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Issue Brief: Writing, Teaching and Learning as Complex Adaptive Systems

Kate Kiefer
Colorado State University

Complexity science and chaos theory have both been applied to writing generally, as well as teaching and learning writing, in recent years. In brief, complex adaptive systems (CAS) theory describes all those systems – natural and man-made, biologic and physical, large and small – in which independent agents within a system interact and communicate with other agents in the system to adapt to changes in the system’s environment or within the system. Complex adaptive systems do not have a hierarchical structure, so the changes that develop typically result in emergent self-organization.

Consider, for example, a writing classroom. At the beginning of the term, independent agents (teacher, students) come together in the space (the system’s environment). The teacher has more authority but not control of the students, so all independent agents begin communicating with each other as they work through the challenges they encounter in the classroom. Some of those challenges are tasks posed by the teacher; other challenges might be effective small-group activities that result in group members learning about a topic or about writing generally. Over time, an emergent organization develops in the classroom, and as teachers know, we cannot fully determine the outcome of that emergence. In some instances, the system dynamically evolves into a coherent, effective teaching/learning experience. In other instances, students never seem to “gel” or create a comfortable or effective classroom dynamic. Even the typical descriptions teachers use for classrooms get at some underlying tenets of complex adaptive system theory.

Key principles of CAS have percolated into mainstream culture – complexity, emergence, nonlinearity, and self-similarity across scales. As noted above, “complex” refers to a system with many elements in multiple relationships that cannot be reduced to simplistic description, and emergence gets at new organizations of elements that evolve from the system itself. Nonlinearity, also known as the Butterfly Effect, gets at the notion that a small change in the environment can have a large change within the system, particularly as the change percolates through the system. Conversely, a large change in the environment might have little or no change on the system. Cause and effect in complex adaptive systems, then, are unpredictable. Finally, self-similarity across scales refers to the fractal element in some CAS, that is, that structures recur at both the large and small scale.

Much of the work on CAS takes place in mathematical and science contexts, but more recent work has extended these insights into teaching and learning, small- and large-group organization, and management.

Relevant Journals

Leading journals come from a range of disciplines as well as interdisciplinary groups/publishers. The following are most likely to publish material on writers, discourse or classrooms as complex adaptive systems, unlike journals that are narrowly focused on mathematical or scientific topics. The attached descriptions come from each journal’s scope or mission statement.

Emergence: Complexity & Organization (E:CO) is an international and interdisciplinary conversation about human organizations as complex systems and the implications of complexity science for those organizations. With a unique format blending the integrity of academic inquiry and the impact of business practice, E:CO integrates multiple perspectives in management theory, research, practice and education. E:CO is a quarterly journal published in print and online by The Complexity Society, the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence, and Cognitive Edge in accordance with academic publishing standards and processes.

Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education is an international, peer-reviewed journal that publishes original articles on all aspects of education which are informed by the idea of complexity. It is currently the only journal in existence to focus specifically on the implications of complexity (in its technical, applied, philosophical, theoretical, or narrative manifestations) for education and educational research. The journal strives to serve as a forum for both theoretical and practical contributions to this comparatively recent field of educational research and to facilitate the exchange of diverse ideas and points of view related to complexity in education.

The journal title draws its inspiration from the work of Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart who point out in The collapse of chaos: Discovering simplicity in a complex world (New York: Penguin, 1994) that complicity has the same roots as the word complexity. In their explication of the term, they contrast it to simplexity—which they define in terms of deterministic systems and sets of rules that always generate identical outcomes. Simplexity thus “merely explores the space of the possible”; “complicity enlarges it” (p. 415). In this vein, Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education is intended as a venue for the publication of articles that are oriented by the attitude that education is a matter of complicity—about enlarging the space of the possible, as opposed to the popular conviction that education is about replicating the existing possible.

The Journal of the Learning Sciences provides a multidisciplinary forum for the presentation and discussion of research on education and learning. Emphasis is placed on important ideas that can change our understanding of learning as well as the practice of education. Articles evolve from disciplines such as artificial intelligence, cognitive science, cognitive and educational psychology, cognitive anthropology, education, and educational psychology.

Complexity is a bi-monthly, cross-disciplinary journal focusing on the rapidly expanding science of complex adaptive systems. The purpose of the journal is to advance the science of complexity. Articles may deal with such methodological themes as chaos, genetic algorithms, cellular automata, neural networks, and evolutionary game theory. Papers treating applications in any area of natural science or human endeavor are welcome, and especially encouraged are papers integrating conceptual themes and applications that cross traditional disciplinary boundaries. Complexity is not meant to serve as a forum for speculation and vague analogies between words like "chaos," "self-organization," and "emergence" that are often used in completely different ways in science and in daily life.

Cognitive Processing -- International Quarterly of Cognitive Science is a peer-reviewed international journal that publishes innovative contributions in the multidisciplinary field of cognitive science. Its first aim is to present the latest results obtained in the manifold disciplines concerned with the different aspects of cognitive processing in natural and artificial systems: artificial intelligence, computer science and knowledge engineering, linguistics, mathematics, neuroscience, philosophy and cognitive anthropology, psychology, robotics. Its main purpose is to stimulate research and scientific interaction through communication between specialists in different fields on topics of common interest and to promote an interdisciplinary understanding of the diverse topics in contemporary cognitive science. Cognitive Processing considers diverse subject matter concerning cognitive processing, accepting various approaches to investigation: theoretical, experimental, methodological, computational and modeling, applicative. A tentative list of topics includes: action; attention; cognitive change and optimization; computation in cognitive science; connectionist approaches; expertise; knowledge acquisition; knowledge representation; language (grammar and semantics, discourse analysis, development, disturbances); mental architectures and models; memory; mind design; multimedia databases; perception and pattern recognition.

The Journal of Systems Science and Complexity is dedicated to publishing high quality original and innovative papers on theories, methodologies, and applications of systems science and complexity science, as well as insightful survey papers. It encourages fundamental research into complex systems and complexity and fosters cross-disciplinary approaches to elucidate the common themes that arise in natural, artificial, and social systems. Among the topics covered are system optimization and management, complex and control systems, modeling and system biology, information and computer mathematics. The journal places particular emphasis on complex systems.

International Journal of Complexity in Leadership and Management  (IJCLM)
As we progress deeper into the 21st century, the social, political, economic, technological and educational environment becomes increasingly complex, but much of our leadership and management thinking is still based on linearity and dominated by the classical Newtonian paradigm. There is much to do to generate theories and empirical research into new models of leadership and management that can embrace and focus on complex adaptive dynamics, networks of intelligence sources and the unpredictability of the fast-changing world.

IJCLM subscribes to a broad understanding of complexity in leadership and management in order to provide a wide platform for academic and practitioner discussions to create knowledge and exchange new ideas on this rapidly emerging domain. In particular, we are keen to explore and examine how various concepts such as chaos, complex adaptive dynamics, collective intelligence, connectivity, autopoiesis, self-organisation, emergence, uncertainty, edge of chaos and potential dissipation may help to generate new and effective leadership and management theories, strategies and practices. We are also interested to know how such new thinking, theories and practices may become an integral part of coherent and competitive business, education, social or political strategies that can affect humanity positively and transform societies innovatively.

As the word complexity suggests, the issues of leadership and management will differ from organisation to organisation, from culture to culture, and from country to country. Therefore, whenever appropriate, the research may have to take into account the specific nature of the business in question, the context it is located, the customer profile, the historical background of the country or region, local habits and practices, ethics and even religious beliefs. In this respect, a diversification in leadership and management analysis, as well as a deeper investigation of the intelligence-associated organisational dynamics, is welcomed.

Therefore, IJCLM serves as an international platform to bring together academics, researchers, policy makers and practitioners from different backgrounds to share new theories, research findings and case studies, enhancing understanding and collaboration on the issues of complexity in leadership and management.

Relevant Web Sites

Complex Adaptive Systems Group

Trojan Mice

Santa Fe Institute

Relevant Email Discussion Lists

Complexity Listserv

Complex Adaptive Systems and Computational Intelligence

Complexity Digest

FRIAM (Friday Morning Complexity Coffee Group)

Document and Site Resources

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Most Recent Comments (1 Total Posts)

Posted By: Anonymous User on 7/31/2011 11:33:54 PM

CAS is made up of interacting agents, multi-agent complex adaptive systems (MA-CAS) networks. Can I get your thinking on independent Agents Vs. dependent Agents in a CAS? Chai Ezerzer

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