Thursday, 26 January 2012

Complexity as a Course

If dimensional thinking diversity in our instructional practices gives our learners a leg up, then what do we do when dimensionality foists upon us a world of complexity that is neither predictable nor easily comprehendible?  This question is a derivative of a topic query posted by Darren Stanley on ResearchGate a few days ago.  His original message follows:

Constructing a new course on complexity, interdisciplinarity, and systems thinking

This is a big topic and a challenge to think through. Moreover, I am trying to shift my thinking away from a teaching/instructional focus paradigm to that of a learning-centered paradigm. The course, as I imagine it, will be inherently interdisciplinary - perhaps, more to point, it am attempting to frame matters in terms of the notion of transdisciplinarity or a view of the disciplines as different in substance, but arising from similar principles and underlying dynamics. I thought I would throw this question out there to see what a crowd sourced attempt might dig up. What would you include in a course that emphasized principles of complex dynamical systems as a way of viewing the world as an interdisciplinary structure? It would be an upper-level undergraduate or graduate course by design, open to anyone in the university community. 

As you might appreciate, this topic of discussion piqued my interest for a couple of reasons.  The first reason is that the person seeking input was using what I have defined as a learner-centred approach, in that he was using this forum as a means of connecting to (pulling in) information providers as opposed to being the person in the forum with the information to be pushed out (teacher-centred approach).  Asking for advice about learner centred-ness while using a tool that reinforces learner centred dimensionality had me smiling. 
My second reason for joining the conversation was my own thinking dissonance around how the study of dynamics/systemics/complexity differs dramatically from participating in a complex, dynamic system.  As I mentioned in one of my forum responses, an ‘elements of complexity’ approach to course development may help in the ‘defining of terms’ phase, but could potentially de-construct dimensionality, thus hampering the learner's ability to keep at least one eye on ‘the limits of expertise, and therefore the need for disciplinarity’.   
It was quite predictable that individuals contributing to answering Darren’s question would provide links to content on systems and structure, as a course on complexity needs topics to study.  One of the other forum contributors (Ray Evans Harrell) was particularly good at asking what specific frames of reference Darren would be using.  He knew that the overarching topic has many dimensions not the least of which are the two primary frames of the observed and the observer, each with its own unique complexity. 
Not being an expert on complexity myself, I thought that the idea of teaching complexity was both ambitious and exciting, but that learning complexity held out all kinds of possibilities, especially if as the learner you were given the choice on how you wanted to share your sense of understanding about what complexity is based on one or the other primary frames.  This would become a Tony Wagner or Michael Lewis-esque endeavor as you surveyed disciplines as either individual agents, or as cultures, to determine why disciplinarity has become the de-facto way of organizing ourselves around problem solving.  The anthropological implications would be fascinating.  Of course, getting your head wrapped around how to do this would probably mean that a single course delivery system might not be the best solution.  You might have to look at a form of practicum (finding and interviewing willing experts takes time.  Getting them to give up their interpretations, translations and insights without giving away their secrets is even more tricky…I speak to this point from personal experience…it can be done but you better know what you are doing) if you were going to do the topic justice.
To go back to my opening question, I’m not sure you can say with any kind of certainty how people, especially people who consider themselves ‘learning’ will behave when faced with increasing complexity.  My goal here has been to look at how we can increase learner capacity, and believe that any time the learner can make better sense of their environment because they surround themselves with expertise, they come out way ahead.  This to me is the inflection point, when the topic we are examining has us examining our frames.  Mezerow and Taylor’s work started me down this path, and every time I have the pleasure of seeing other educators attempting to set the conditions for transformational thought, my faith in the evolution of pedagogy is restored.     

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