Friday, December 6, 2013

Complexity and Agency in Education

Agency is the third principle of complexity that both Taborga and Lawrimore discuss. To my mind, agency is a complementary concept of feedback, or organizational recursion, that I explored in my last post. What is the use of a feedback loop if an agent has no choice in response to the feedback? None, as far as I can see. Agency suggests that an agent is capable of perceiving patterns in its environment and then choosing a response to those patterns based on whatever criteria it is working under. The feedback loop and agency together, then, lead to the principle of self-organization than both Taborga and Lawrimore discuss later.

Both Taborga and Lawrimore discuss agency in terms of human agents, mostly within the context of organizations. This is not a bad place to start, and it's the concept of agency that most interests most people.

Taborga says:
Under the third property of complexity, agents can adapt their strategies according to their own history. This means that agents in the system can change themselves based on their own perceptions. In a project team, any member can improve their performance based on their own understanding of how they are doing.
Lawrimore says:
People Are Agents - The living parts (people) of complex systems are called agents. An agent is "one who acts, exerts power, and represents the organization as a whole." Agents interact with each other, affect each other, and in so doing are capable of a high degree of creativity and innovation which cannot be precisely predicted. Whether you call your people agents or not, it is important to recognize their power to act as agents and the value of their interacting with each other. In Complexity organizations, taking care of customers and creating innovative solutions are not just the responsibility of specific departments but of all agents.
Still, I think it's a huge mistake to limit agency to humans functioning in human organizations. That focus is a symptom of a chauvinism that privileges the human over the rest of reality, making us in some way super-natural. We are not. Rather, agency appears to be a principle of all complex systems throughout all space and time, and agency works at all scales of reality. Agency is the capability to process sensory input and to chose responses based on how we process those inputs. We easily recognize agency in humans, but we fail to recognize it in, for instance, our immune systems, but how silly to overlook the magical agency of such a powerful and resourceful system. As Wikipedia says it: "To function properly, an immune system must detect a wide variety of agents, from viruses to parasitic worms, and distinguish them from the organism's own healthy tissue. Pathogens can rapidly evolve and adapt, and thereby avoid detection and neutralization by the immune system, however, multiple defense mechanisms have also evolved to recognize and neutralize pathogens." The lymphocytes in our bodies patrol the hallways looking for pathogens to destroy. The lymphocytes receive sensory input from the environments inside our bodies, process those inputs into actionable knowledge, and then take action on their interpreted knowledge. And this is not a merely mechanical process. Lymphocytes can learn from their sensory inputs and modify their responses based on new information. That is agency. They can choose to attack a cell or not. They can learn to attack a cell or not. They can make mistakes. The ability to make mistakes may be as solid an indication of agency as anything else, and it appears to be a trait of all living systems.

Agency may be a trait of all systems from the micro to the macro, even those we usually think of as non-living. I'm currently reading Lee Smolin's book Time Reborn (2013), and he suggests that at the micro scale electrons make choices about their properties based on their entanglement with other particles and that at the macro scale the Universe made some pretty important choices about initial conditions that led to the formation of galaxies and stars and … uhhh … us. So it seems to be agency from top to bottom, through and through. Agency is fundamental to everything about the universe that we humans find interesting, and any discussion about anything must account for agency. This deep presence of agency probably explains why children dislike it so much when schools try to strip them of agency or thwart their agency.

It's easy to see the orchestration of agency among the various levels of reality as one of the primary tasks of modern education. Teachers are responsible for coordinating and negotiating everything from the agencies of physical and virtual viruses through the agencies of students and parents to the agencies of local and national governments.

The key question for me becomes how to cultivate the agency of each student to engage the agencies of the class, the school, the state, the world. Hmm … if I had that answer, I'd share it.

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