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Dynamics in Education Politics and the Finnish PISA Miracle  

Hannu Simola, Jaakko Kauko, Janne Varjo, Mira Kalalahti, and Fritjof Sahlström

The international debate on Finnish educational “success” had made relevant a cultural and historical analysis of Finnish education, with a focus on the effects of the ongoing preoccupation with the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results on basic education. Such international comparisons demand a strong theoretical approach, in part because the contrastive analysis of empirical “facts” and “realities” requires that they be situated in relation to their local and, in this case, national systems and contexts. It may be assumed that the quantitative indicators agreed on in intergovernmental negotiations between senior bureaucrats do indeed provide valid comparisons of education systems, as is the conventional wisdom in the field of economics. Nevertheless, these remain value-loaded collections of indicators of development that offer at best parallel lines of comparative analysis. The Finnish case argues for strong theory-based conceptualizations as the basis for, first, complex comparison and, second, shared models of policy action and intervention. The comparative education field faces four interlinked challenges. First, there is a lack of theory building and development in the field, where politically and ideologically motivated investigative large-scale assessment practices are defining the state of the art. Second, the focus of the studies tends to be on empirically measurable end products instead of documented processes, which makes it possible to generate competitive rankings but reveals little about specific and shared developmental processes in educational systems. Third, although complexity and contingency are widely accepted in the social world on the general level, they appear to seldom reach empirical studies; the vast majority of standard approaches still advocate simple explanatory models. Finally, and paradoxically enough, there is a form of intellectual nationalism that inhibits the conceptualization and understanding of the relationship between, for example, transnational processes and nation-states. In this regard, comparative education needs a strong and ambitious theory-based framework with the potential to incorporate sociohistorical complexity, cultural relationality, and sociological contingency. Without a strong theory-driven approach, it is hard to go beyond merely listing the similarities and differences that facilitate the rankings but blur the processes. At the research unit for Sociology and Politics in Education (KUPOLI) at the University of Helsinki, a new conceptualization was formulated in early 2010s and an ambitious research plan, Comparative Analytics of Dynamics in Education Politics (CADEP), was launched. The thesis was that to progress beyond the state of the art and arrive at a comparative understanding of educational systems, it would be necessary to focus on dynamics, with a view to grasping the fluid and mobile nature of the subject. This heuristic starting point echoed relativistic dynamics in physics, characterized as a combination of relativistic and quantum theories to describe the relationships between the principal elements of a relativistic system and the forces acting on it. It is curious that, though on the conceptual level the dynamics of a system are constantly referred to as being among its key attributes, there has been little progress on the analytical level in the social sciences since the seminal work of Pitirim Sorokin in the 1950s. The CADEP develops conceptually the theoretical understanding of dynamics to resubmit a specific social field of education to scrutiny by analyzing the relations between the main actors and institutions and essential discursive formations and practices. It is assumed that given its connection with relations and movement, the concept of dynamics will not reduce a mobile and fluid subject of study to a stagnant and inanimate object. There are four constitutive dynamics that make the Finnish educational success story understandable. Success and failure in basic education seem to be relative, and to reflect intertwined dynamics in policymaking, governance, families’ educational strategies, and classroom cultures. The emphasis of the understanding is on the contingent, relational, and complex character of political history.


Facilitation in Informal STEM Education as a Complex Practice  

Stephanie Hladik

Museums, zoos, aquariums, parks, after-school clubs, summer camps, community workshops, and other informal education spaces are becoming the sites of new teaching and learning for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In all of these settings, facilitators (alternatively known as docents, explainers, educators, volunteers, or leaders) are key individuals who create learning opportunities with visitors of all ages and interests. They provide demonstrations of STEM concepts, lead tours and school groups, design activities, and support learners in making and tinkering activities—and this work is inherently complex and is intertwined with strands of pedagogy, role negotiation and identity, and labor. Educational approaches of constructivism and constructionism are clear in facilitators’ commitments to creating opportunities for learners to connect their own personal knowledge and experiences with STEM and to build new things from a variety of analog and digital technologies that can be displayed and shared with others. These pedagogical interactions are also social interactions, and facilitators work to invite learners into activities, guide and encourage them, and introduce new STEM content learning goals, even as they negotiate tensions involved in balancing these learning goals with interactional power dynamics and individual learner interests. Additionally, traditional tensions arising from the perceived binary of child-centered and adult-centered pedagogies are being challenged by research that highlights the ways in which intergenerational and equitable teaching and learning can take place as joint activity between adult facilitators and youth in informal STEM settings. Rather than trying to classify facilitation practices as child-centered or adult-centered, we should attend to the when and how of facilitation practices, which highlights their complexity and has implications for how to design and facilitate equitable informal STEM learning opportunities. Finally, the complexity of informal STEM facilitation is made visible when educational researchers consider the impact of institutional constraints on pedagogy and labor, factors that are often invisible or missing in observational studies of facilitator practices. Facilitators also adapt and improvise around these constraints to perform the behind-the-scenes labor of infrastructuring—the emergent, ongoing creation of support systems involving people, objects, and practices that are necessary for the success of new educational innovations. Future directions for research in informal STEM facilitation include greater attention to settings other than science museums, further research into informal computing and mathematics facilitation, and an explicit focus on equity in informal STEM facilitation.


Complexity Theory as a Guide to Qualitative Methodology in Teacher Education  

Fiona Ell, Marilyn Cochran-Smith, Mary Hill, Mavis Haigh, Lexie Grudnoff, and Larry Ludlow

Qualitative teacher education research is concerned with understanding the processes and outcomes of teacher preparation in ways that are useful for practitioners, policymakers, and the teaching profession. Complexity theory has its origin in the biological and physical sciences, where it applies to phenomena that are more than the sum of their parts—where the “higher order” form cannot be created by just putting together the pieces that it is made from. Complexity theory has moved to social science, and to education, because many social phenomena also seem to have this property. These phenomena are termed “complex systems.” Complexity theory is also a theory of learning and change, so it is concerned with how complex systems are learning and changing. This means that methods to investigate complex systems must be able to identify changes in the system, termed “emergence,” and must also account for change over time and the history of the complex system. Longitudinal designs that involve the collection of rich data from multiple sources can support understanding of how a complex system, such as teacher education, is learning and changing. Comparative analysis, narrative analysis, extended case studies, mapping of networks and interactions, and practitioner research studies have all been used to try to bring complexity theory to empirical work in teacher education. Adopting a complexity theory approach to research in teacher education is difficult because it calls into question many taken-for-granted assumptions about the nature of research and what is possible to find. Linear, process-product thinking cannot be sustained in a complexity framework, and ideas like “cause,” “outcome,” “change,” and “intervention” all have to be re-thought. A growing body of work uses complexity thinking to inform research in teacher education.


John Dewey and Curriculum Studies  

Craig A. Cunningham

John Dewey (1859–1952) has been (and remains) the most influential person in the United States—and possibly in the entire world—on the development of the field of curriculum studies. His theoretical works on education, spanning more than 50 years, have been widely read by theorists and practitioners, who have used Dewey’s ideas as a kind of North Star for American educational theory. Of particular importance for the study of curriculum, Dewey strove to overcome traditional dualistic conceptions of the relation of the child to the curriculum, seeing them as two points on the same line, to be connected through the child’s experiences. Dewey offered general guidance for determining whether particular experiences are likely to lead to growth. Contemporary curriculum scholars who look at the many rich resources that Dewey offers in his works that are not explicitly about education may be richly rewarded. Books and articles about the arts and aesthetics, politics and democracy, ethics, logic, metaphysics, and psychology have yet to be fully incorporated into curriculum studies. In addition to his theoretical work, Dewey was the founder (in 1896) and director of the Laboratory School at the University of Chicago, where he and his wife Alice Chipman Dewey conducted pedagogical experiments with elementary schoolchildren, demonstrating how a set of well-framed social activities could lead students to face and solve problems, thus gaining knowledge and skills from the subject-matter disciplines. Dewey also spent a lifetime demonstrating commitments to democracy and the public good. While Dewey offers many opportunities for criticism, overall, his expansive influence has resulted in better theory across educational fields including curriculum studies.


Complexity Theory and Teacher Education  

Susan D. Martin, Vicki McQuitty, and Denise N. Morgan

Complexity theory offers possibilities for thinking about the challenges and opportunities inherent in teaching, teacher learning, and many other networked systems in teacher education. Complexity theory is a theory of learning systems that provides a framework for those interested in examining how systems develop and change. It is transdisciplinary in nature, drawing on insights from diverse fields across both the hard and social sciences, and when applied to education may provide a complex rather than simplistic view of teaching and learning. Further, complexity theory has the potential to offer a powerful alternative to linear and reductionist conceptualizations, with implications for methodology of teacher education research as well as its analysis and design. This small but growing body of work has influenced teacher education in two ways. First, scholars have argued for complexity theory’s usefulness as a framework to understand and describe how teacher education functions as a complex system. The second category of work, smaller than the first, uses complexity theory to frame and analyze empirical studies. Much of the emerging body of research conducted from a complexity theory perspective is descriptive and largely confirms what has been theorized. Empirical work has confirmed that a variety of systems, at different levels, influence teacher learning and pedagogical decisions. Gaps in our knowledge still exist, however, as theorists and researchers continue to struggle with how complexity theory can best serve teacher education for the benefit of teachers and students.


Dynamics of Decision Making  

JoAnn Danelo Barbour

The past and the future influence the present, for decision makers are persuaded by historical patterns and styles of decision making based on social, political, and economic context, with an eye to planning, predicting, forecasting, in a sense, “futuring.” From the middle to the late 20th century, four models (rational-bureaucratic, participatory, political, and organized anarchy) embody ways of decision making that provide an historical grounding for decision makers in the first quarter of the 21st century. From the late 20th through the first two decades of the 21st century, decision makers have focused on ethical decision making, social justice, and decision making within communities. After the first two decades of the 21st century, decision making and its associative research is about holding tensions, crossing boundaries, and intersections. Decision makers will continually hold the tension between intuition and evidence as drivers of decisions. Promising research possibilities may include understanding metacognition and its role in decision making, between individual approaches to decision making and the group dynamic, stakeholders’ engagement in communicating and executing decisions, and studying the control of who has what information or who should have it. Furthermore, decision making most likely will continue to evolve towards an adaptive approach with an abundance of tools and techniques to improve both the praxis and the practice of decision making dynamics. Accordingly, trends in future research in decision making will span disciplines and emphases, encompassing transdisciplinary approaches wherein investigators work collaboratively to understand and possibly create new conceptual, theoretical, and methodological models or ways of thinking about and making decisions.


Ethnographic Methods for Researching Innovative Education  

Karen Borgnakke

Ethnographic research in innovative education settings has shown the practical impact and conditions on both research and professional development of curriculum and teaching strategies. Following the process of innovation in the educational sector, themes that are high on political and institutional agendas have included “information technology–enhanced learning” and currently show how organizational and pedagogical development also becomes a matter of digitalization. In online learning projects the curriculum development and the process of didactization are already digitalized and refer to the new digital learning culture. Ethnographic methodology enables ongoing interpretation of educational development as reflected by professionals and teacher teams, thereby facilitating elucidation of changes and consequences. The general question can be expressed as follows: How can innovative education, associated online and/or offline learning processes, embedded digitalization, and the context be understood, described, and explored in a practical sense? Against this background, ethnographic research is challenged to go beyond the rhetoric to explore the practical implications of the innovative process and associated discourse. The challenge has been approached in terms of research facing the innovative practice and renewing the ethnographic approaches across the spectrum from the policy and organizational levels to practical learning-level investigation. The challenge is also embedded in research contributing to mapping the field of practice or "mapping the paradigm” and cross-case studies covering different learning contexts. The common highlighted theme is that changes in educational systems and practices are necessitating changes in ethnographic practices.


Diaspora Curriculum  

Ming Fang He

Diaspora curriculum draws upon a wide array of theoretical traditions of diasporas such as conceptions of diasporas; the breadth, diversity, and complexity of diasporas; diaspora consciousness; diasporic space and the in-betweenness of diasporas; exile and diaspora epistemology; exile pedagogy; exile curriculum; decolonizing diasporas; diasporic imaginaries and diasporic futurism; Afrofuturism; and Indigenous futurism. The diaspora curriculum, with its epistemological similarity to exile pedagogy and exile curriculum, is interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, and counterdisciplinary. Diaspora curriculum is international, transnational, and counternational. Diaspora curriculum, with its interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, and counterdisciplinarity, thrives with diverse paradigms, perspectives, and possibilities, and demands multiple understandings toward commonplaces (teachers, learners, subject matters, and milieu) in diverse contexts. The breadth, diversity, and complexity of diaspora curriculum and its practical relevance are central to a wide array of educational thoughts reflected in contested theories, practices, and contexts. In addition to its breadth, diversity, and complexity, another illuminating aspect of diaspora curriculum is evolving diasporic imaginaries, where we can keep our hopes and dreams alive in hard times when white supremacy, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and settler colonialism are bolstered by hatred of differences. Such diasporic imaginaries invent diasporic futurities and cultivate radical possibilities and revolutionary imagination. Such diasporic futurities exhilarate diasporic consciousness that educates hope, evokes different histories and different futures, and invigorates radical love. Such diasporic consciousness enables people to find the strength, faith, and humility to join in common struggles and build solidarity across differences to fight against all forms of oppression. Such diasporic futurities inspire optimism over despair, love over hatred, and possibilities over impossibilities. Such diasporic futurities invigorate diasporic space for imagined communities where curriculum workers work with other educational workers such as researchers, educators, teachers, administrators, parents, students, community workers, and policy makers to heal the soul of humanity and planet with shared interests, principles, and visions for desirable collective futures in an increasingly complicated, diversified, uncertain, and fragile world.


Theories of Complex Systems and Educational Change at Multiple Scales  

Wolff-Michael Roth

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.