Friday, March 17, 2017

Complex Open Classrooms: Open and Closed

In this series of posts, I am arguing that classrooms are complex open systems, and that if we want to know how best to configure and engage a classroom, then we should work to the strengths and affordances of complex open systems rather than against them. As should become obvious, I do not think that most current educational efforts play well with complexity. Rather, I am convinced that too often we try to force classes to behave as closed systems. In other words, we try to move classes (indeed, entire schools and educational systems) from the complex domain to the simple domain, and we develop instructional, economic, political, and ethical structures to support and reinforce that simple domain. This is a problem for me, and I'm trying to think my way through it, but I am not at all suggesting that classes are currently structured as complex open systems, though some clearly are (#rhizo14/15 and DS106 come immediately to mind). My argument, I think, will run something like this: if classes are complex open systems, then we should try to play to the strengths of those systems rather than against them.

It helps me, then, to think through how complex open systems, or rhizomes, emerge, function, and die (they all do). So far my review of complex open systems says that they are multiplicities of actants animated by flows of energy and information. I want to start teasing out the implications of the dynamic relationships in this mix, and the first point for me is the fact that complex open systems are … well … open. That's a big deal, and openness points to a drastic difference between education as it usually is (more simple and closed) and education as it could be (more complex and open). But keep in mind that I'm creating a binary here with either/or extremes. In reality, most classes fall on a continuum somewhere between these two extremes of totally open and totally closed. Still, I'll start by considering the extremes:
  • A complex open system totally closed to its environment will die. Period.
  • A complex open system totally open to its environment will die. Period.
A system must be open to Light and Word from outside itself, but a system must also choose what and how much it feeds, processes, and feeds back. A complex open system, then, must learn to manage its exchanges with its environment given its resources and situation. It must maintain itself—it must find a stable state—in the zone between two phase transitions: one toward cold fixity and one toward hot dissolution. This is the right understanding. If a system, a class for instance, closes itself too much from flows of energy and information, then it risks sliding into the black hole of frozen syllabi. If it opens itself too much, then it risks sliding into the black hole of hot chaos. Either way, class is over.

Of course, there is still a fair amount of flexibility between these two extremes, and this flexibility defines the autonomy and the character of the complex open system, the class. We educators are all familiar with those classes that tend to be more closed than open. Closed classes have been typical of my educational experience, persisting even into my doctoral program when I expected classes to open up. Fortunately, many did; however, I still remember with disgust the linguistics professor who read to us from his textbook for an hour-and-a-half each class period, taking no questions and inviting no discussion—just one stream of information from one source in one direction. Deadly. I also remember with joy the classes with Isaac Bashevis Singer in which we read our stories and followed them wherever they might lead us, accompanied by a most experienced and gifted guide. I remember the #rhizo14/15 MOOCs which triggered rather open-ended discussions in response to Dave Cormier's weekly koan. I have to say up-front that I favor more open classes, but I know that some amount of closure is also necessary. Even in #rhizo14/15, we didn't talk about anything and everything, and we had some disagreements about what to include and exclude.

This managed permeability at the boundaries of a classroom, or a person, points to an inherent property of complex open systems: the juxtaposition of opposites. Closed and open are opposites. The one eliminates and excludes the other. Yet both are necessary for a complex open system to emerge and function. These juxtapositions and tensions (order/disorder, equilibrium/disequilibrium, life/death, hot/cold) exist throughout complex systems. The tensions cannot be resolved either way, or the system dies. Edgar Morin calls this tense juxtaposition a dialogic: a necessary, creative conversation between opposites with no hope of reconciliation or synthesis. It is not Hegel's thesis, antithesis, and synthesis dialectic. Indeed, reconciliation and synthesis is death. The conversation must continue for the system to continue. It's the hum that keeps the engines running. We'll see how this tension plays out again and again.

Morin notes first that the flows of energy and information through a system create a disequilibrium. The flow rattles the marbles in the bag and starts them spinning, and if the energy and information are flowing appropriately, then some magic happens: the system self-organizes. "This nourishing disequilibrium allows the system to maintain an apparent equilibrium, a state of stability and continuity" (On Complexity 11). In other words, for complex open systems, a dynamic equilibrium emerges from chaotic disequilibrium on one hand and fixed equilibrium on the other. It takes both. Rather, it takes the tension between the extremes, and how we negotiate the turbulence of this tension defines the integrity and autonomy of a system: a person or a class, for instance.

Edgar Morin explains quite nicely this paradoxical space in which complex open systems emerge and sustain themselves:
This guaranteed state, constant but fragile (the term we will use here is steady state), is somewhat paradoxical. The structures remain the same even though the constituents are changing. This is not only true for the whirlpool or the flame of a candle, but also of our organisms, where our molecules and cells are renewing themselves incessantly, while the whole remains apparently stable and stationary. In a way the system has to close itself off from the outside world to maintain its structures and its internal environment. If it did not, it would disintegrate. This closure is allowed by the very fact that the system is open. The problem becomes even more interesting when we suppose an indissoluble relationship between maintaining the structure and its changing constituents. Here we find a primary, central, obviously key problem of living beings. This problem is, however, ignored and obscured, not only by the old physics, but also by Western Cartesian metaphysics, for whom all living things are considered closed entities, not as systems that organize their closing (that is to say, their autonomy) in and by their opening. (11)
As Morin goes on to explain, we achieve identity, our distinction from the swelter and noise of the ecosystem, by judiciously closing ourselves off, but these closings are possible only because we are open in the first place. We are not either open or closed—we are both open and closed, and to emerge and sustain ourselves as complex open systems, we must engage both extremes, both open and closed, both order and chaos, both equilibrium and disequilibrium.

I have to emphasize that this is not an argument for some golden mean between two extremes. That is far too simple. Because we exist in a turbulent space, we must constantly modulate between too open and too closed, shifting this way or that based solely on the demands and configurations of the moment, constantly aware that too far either way can drop us into a deadly phase transition. We must be constantly aware, like a starling in a flock, defining our own space in a constantly shifting and morphing larger space. I really wish I could tell you exactly where in the flock you are supposed to be, but that depends on the dynamic, evolving interactions between you and the rest of the flock. And the wind, and predators, and temperature, and … well, you get the idea. You must maintain the integrity of your own space within the shifting parameters of the flock, and you must do it on the fly.

Again, Morin says it better:
The intelligibility of the system has to be found, not only in the system itself, but also in its relationship with the environment, and … this relationship is not a simple dependence: it is constitutive of the system. Reality is therefore as much in the connection (relationship) as in the distinction between the open system and its environment. [original bolded] This connection is absolutely crucial epistemologically, methodologically, theoretically, and empirically. Logically, the system cannot be understood except by including the environment. The environment is at the same time intimate and foreign: it is a part of the system while remaining exterior to it. (11)
To understand a class or a person, then, you must understand the ecosystem they are in—the myriad relationships within the class and outside the class. This is, of course, an impossible task, but we must do it anyway. So welcome to your complex open life. Welcome to complex open classes.

This paradoxical open/closed nature of complex open systems clarifies why boundaries and identities are always so problematic. Like cell membranes or our own skins, boundaries are permeable, both keeping us mostly contained while at the same time connecting us to our ecosystems and managing the exchanges of energy, matter, information, and organization. Boundaries both distinguish and connect, and as our connections shift and morph, the boundaries of necessity expand, contract, and reshape. Boundaries for complex open classes are always provisional because there are always interactions and exchanges among actants within the class itself, across classes, and with the ecosystems of school, community, state, etc. There must be. A class cannot be defined and understood simply as a group of 1 teacher and 30 students. A class is a buzzing hive of interactions among teachers, students, smartphones, weather conditions, moon phases, nutritional flows and levels, electricity grids, textbooks, tablets, computers, networks, neurons, blood pressures, viral and bacterial swarms, and infinitely more, all coping with different agenda and perturbations—some complementary and some conflicting.

This open/closed nature of complex systems has many implications that I hope to work through, but the insight for me today is that all complex open systems such as classes emerge, function, and evolve in the turbulence of a flock on the wing, and while a class can thrive in a stabilized dynamic, it cannot thrive in a fixed structure or no structure. Instructional ethics, then, must map to the malleable and semipermeable membranes of classes.

I must append something about the open education movement, which I support. What does open education have to do with complex open systems as I am exploring them here? I'll start with a definition of open education from the Open Education Consortium:
Open education encompasses resources, tools and practices that employ a framework of open sharing to improve educational access and effectiveness worldwide. …The idea of free and open sharing in education is not new. In fact, sharing is probably the most basic characteristic of education: education is sharing knowledge, insights and information with others, upon which new knowledge, skills, ideas and understanding can be built. … Open is key; open allows not just access, but the ability to modify and use materials, information and networks so education can be personalized to individual users or woven together in new ways for large and diverse audiences.
The focus here is on access and efficacy, or the "ability to modify and use materials, information and networks so education can be personalized … or woven together … for large and diverse audiences." In terms of how I have used open and closed in this post, the Open Education Consortium seems interested in encouraging two things: increasing the flows of useable information through classes and increasing the flows of students through those classes. This follows from the definition of education as "sharing knowledge, insights and information with others, upon which new knowledge, skills, ideas and understanding can be built." This is a solid definition of education as we traditionally understand it: a more knowledgeable teacher or school transferring knowledge and skill to less knowledgeable students. The Open Education Consortium seems to understand open in terms of connecting more students and more resources to more classes (I'm using classes here to encompass everything from one-on-one tutoring sessions and a single person with a book, through traditional lectures and demonstrations, to computer drills and 160,000 member MOOCs in traditional educational institutions and outside).

This OEC emphasis appears to restrict education to one flow of information in one direction: teacher > students and in one space/time. I am arguing against such a restriction. Perhaps it's the language they are using, but this language seems to be the norm, and it seems to work for a closed, simple classroom structure. I want to push back on that language.

Open for me recognizes all the flows of information and energy through a class: flows from a teacher, of course, but also flows from the students who bring a wealth of information often relevant to the discussion at hand. I also include flows from the ecosystem: news, gossip, Spotify, text messages, sunlight, cultural norms, diet, electricity, water, air, political, social, and religious systems, and of course, gravity. Here's the point: those flows are there regardless of how the class attempts to close itself to all flows except that flow from the teacher to the students and back to the teacher in a closed loop—in a closed, simple system in which the teacher feeds prepared information to the students who feed it back in tests to complete and end the cycle. This is a very closed, sterile approach to education that is far too close (pun intended) to equilibrium. (I'm using an extreme example here to emphasize my point, but most of us have been in classes that were uncomfortably close to this extreme.) Complexity emerges in the zone far from equilibrium, closer to chaos. Chaos, of course, is also deadly for a class, but as a complex open system, education needs the turbulence of chaos to animate learning.

Learning emerges in the zone far from equilibrium. Lev Vygotsky hinted back in the 1930s at this zone of proximal development where the learner moves beyond what she already knows into that near chaotic, turbulent realm beyond her mastery. That's where the learning is. That's where the wild things are. It helps, of course, if she has the benefit of a guide who is experienced with the territory and can help her map the chaos, but regardless, the learner must be willing to open herself to the uncharted and must be willing to push beyond that which she knows. This is risky, rocky terrain, but education must cultivate this turbulence, and too much simple, closed education does not. Rather, simple education is structured to reduce the turbulence.

Turbulence means failure, frequent failure, as learners explore new neural, physical pathways. Our current educational culture abhors failure and is geared toward removing and mitigating failure rather than embracing it as a prime educational strategy. Embracing failure in my writing classrooms has been one of the keys to improving writing. I'll give a concrete example: I give assignments that I know most students do not already know how to do, and I provide very little explanation up front. Rather, I encourage them to try and promise that we will fix any problems they encounter. Let's say I tell them that they must format their academic document according to MLA style 8 (a departmental requirement), give them the link to Purdue OWL, and start them writing. Most fail the assignment, so we explore the failures in class in groups. We correct all failures, and grades go up. (I don't like grades, but I must give them, and my students expect them, so I try to use grades as productively as possible. This means regrading and regrading all documents.) Students all fail at MLA in different ways, and the turbulence of the failure primes them to learn. They engage a new flow of information, and the turbulence knocks them over. Most of them do not like it at first, especially the A students, but then magic happens: they identify what they don't know in a rather narrow zone, and they have the chance to fix it, to learn it. They see that most everyone fails in some way with MLA, even their teacher, and they develop strategies for coping.

So my students are allowed to fail, and they are allowed to learn from their failures. I believe that they learn from failures quicker than anything else, but they must have the opportunity to learn. Failure can't be the end point; rather, learning must be built into failure. Given that the failures are usually particular to each student, then the learning must be particular to each student, and suddenly, almost unexpectedly, my class is student-centered. Of course, allowing for and addressing individual failure wanders off the traceable path of a rigid lesson plan in twenty or thirty or a thousand different directions, but that's where the learning is. It opens the class, and I cannot tell you how much I, the expert guide, have learned about MLA by watching my students fail at it.

In her 2010 book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Jane Bennett says that "human decency and a decent politics are fostered if we tune in to the strange logic of turbulence." I think she is right. I think a decent education will follow if we tune in to the strange logic of turbulence.

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