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