Complexity Theory

Complexity theory is one of the ways we can 'unlearn' Shakespeare education. 

Watch project member Claire Hansen speak on complexity theory in the classroom (Shakespeare FuturEd Conference, 2019).

What is complexity theory?

To use complexity theory is to unlearn the way we traditionally understand the world. Our ways of thinking and of teaching and learning are often based on concepts such as linearity and cause-and-effect, of proportionality and order, of traditional Newtonian views of the world.
Complexity theory takes a very different view. This theory or framework is a way to understand the natural, biological, social systems that we encounter and in which we are active members. It developed from scientific disciplines and is emerging as a useful new approach in disciplines including education. 
But complexity theory is not simply a framework transferred from the sciences into the humanities. It is a ‘way of seeing the world’ that is flourishing in a variety of different disciplines in both the sciences and the arts.  Even in fields where complexity theory is not explicitly used, it is often implicitly present:
A few decades ago, it was still being described as the ‘new paradigm’ and an ‘emerging worldview.’ Now virtually all research in the physical sciences is implicitly complexivist – and one would be hard pressed to find research in the social sciences and humanities that is not deeply committed to such notions as co-participations, complex entanglements, decentralised structures, co-adaptive dynamics, self-determination, and non-linear unfoldings.
(Brent Davis and Dennis Sumara, "Fitting Teacher Education in/to/for an Increasingly Complex World," Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education 9, no. 1, 2012: 30.)
For some, complexity theory will sound familiar, because it recognises and tries to account for how the world works. It identifies systems in our natural and social worlds that exhibit certain behavioural patterns and aims to understand how they operate.
Complexity is specifically interested in a certain type of system, which is referred to as a ‘complex system’. Complex systems are dynamic, self-organising, evolving networks that operate without central control. These systems include something as small as an ant colony, as diverse as a rainforest, as complicated as the human brain, as unpredictable as the weather, as dispersed as a city, or as large as the cosmos itself. Some educational theorists have recognised that schools, universities, classrooms and educational institutions are also complex systems. 
These systems, while incredibly diverse, all share certain core behaviours. They operate without any central control (they are ‘decentralised’), which means they are created and maintained by the ongoing interaction of their different parts (they are ‘self-organising’). These interactions produce emergent phenomena which feed back into the system, causing ongoing changes. Because of this unique structure, complex systems are unpredictable. They can be stable and ordered, or they can behave in disordered ways, creating a state of near-chaos where the system can change dramatically and where new things can emerge. These systems can both suppress and encourage change (this is referred to as negative and positive feedback). The former tries to keep the status quo, the latter generates chaotic novelty. Importantly, complex systems are not static. They are dynamic and active, and so they need moments of decreased order to enable them to thrive. A complex system can also contain smaller complex systems, or it can be a part of bigger complex systems. 
Complexity theory and education
Complexity theory is an increasingly popular area of research in pedagogy, education, and the philosophy of education. It provides a unique way of understanding how classrooms and educational environments work.
However, complexity can be a challenging methodology in educational institutions because it goes against the need for predictability and linear cause-effect behaviour that our institutions are structured around. A complexivist perspective views learning as unpredictable and emergent, while our educational institutions aim for learning that is predictable and which generates predetermined outcomes. We are perhaps generally equipped to consider the importance of certainty in knowledge and in learning, and complexity theory instead places value on uncertainty and unpredictability. 
If you would like to read more about complexity theory in education, there is an excellent open-access journal available online: Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education. The Santa Fe Institute is another wonderful resource, offering open-access information on complexity theory more generally. For example, you can find out more about the emergence of complexity and intelligence. The Institute also runs the Complexity Explorer site, which provides free online courses (like this introduction to complexity) and lots of helpful information about complexity. 
Some useful books on complexity and education include:
  • Davis, Brent, and Dennis Sumara. Complexity and Education: Inquiries into Learning, Teaching, and Research.  Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006.
  • Davis, Brent, Dennis Sumara, and Rebecca Luce-Kapler. Engaging Minds: Learning and Teaching in a Complex World.  Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000.
  • Doll, William E., M.J. Fleener., D. Trueit, and J. St. Julien, eds. Chaos, Complexity, Curriculum and Culture. New York: Lang, 2005.
  • Mason, Mark, ed. Complexity Theory and the Philosophy of Education. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.
  • Morrison, Keith. School Leadership and Complexity Theory.  London: Routledge, 2002.
  • Osberg, Deborah, and Gert Biesta, eds. Complexity Theory and the Politics of Education. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2010.

Get involved with complexity theory

This area of research is still relatively new and very much in development. It is especially new within the humanities and literary studies more specifically. We would love to hear your thoughts on how complexity theory may be useful, challenging, or disruptive. 

In particular, we’d love to know more about some of the following:
  • The challenges of implementing complexivist approaches or complexity thinking in education
  • How complexity resonates with Shakespeare
  • How to deal with the unpredictable, emergent, the disruptive and the unexpected in teaching and learning environments
  • Maintaining a balance of order and disorder
  • How a system produces emergence through interactions with various contexts (local environmental contexts, broader cultural and social contexts, a student's own contexts and networks)
  • Using complexity theory with students

If you'd like to join the discussion on complexity theory and share your thoughts and experiences, become a part of the conversation on Facebook or Twitter.

How to cite this essay: Claire Hansen, 'Complexity Theory,' Shakespeare Reloaded. 2014.