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date: 25 June 2019

Summary and Keywords

Theories of complex systems originated in the natural sciences, where it became necessary to move away from describing systems in simple cause–effect models to using descriptions that take into account nonlinearity, emergence, path dependence, the interrelation of continuous (quantitative) and discontinuous (qualitative) transitions, and the interrelation of phenomena at multiple scales. Although some educators have begun to explore the usefulness of complex systems theories for describing educational phenomena at the different levels of scale, the vast majority of educational research continues to be dominated by simple and simplistic (quantitative and qualitative) models. After definition and discussion of different conceptions of systems, this article presents constraint satisfaction networks, chaos theory, and catastrophe theory, as dynamic models for social processes in education. The different models are introduced with easily accessible phenomena from the natural sciences. The models not only are sources of analogies and metaphors for articulating a variety of phenomena in educational systems, including learning and development, conceptual change, decision making, categorization, and curriculum implication, but also can be used for studying real educational systems. Readers find how these models can be used to think about and predict the behavior of systems at scales as small as student–teacher talk to school systems as a whole. The concepts are used to show why educational systems tend to be stable even when policymakers intend change and why some classroom contexts do not provide the conditions for student development despite well-meaning efforts of dedicated teachers.

Keywords: systems theory, recursive system, system dynamics, unit analysis, complexity, constraint satisfaction networks, chaos theory, catastrophe theory, control, emergence, bifurcation, attractor, qualitative change, quantitative change, transaction vs. interaction, state space, morphogenesis

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