Towards a complex systems meta-theory of learning as an emergent phenomenon

Education as a system of systems: rethinking learning theory to tackle complex threats to our societies

Reda SadkiTheory

In their 2014 article, Jacobson, Kapur, and Reimann propose shifting the paradigm of learning theory towards the conceptual framework of complexity science. They argue that the longstanding dichotomy between cognitive and situative theories of learning fails to capture the intricate dynamics at play. Learning arises across a “bio-psycho-social” system involving interactive feedback loops linking neuronal processes, individual cognition, social context, and cultural milieu. As such, what emerges cannot be reduced to any individual component.

To better understand how macro-scale phenomena like learning manifest from micro-scale interactions, the authors invoke the notion of “emergence” prominent in the study of complex adaptive systems. Discrete agents interacting according to simple rules can self-organize into sophisticated structures through across-scale feedback.

For instance, the formation of a traffic jam results from the cumulative behavior of individual drivers. The jam then constrains their ensuing decisions.

Similarly, in learning contexts, the construction of shared knowledge, norms, values and discourses proceeds through local interactions, which then shape future exchanges. Methodologically, properly explicating emergence requires attending to co-existing linear and non-linear dynamics rather than viewing the system exclusively through either lens.

By adopting a “trees-forest” orientation that observes both proximal neuronal firing and distal cultural evolution, researchers can transcend outmoded dichotomies. Beyond scrutinizing whether learner or environment represents the more suitable locus of analysis, the complex systems paradigm directs focus towards their multifaceted transactional synergy, which gives rise to learning. This avoids ascribing primacy to any single level, as well as positing reductive causal mechanisms, instead elucidating circular self-organizing feedback across hierarchically nested systems.

The implications are profound. Treating learning as emergence compels educators to appreciate that curricular inputs and pedagogical techniques designed based upon linear extrapolation will likely yield unexpected results. Our commonsense notions that complexity demands intricacy fail to recognize that simple nonlinear interactions generate elaborate outcomes. This epistemic shift suggests practice should emphasize creating conditions conducive for adaptive growth rather than attempting to directly implant mental structures. Specifically, adopting a complexity orientation may entail providing open-ended creative experiences permitting self-guided exploration, establishing a learning culture that values diversity, dissent and ambiguity as catalysts for sensemaking, and implementing distributed network-based peer learning.

Overall, the article explores how invoking a meta-theory grounded in complex systems science can dissolve dichotomies that have plagued the field. It compels implementing flexible, decentralized and emergent pedagogies far better aligned to the nonlinear complexity of learner development in context.

Sophisticated learning theories often fail to translate into meaningful practice. Yet what this article describes closely corresponds to how The Geneva Learning Foundation (TGLF) is actually implementing its vision of education as a philosophy for change, in the face of complex threats to our societies. The Foundation conceives of learning as an emergent phenomenon arising from interactions between individuals, their social contexts, and surrounding systems. Our programs aim to catalyze this emergence by connecting practitioners facing shared challenges to foster collaborative sensemaking. For example, our Teach to Reach events connect tens of thousands of health professionals to share experience on their own terms, in relation to their own contextual needs. This emphasis on open-ended exploration and decentralized leadership exemplifies the flexible pedagogy demanded by a complexity paradigm. Overall, the Foundation’s work – deliberately situated outside the constraints of vestigial Academy – embodies the turn towards nonlinear models that can help transcend stale dichotomies. Our practice demonstrates the concrete value of recasting learning as the product of embedded agents interacting to generate systemic wisdom greater than their individual contributions.

Jacobson, M.J., Kapur, M., Reimann, P., 2014. Towards a complex systems meta-theory of learning as an emergent phenomenon: Beyond the cognitive versus situative debate. Boulder, Colorado: International Society of the Learning Sciences.

Illustration © The Geneva Learning Foundation Collection (2024)