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K-12 Schools are Complex Adaptive Systems

We sometimes hear teachers say that a class of students has “taken on a life of its own.” That is because students, classes, and schools (like families, organizations, communities, and cultures) are complex, adaptive, and self-organizing systems. Dooley defines “complex adaptive system” as a “collection of agents (people, groups, ideas) that interact so that system-wide patterns emerge, and those patterns subsequently act on and influence the interactions among the agents” (Dooley, 1996). That certainly fits the school systems we know. Students in a classroom interact in such a way that a classroom culture (system-wide patterns) develops. Over time, the norms and expectations (patterns) of that culture begin to influence the behaviors of the students in the class, by reinforcing those behaviors that match the culture or by punishing or ignoring the behaviors that don’t match the culture. Of course, that self-organizing dynamic also happens at all levels or scales of the system — the campus, the administrative team, the parent organization, the basketball squad, the third grade team, etc.

Patterns, Simple Rules, and School Culture

In schools, we notice similarities in the ways people in schools act, but there are also differences grounded in their unique histories, their challenges, their capacities, and their identities. There are connections within, between, and among them. Patterns generated by the similarities, differences and connections bring coherence to the system. As patterns form, some become more pronounced. Over time, if a pattern serves a purpose in the system, it is repeated and strengthened. It may even become a “rule” that influences the agents in the system—maybe consciously, maybe not. Scientists who study complex adaptive systems in the natural world call these patterns that begin to influence the behaviors of agents in the system “simple rules.” Simple rules emerge from a system as people begin building shared perspectives and shared repertoires of practices. As the simple rules emerge, they influence how the system as a whole and agents in the system continue to function. Subsequently, other patterns may emerge as these simple rules influence the dynamics of the system.

As individuals interact according to simple rules, these patterns of behavior form the culture of the organization. By searching for the simple rules at work, leaders can understand the foundational elements of the system’s culture. By leading the group to build a list of simple rules to guide their work, leaders can communicate organizational values in ways that are actionable. Simple rules establish organizational expectations for performance and behavior and are “portable,” meaning they can be shared throughout the organization and across lines of differences. And, of course, you don’t have to be the official “leader” of an organization to identify, observe, or try to influence the simple rules. Agents can change the system from the bottom up and from the inside out.

Possible Simple Rules for Generative Learning and Adaptive Capacity

We don’t pretend to know what structures, programs, approaches, routines, procedures, or regulations will best support teaching and learning in your school, and we certainly can’t predict what will work five or ten or fifty years from now. The best we can do is follow a few simple rules that make it possible for the system (rather, the people in the system) to continually adapt and transform as the challenges continue to evolve. Consider these seven simple rules that hold the potential for that kind of continual adaptation and transformation:

Each rule contributes to the dynamics of a sustainable teaching/learning system in unique and important ways, but it is important to remember that they are interdependent, and no one is more rule important than any other.They are certainly not to be used as an evaluation checklist. Please do not apply these particular rules without considering whether and how they are appropriate for your system! We would suggest that you use one or more of these rules as a springboard for dialogue about simple rules in your system. If these particular rules work, use them. If you want to change the wording to fit your system, feel free. If you add one, please let us know how it works. We are convinced that our conversations about the rules and our work to live out the rules are far more important than the rules themselves.

Models and Methods:

3 Kinds of Change
4 Truths
Adaptive Action
Architectural Model (to be added soon)
CDE
Complex Adaptive Systems
Conflict Circles
Dealing with Uncertainty
Fractals
Generative Engagement
Keys for Co-Evolution (to be added soon)
Landscape Diagram
Pattern Spotters
Same and Different
Theory to Practice Loop (to be added soon)



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