal research initiatives and policies promote more effective networking and collaboration among projects? How can we effectively investigate the preconditions for cross-project synergies and emergent structures of co-ordination? Are there ways to reuse the data from policy studies from a complex systems perspective? Are there ongoing policy studies that take a complex system perspective? What can we learn from historical analyses from a complex system perspective?

IV. Extending the Invitation: Extending Our Collective Expertise

In every one of the specific areas discussed in this Report, there are already researchers at work, there is already a growing body of experience that can help us all determine the feasibility of applying a variety of different complex system approaches to studying education as a system.

Those who participated in the first conference considering this initiative were researchers in science and mathematics education and researchers in the various, mainly scientific mathematical and computer science disciplines where the study of complex systems is already well advanced.

At the next stage of this endeavor we will need much more help. Our working group has already identified at least the following kinds of experience and research expertise as important to the success of any effort not only to study educational change, but to initiate and support it:

  • Scholars in the field of testing, assessment, and its uses and wider implications for education policy and society;
  • Researchers who have studied examples of successful and unsuccessful educational innovations and schemes for curriculum change;
  • Historians of education
  • Ecologists and ecosystem theorists
  • Educators and managers with experience of current corporate, organization, and workplace models of employee education and human resource development;
  • Researchers who work within the context and agendas of professional organizations in the field of education, such as teacher organizations, national associations, etc.
  • Researchers who work with and are advocates for marginalized and disenfranchised groups, including the homeless, the physically challenged, communities with high unemployment, communities with low school completion rates, etc.;
  • Researchers who work with private foundations that study and promote educational change;
  • Economists, political scientists, and sociologists with interests in the role of education in society;
  • Science and education journalists
  • Researchers in comparative education and those who have studied educational change in other parts of the world;
  • Researchers who study learning in non-school or informal educational institutions;
  • Researchers who specialize in the study of the impact of technology on social institutions;
  • Leaders in higher education who have worked on educational reform and curriculum innovation in colleges and universities, and those with research expertise in this area.

Representation from all these categories, in addition to experts in complex system analysis, science and mathematics education, educational technology, curriculum studies, elementary and early childhood education, and educational policy studies will be needed to judge the feasibility and chart the most promising course for this initiative.

Back to Planning Documents for a National Initiative on Complex Systems in K-16 Education main page

Video of Yaneer Bar-Yam's seminar on Complex Systems Principles and Education: Focusing on Universal Principles and Individual Differences



Phone: 617-547-4100 | Fax: 617-661-7711 | Email: office at

210 Broadway Suite 101 Cambridge, MA USA