Designing a Complex Curriculum – The Case of Innovation and Reform 3 – emergent pedagogy and learning.

In my last post I outlined some of the main characteristics of complexity, and in particular, of complex adaptive systems (CAS). Hardman (2011) stresses that it is not a sustainable position to assert that something is a CAS without any particular evidence other than an impression of complexity. In the case of higher education pedagogy and contexts is seems reasonable to suggest that a characterisation as a CAS does work. Why? The argument here is based on the underlying characteristics of post-graduate pedagogic contexts. Taking Cilliers’ (1998) notion of a CAS the table below outlines an argument for seeing pedagogy in post-graduate study as indeed complex.

CAS element Reflection
  1. A large number of elements with many interactions
By considering the number of students, the technology they use and the multitude of spaces inhabited together with tutors and resources, it becomes clear that there are a large number of elements within a postgraduate seminar group. Any attempt to observe a seminar session demonstrates a large number of interactions which also extend spatially and temporally beyond the face-to-face ‘event’ as students continue to engage with learning in different ways and in different locations, both pre-and post-session.
  1. Non-linear interactions
The interactions which occur during the process of learning are not predictable and ‘linear’. Discussion and learning will not follow a strictly predetermined form or path. Different interactional media will occur both between participants and between them and the various resources, media and spaces they use. As a consequence, for any given individual, elements of work which are expected to have a ‘core’ role in learning may actually have little impact, whilst a brief informal chat may be crucial in opening up the understanding of the concept or area of knowledge. As such, the process of learning needs to be seen as non-linear.
  1. Interactions leading to feedback loops
As the students attempt to engage and learn there may be the emergence of positive and/or negative feedback loops. Discussion, for example, may lead a student to begin to make connections between elements of a sub-topic, and even between topics, leading to a positive feedback loop which brings rapid development of understanding as a consequence of synthetic insight. Alternatively, a resource or activity may actually confuse a student leading to a more general questioning of their understanding of the topic, in turn generating anxiety and a lack of learning. Predicting such fluctuations in the learning process are often not possible to predict bringing a level of uncertainty to the learning process.
  1. Interactions with the environment, making the identification of system boundaries difficult
The fluidity of student use of space within a typical postgraduate course leads to difficulties in deciding the unique characteristics and boundaries of particular systems. Due to the often intertwined nature of systems the nature and permeability of boundaries between each of them and the environment become blurred and hard to detect with any certainty. For example, in any given week, a student may engage with academic learning in a number of spaces, such as libraries, cafes, lecture theatres, seminar rooms and study-bedrooms within which they may make greater or lesser use of technology, reference to physical materials and/or discussion and completion of given planned activities. How a system within such fluid contexts is identified and characterised within this network of processes and where the environment begins is difficult to determine. In addition systems may be flexible both spatially and temporally as a result of this interplay of elements.
  1. Open to interactions with the environment
As suggested in the point above, the multisite nature of learning spaces and the flexibility in content development in postgraduate learning leads to constant interaction with the ‘environment’.
  1. System far from equilibrium, needing constant energy flow
As a system, teaching and learning requires constant energy input. In this case energy can be characterised as taking the form of information. If this energy flow is suppressed, or does not exist in the system, it would begin to break down, stagnating as a result of a lack of constant information input for use in learning. Energy can be found from within the system and in interaction with the environment but must be present as a flow to maintain the open nature of the system.
  1. Importance of history and past processes on the form of the present
The history of the system is important as past processes such as prior teaching activities, prior learning and experiences of individuals and the use of resources, etc, all play a part in informing and producing the current system, sometimes in unexpected and surprising ways.
  1. Each element acting only on local information rather than information of the whole system
The elements of the system, and particularly people, predominantly act on local information rather than through an understanding of the whole system at any point in time.

If learning and teaching systems are accepted as demonstrating the characteristics of a CAS, certain processes and features will be present. Firstly, the history of the system provides a foundation for the emergent form of the system. Reflection, experience, etc informs the learning and innovation of the present. A simple example of this is the impact that the differential prior learning of students has on interaction within the present and from here to the emergence of new knowledge, skills and conceptual understanding within and beyond the seminar room.

Secondly, Biesta (2010) considers the nature of complexity reduction within learning and teaching contexts which in simple terms is the differential impact of the imposition of various structures on the pedagogic process. For example, the imposition of a given curriculum or pedagogic approach within a formalised teaching and learning context is an example of the reduction of complexity as coherence becomes dominant over freedom, leading to a diminishing of emergence. Alternatively, an approach where students are left to make individual decisions concerning these important features may lead to freedom over coherence, which in its own right might be detrimental to learning. Consequentially, the degree of complexity reduction for any given context needs to be considered carefully so as to maximise the emergence of student learning. Sullivan (2010) considers the idea of emergent learning in relation to three small scale case studies and emphasises that the level of complexity within each context was dependent upon the degree to which the teacher controlled or encouraged independent approaches to learning.

Where complexity reduction is excessive. It may have a negative impact as there is a tendency to simplify through an exclusive focus on ‘knowledge’ and the use of single pedagogic approaches regardless of appropriacy to stated intentions, etc. However, complexity reduction can also be positive as all postgraduate courses require some form of structure, the use of supporting online materials which focus on stated aims, questioning frameworks and timetabled sessions. However, these are only positive if they do not destroy the complexity, instead making energy transfer into the system structured and efficient. In this way single agents may be aided in moving away from potential chaos (i.e. a surfeit of unstructured information) and into more productive states of engagement. Such teaching and learning becomes centred to a degree on creating environments and systems which allow enough flexibility to steer away from stagnation whilst not allowing for unstructured, overwhelming and therefore chaotic exposure to information.

Within post-graduate contexts, teaching and learning occur across a number of spaces, both formal and informal but also in individual and group situations, and within virtual, physical, personal, social and academic spaces. With such a variety of contexts and free access to large volumes of information descent into chaos is a distinct possibility. As the interactions occur within the system emergence can arise under certain circumstances. Emergence leads to features which are more than the sum total of elements and processes leading to their creation. Davis and Samarra (2006) argue that such emergence occurs as a result of the interaction of three tensional dyads:

  • decentralised control and neighbour interactions: learning is developed in the interaction between the personal and social. Individual and collective interests should be mutually supportive rather than inherently competitive and it is the interaction between neighbours which allows for the development and emergence of new ideas and perspectives. However, to allow the development of rich neighbour interactions, it is essential that learning is not controlled from a single point; any learning-based group must be given a level of decentralised capability.
  • internal diversity and redundancy: systems need to be able to react in different ways to different situations to ensure a diversity of insights to aid innovative solutions to problems. However, for such diversity to be present there needs to be a level of duplication within the system, such as shared responsibility and interests. It is this duplication which allows for easy interaction within the system and for elements to compensate for inadequacies which reside there.
  • Freedom and coherence: within any system there must be potential for the exploration of possibilities resulting in the opportunity for personal agency and the diversity identified above. However, whilst this inclusion of freedom is central to the emergence of learning, complex systems are not chaotic and require a level of coherence to orientate the activity of the actors within the system. Coherence imposes a loose framework within which individuals are able to operate freely whilst creating frameworks for coherence.

It is the holding of these various tensions within a relatively stable field which allows for the development of an emergent pedagogy and learning. In addition, this set of processes leads to the need for the use of a mixed approach to pedagogy. More transmissive approaches may well be the most appropriate when setting the basic foundation for study. By ensuring that targeted, focused information is given to students in the first instance(i.e. the temporary imposition of more acute complexity reduction) students are exposed to information in a coherent way, but the introduction of greater interaction and diversity within the pedagogic system allows for an emergent pedagogy in the longer run. However, to constantly reduce to a transmissive level potentially leads to the ossifying of the system, with the boundary between environment and system becoming impermeable leading to a closed system and ultimately decay. Therefore, more discovery, enquiry and collaborative-based approaches are needed. The above discussion leads to a preliminary schematic of a complex adaptive learning system which provides a conceptual model for enabling the development of a complexity led curriculum model.

complex learning and teaching contexts


Biesta, G. (2010) ‘Five Theses on Complexity Reduction and its Politics.’ in D. Osberg & G. Biesta (eds.) Complexity Theory and the Politics of Education.  Rotterdam: Sense Publishers. pp.5-13.

Cilliers, P. (1998) Complexity and Postmodernism: understanding complex systems. London: Routledge.

Davis, B. & Sumara, D. (2006) Complexity and Education: Inquiries into Learning, Teaching, and Research. New York: Routledge.

Hardman, M. A. (2011) ‘Is Complexity Theory Useful in Describing Classroom Learning?’ in B. Hudson, & M.A. Meinert (eds.) Beyond Fragmentation: Didactics, Learning and Teaching in Europe. Opladen and Farmington Hills: Verlag Barbara Budrich.

Sullivan, J.P. (2010) Emergent Learning: The Power of Complex Adaptive Systems in the Classroom. Saarbrücken: Lambert Academic Publishing