Monthly Archives: July 2014

Complexity Science and School Evolution


Mal Lee and Roger Broadie

The evolutionary nature of schooling, its remarkable global similarity, the existence of the six evolutionary stages, the emergence of ever higher order schooling, evermore integrated and complex schools and the increasing importance of unique living school ecologies needing to have operational responsibility for their own growth should bid educators and school administrators look very closely at the applicability of complexity science to the on-going transformation of schooling. That need is amplified when one reflects upon the following graph used by Helbing (2014) in his June presentation on the likely impact of the digital technology upon the organisations of the world.


While complexity science had its origins in the explanation of the remarkable commonality that was found to emerge out of the seeming chaos in complex systems in nature in the last decade or so that thinking has been increasingly applied to complex human systems to try and explain the remarkable commonality that has emerged in the seeming chaotic growth of human organisations, particularly when they move to a digital operational base and become networked. A Google search and the Wikipedia entry on complexity science provide a ready entrée to the key readings. While as yet very little has been written on the application of the thinking to the evolution of schools there is a growing body of research that has been undertaken on businesses, and indeed health sector organisations that appears to be applicable to schools. In conceptualising the school evolutionary stages, the international nature of the evolutionary continuum, the existence of significant natural growth when schools go digital, the imperative of each school shaping its own growth and the impact of digital normalisation it was interesting to say the least to note the parallels with what had happened with all manner of business organisations. Yin for example as far back as 1979 used the term ‘disappearance’ to describe what we call digital normalisation while Bar and his colleagues at Stanford used the term ‘routinization’.

Yin therefore recognizes that the introduction of an innovation can result in organizational transformation through a process of increased embeddedness of the technology in the organization, which is consistent with the reconfiguration stage of our model (Bar, et al, 2000 p20). Interestingly the Stanford group also identified the same kind of evolutionary stages in networked organisations that we found in schools, albeit using different labels to describe the industry wide evolutionary pattern (Bar et al, 2000).

Those organisational evolution studies need to be read in conjunction with Pascale, Milleman and Gioja’s work on Surfing at the Edge of Chaos (2000). The following quote from that work provides a revealing an insight into what is happening with both the pathfinding ever more complex schools and those lagging.

‘The science of complexity has yielded four bedrock principles relevant to the new strategic work:

  1. Complex adaptive systems are at risk when in equilibrium. Equilibrium is a precursor to death.4

  2. Complex adaptive systems exhibit the capacity of self-organization and emergent complexity.5 Self-organization arises from intelligence in the remote clusters (or “nodes”) within a network. Emergent complexity is generated by the propensity of simple structures to generate novel patterns, infinite variety, and often, a sum that is greater than the parts. (Again, the escalating complexity of life on earth is an example.)

  3. Complex adaptive systems tend to move toward the edge of chaos when provoked by a complex task.6 Bounded instability is more conducive to evolution than either stable equilibrium or explosive instability. (For example, fire has been found to be a critical factor in regenerating healthy forests and prairies.) One important corollary to this principle is that a complex adaptive system, once having reached a temporary “peak” in its fitness landscape (e.g., a company during a golden era), must then “go down to go up” (i.e., moving from one peak to a still higher peak requires it to traverse the valleys of the fitness landscape). In cybernetic terms, the organism must be pulled by competitive pressures far enough out of its usual arrangements before it can create substantially different forms and arrive at a more evolved basin of attraction.

  4. One cannot direct a living system, only disturb it.7 Complex adaptive systems are characterized by weak cause-and-effect linkages. Phase transitions occur in the realm where one relatively small and isolated variation can produce huge effects. Alternatively, large changes may have little effect. (This phenomenon is common in the information industry. Massive efforts to promote a superior operating system may come to naught, whereas a series of serendipitous events may establish an inferior operating system —such as MS-DOS — as the industry standard.) (Pascale, Milleman and Gioja, 2000, p6).’

We’d suggest all four of the principles are evident in bucket loads in the schools evolutionary continuum.   The recent presentation by Helbing (2014) that examines the likely profound impact on the world of the rapidly increasing processing power and computer systems and which notes the increasingly pertinence of complexity science to all organizations posits that only the individual operational units – be it a school or hospital – has the wherewithal to shape desired way forward for the organisation. His contention is that the speed and complexity of the change occurring cannot be handled – as now – from on high and ought be handled at the unit level by bureaucracies, he noting

….complexity theory tell us that it is actually feasible to create resilient social and economic order by means of self-organisation, self-regulation, and self-governance. The work of Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom and others has demonstrated this. By “guided self-organisation” we can let things happen in a way that produces desirable outcomes in a flexible and efficient way. One should imagine this embedded in the framework of today’s institutions and stakeholders, which will eventually learn to interfere in minimally invasive ways (Helbing, 2014).

Interestingly all the pathfinder schools in their evolutionary journey have taken control of their own growth and it is why today those schools are so well positioned to accommodate the continuing and likely escalating change organizational evolution.   Bibliography

  • Bar, F, Kane, N, and Simard, C (2000) Digital networks and Organisational Change. The Evolutionary deployment of Corporate Information Infrastructure Vancouver 2000 Retrieved 19 June 2014 –
  • Pascale, R.T, Millemann, M, Gioja, L (2000) Surfing at the Edge of Chaos NY Three Rivers Press


Digital Teaching: Is it Time in 2014 to Take a Stand?

Mal Lee

Is it time in 2014 to put a line in the sand and give the schools that desire the right to refuse to accept on any teacher, teacher librarian or school counsellor unable to use the apposite digital technology?

Is there any reason why compulsorily transferred principals or staff in executive positions should not be treated the same?

Earlier articles referred to the higher order attributes evident in the principals and teachers in those schools that have normalised the whole school use of the digital technology.

The sad reality in Australia today is that schools operating at this level can have staff appointed literally unable or unwilling to the use the basic technology.

It may well be school teaching is the only knowledge industry today in the developed world where supposed professionals unable or unwilling to use the digital technology are employed. It is hard to think of any other profession willing to carry such supposed professionals.

Indeed as many of you know there are still teachers who openly proclaim that they don’t know how to use the technology and don’t intend finding out.

Imagine you are teaching in a school where all the staff, teaching and professional support, the children and the parent community have after many years of concerted collaborative effort, endless hours of staff development and considerable expense succeeded in normalising the use of the digital in all the school’s operations, educational and administrative.

The school has reached the Digital Normalisation evolutionary stage and all the teachers have developed the suite of attributes discussed in ‘Teaching in a Digital School’. Moreover the school is very much operating on a digital base, is collaborating closely with its parents and community to provide a holistic 24/7/365 education, and had created an ever evolving ever higher order and evermore tightly integrated school ecology.

The local education authority in its wisdom decides to compulsorily transfer to the school a teacher or principal who has only the most rudimentary computing skills, barely able to start one up and none of the mindset that comes from working in a networked world.

In its normal staff selection the school would never countenance appointing that person. Indeed as indicated in my post of November 20 2013 ( it is becoming increasingly apparent that as schools move along the evolutionary continuum they expect that much more of their staff and look to new staff being able to get up to speed from virtually day one.

In brief the pressure is considerable on even newly appointed teachers highly versed in the use of all manner of digital technology.

The pressure on a teacher or principal without those skills will be immense and unfair to that person, his/her colleagues, the students, the parents and the school as an entity.

It is appreciated there is also pressure on staffing officers to place permanent staff but education authorities and governments have to understand the new reality and that to throw ill-equipped staff into alien cultures will not work and that there is the very real likelihood the transferee will soon be placed on stress leave, costing the system very considerable monies.

Think of how the ill-equipped teacher will feel. Teachers transferred into any school where the use of the digital is the norm in all classes are likely to feel from day one out of their depth, isolated, to panic and to feel alienated from their colleagues. They will be aware they will have no standing with their colleagues or with the students. The children will expect to be taught in a teaching environment where they are trusted, respected, their out of school attainment is recognised, where their personal needs are understood, where they will naturally and predominantly use their own suite of digital technologies as the main tools both in the creation of their work and for assessment purposes.

Their life will be difficult.

Should the transferee manage to last a couple of weeks inevitably the parents of the children affected will be rightly complaining.

Teachers who have toiled for years to enhance their own skill and mindset, and have enhanced their own professionalism to the point where they can contribute to the on-going evolution of the school are not likely to go out of their way to help a transferee who has not made that effort. All will rightly say of the transferee that as a salaried teacher he/she had responsibility for acquiring the apposite digital competencies.

An initial scan of the scene in England, the US, NZ and Australia strongly suggests most governments and education authorities therein have yet to recognise let alone address the situation. There are in all four nations moves in some jurisdictions to stop teachers being employed without the requisite digital competencies but it is very difficult to identify any moves with permanent staff. They may well exist but they are hard to find.

In writing the Australian states and territories with teaching institutes of those that responded while the national teacher standards do include a note about ICT proficiency tellingly in any teachers reaccreditation it is but one of suite of variables to be considered.

Tellingly the national standards for Australian principals don’t even include that requirement. In theory a digitally illiterate principal could be transferred into to lead a school operating at the Networked or Digital Normalisation evolutionary stage.

Pleasingly while ever more teacher training institutions have taken on Mishra and Koehler’s TPACK thinking and the critical importance of the technology in teaching in reality the education authorities don’t appear to have recognised the imperative of having educators able to operate on a digital base.

While governments and educational bureaucrats like the rhetoric of the digital and networked world and 21st century and espouse digital revolutions the reality is that virtually all have seemingly yet to grasp that enhancement will only happen when all the teachers in each school are making apt use of that technology in their everyday teaching.

One might have hoped the teacher unions would have been concerned for the welfare of this kind of member and would counsel them on the path ahead. Perhaps not surprisingly colleagues consulted in the UK, US, NZ and Australia were all of the belief that the unions would instead defend the value of the teacher’s paper based skills.

One hopes that would not be so.

At the outset the suggestion was that the line in the sand in 2014 be set preventing digitally illiterate transferees being placed in schools operating on a digital base where the situation will be very much ‘loose – loose’ for all parties. There are still traditional paper based schools where the use of the digital in teaching is minimal and where the transferees could be placed with the warning to become digitally competent by a set time.

Fortuitously with the move nationally to afford each Australian government school greater say in its staffing it is timely to suggest that the schools that desire set that mark.

Note thus far I’ve not included in this discussion digitally competent teachers who don’t use the technology in their teaching.

The research colleagues and the author have undertaken (Lee and Winzenried, 2009), (Lee and Finger, 2010), (Lee and Ward, 2013) indicates that that shortcoming is primarily the responsibility of the school and in particular the school principal and not the teachers as such. It is the leadership that has to set and support those expectations.

That said there appears to be little likelihood that the authorities will take any action until the profession, the impacted schools with the support of ever more highly digitally empowered parents and parents voice the concern.


On reflection it is little the wonder that so few of the world’s schools in 2014 have normalised the use of the digital in all their operations and while most schools lag so far behind the kind of digital normalisation found with the children, their parents and society in general.

Until schooling’s key resource, its educators are expected by their employers to have and to demonstrate the requisite digital competencies the chances of closing that gap is constrained.


  • Lee, M and Finger, G (eds) (2010) Developing a Networked School Community, Melbourne ACER Press
  • Lee, M and Ward, L (2013) Collaboration in learning: transcending the classroom walls, Melbourne ACER Press
  • Lee, M and Ward, L (2013) Collaboration in learning: transcending the classroom walls, Melbourne ACER Press