Classrooms are Complex Systems (Because of Hermione)

Each human is a complex system.  Each person’s actions, thoughts, beliefs, values, and emotions are the product of a massively complex set of interactions among billions of neurons, a body, other bodies and minds, institutions, environments of all different changing sorts, and a myriad of experience across time.  This complexity is surely on the order of other complex systems like atoms, cells, weather, economies, the rise and fall of civilizations, and the universe. 

When we have a classroom we have a larger system composed of a set of interacting complex systems (individuals) and that larger system is itself linked with, and interacts with, other systems like schools, neighborhoods, communities, family backgrounds, social and cultural groups, other institutions, the country, and the global world.  This is complexity squared and I mean by “complexity” the technical sense of complex systems, that is, systems that are so complex that even the slightest variation in their initial conditions can lead to large and unpredictable outcomes when we run them (or see them run) multiple times.  Such systems are not open to study by controlled studies, but require different sorts of research tools, as in much of physics. 

Yet many educational researchers and policy makers argue that controlled classroom studies are the gold standard of educational research.  These people must believe that humans and interactions in a classroom across time among a teacher and 28 kids are not complex systems in the technical sense.  This seems to me absurd and is, perhaps, one reason why such studies have never definitively settled an important issue in education and why their results “never work in Detroit”, as they say.  At the very least we need an argument why classrooms are not complex systems, though they are composed of individual interacting human brains and bodies.

In a sense, controlled classroom studies are not research on individuals (teachers and students) in a classroom.  They are research on “averages” (“average” children and teachers of certain sorts of classes and categories), abstractions that do not exist in the real world.  Such studies can be meaningful in certain cases, of course, but we need to be clear when we have entered realms of complexity where they do not apply and where their application may harm both understanding and people.  The minute Hermione is in the picture, all bets are off and we need to change research tools.

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