Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Complex Open Education: Multiplicities

So does complexity theory provide us with a way of thinking about ethical behavior in education? I think so, but first I have to clarify for myself how I am framing education. I've been trying to do this for several years now, and I just haven't found the mechanism to do so. I think I may have it together enough to do so now.

I start with an understanding of education as a complex open system, or in Deleuzional terms: a rhizome. I've been trying to figure out what this means, and I have not been able to rely solely on Deleuze and Guattari. They are not the only ones to think about complex open systems, and they are not the clearest, though they are often among the most evocative for me. Still, my thinking has been enabled and enriched by reading many others, and I make free use of them when I need to. For me, the rhizome is but one good effort by a couple of pretty clever fellows to express the shift of thinking from a reductionist mode in the simple/complicated domains to a complex mode in the complex/chaotic domains. This shift is quite evident in modern science since the early 20th century, but not so much in education, where we've spent the past two hundred years trying to render classrooms as simple spaces with clear, fixed goals and activities. To my mind, classes function in the complex domain and are most properly and effectively addressed as complex open systems, or rhizomes.

Can I give a traditional definition of a complex open class, from the outside, and will it help? Yes and no, but I'll do it anyway, because as Deleuze and Guattari so wryly noted: "We get the distinct feeling that we will convince no one unless we enumerate certain approximate characteristics of the rhizome" (ATP, 7). Still, I will enumerate from the outside but only on the condition that I unpack from the inside. So my definition: a class is a complex open system made up of many actants that are animated and sustained by flows of energy and information that fuel self-eco-organizing, nonlinear interactions among the actants and enable the system to function with some coherence and continuity within the context of other complex open systems. Ethics emerge from the self-eco-organizing behaviors of complex open systems, such as classes.

So there's the nugget of a definition. I will try to unpack this idea of education as a complex open system over the next few posts.

First, let's start with the obvious: complex open systems are composed of many elements, nodes, or actants. I will use the term actant from actor network theory to emphasize the heterogeneity of classrooms, which include not only human teachers and students, but also texts, administrative and pedagogical processes, physical spaces with a myriad of actants (I'm old enough to remember the smells of chalk and, later, dry eraser, neither of which often reinforced the instructor's point despite what they wrote on the board—those smells took me away), conversations, passions, boredom, electricity, water, inspiration, and a million other non-human actors usually not included in discussions of instructional design.

Deleuze and Guattari open their description of rhizomes with the principles of connection and heterogeneity, saying: "any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be" (ATP 7). So they, too, are starting with the idea that a rhizome is made up of many elements. Likewise, in his 1998 book Complexity and Postmodernism, Paul Cilliers begins his list of 10 characteristics of complex open systems by noting that they are composed of many nodes, or actants. A class is composed of more actants than anyone can expect to track or manage, but one should be aware of as many actants as possible without being distracted. This points to a dialogical tension inherent in all complex systems that becomes increasingly obvious as we unpack them.

Education at any scale, then, is a multiplicity. A class—my English 1101 Composition I class, for instance—is a multiplicity, not a unity; therefore, we should speak of the class as some students, not the class, preferring the indefinite article over the definite, as D&G suggest (ATP, p. 9). The indefinite article some preserves the presence and connectivity of all the other students and actants spread like grass around the world. Of course, we often speak of the class, but it is for convenience, to over-signify and define from outside some students into a unity. It is a kind of shorthand that has, unfortunately, become the only reality for many of us. We believe that the educational world is made up only of discrete actants: classes, students, teachers, schools. Our manner of speaking has obscured the heterogenous interconnectivity of the rhizomatic class, and we speak so regularly of the class that we come to believe in it as a closed system: a discrete, unified entity with its independent beginning and end, its unique rules and syllabus. Despite all our efforts, rules, and instructional designs, however, the class is not a closed system. It is a rhizome, a complex open system, an assemblage of many actants.

In her book Vibrant Matter (2010), Jane Bennett borrows the term assemblage from Deleuze and Guattari to begin her exploration of vibrant matter, vital materiality, and she explains assemblage this way:
Assemblages are ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant materials of all sorts. Assemblages are living, throbbing confederations that are able to function despite the persistent presence of energies that confound them from within [and from without, I would add]. … Each member and proto-member of the assemblage has a certain vital force, but there is also an effectivity proper to the grouping as such: an agency of the assemblage. And precisely because each member-actant maintains an energetic pulse slightly “off” from that of the assemblage, an assemblage is never a stolid block but an open-ended collective, a “non-totalizable sum.” (pp. 23-24)
For me, an assemblage, or multiplicity, is something like a piano. We speak of the piano, as if all of the parts have somehow vanished, fallen into a black whole, a unity, but they haven't. They are still there. We even speak of one note—say, B-flat—as if the other notes are not there. This is a convenience, of course, and often a necessity, but when we speak of one thing, all the other things are still there, still implicated, still pressing. If we play the B-flat, striking one key to awaken one string into vibration (see how we are already a multiplicity?), the other strings begin to vibrate as well. They form the hum, the noise, supporting the dominant, but not discrete, B-flat. The wood vibrates, the air, our bodies. All these actants form the character of the instrument. No actant alone can make that particular B-flat, or that piano, or that piano player. We say, "Hear the B-flat?" as if it is one thing, but it is not. It is a multiplicity, an assemblage, a rhizome. It cannot be otherwise, despite what we say.

When we speak of education, we always speak of a multiplicity, even when we speak about the individual learner or individualized instruction. These terms are handy, even helpful sometimes, but ultimately they obscure the multiplicity, the noise out of which all knowledge and skill emerges. The interconnectivity of multiple actants is at the heart of the connectivism of Siemens and Downes, at the heart of the community as curriculum of Dave Cormier. It is the heart of education. I begin, then, with multiplicity.

But, some may complain, what's the big deal? Well, I don't think I can overstate the importance of the multiplicity. Still, let me be clear that I am not replacing the individual with the multiplicity. All actants are both ocean and wave. Also, I do not seek some balance between them, some happy mean. Rather, I'm looking for an appropriate tension between the individual and the multiplicity, a dialogic as Edgar Morin uses the term. These are irreconcilable views of actants, but the tension between them is where all the creativity of life emerges. That's what I seek.

Still, I am aware that for the past 300 years Western culture has overwhelmingly privileged the individual in politics, business, religion, and yes, education. As Iain McGilchrist amply demonstrates in his book The Master and the Emissary (2012), the individual (roughly, the left brain) has taken precedence over the multiplicity (roughly, the right brain), and society has suffered because of it. I accept the gist of McGilchrist's argument, especially as supported by Edgar Morin's exploration of reductionist science in his book On Complexity. We have lost the multiple, and its loss has damaged us. As Serres notes in his book Genesis (1995), multiplicities, swarms, frighten us:
We are fascinated by the unit; only a unity seems rational to us. We scorn the senses, because their information reaches us in bursts. We scorn the groupings of the world, and we scorn those of our bodies. For us they seem to enjoy a bit of the status of Being only when they are subsumed beneath a unity. Disaggregation and aggregation, as such, and without contradiction, are repugnant to us. Multiplicity, according to Leibniz, is only a semi-being. A cartload of bricks isn't a house. Unity dazzles on at least two counts: by its sum and by its division. That herd must be singular in its totality and it must also be made up of a given number of sheep or buffalo. We want a principle, a system, an integration, and we want elements, atoms, numbers. We want them, and we make them. A single God, and identifiable individuals. The aggre­gate as such is not a well-formed object; it seems irrational to us. The arithmetic of whole numbers remains a secret foundation of our understanding; we're all Pythagorians. We think only in monadologies. (2, 3)
I'm trying to learn how to think with multiplicities. I do not find it easy, and I may never totally get there, in part because I am fairly adept at writing in unities. Most of the time, my posts, my paragraphs, my sentences are unified. My thoughts are unified. I whip the multiple into unity before thinking. I may have to switch to poetry. I'll see.

For me, the first implication of multiplicity is that knowledge and agency are distributed, network functions. Actually, everything is distributed across a multiplicity—my own identity, for instance—but I focus here on knowledge and agency because they are so core to education: I know how to do something and I am able to do it. We are accustomed to thinking of knowledge and agency as powers belonging to individuals. This is not so. For instance, I could say that I have the agency to play soccer. This sounds like my ability to do something, my individual agency, but even a casual exploration reveals the distributed, network nature of that agency. My playing soccer is the interaction of many of the subsystems of my body: respiration, digestion, cognition, reflexive, musculature, skeletal, and so on. My agency is not housed in any one of these subsystems, but emerges from the interactions of all of them. My agency is distributed across all those subsystems, and I cannot reduce my agency to any one of them. My soccer-playing agency does not reside in my feet.

But you might complain that this is a trick, that in fact, all those organs and systems are individual me, but this is not the correct understanding. For instance, take away any one of those systems, and see what happens to my agency to play soccer. It is seriously impaired, if not eliminated altogether. I need a network to play.

Of course, the distribution of my agency extends far beyond the confines of my skin. I also need other players with their own internal agency to play with and against. I need a ball, a pitch, a referee. Without the multiplicity, I have no agency. This is not a trick. Jane Bennet explains distributed agency quite well when she says that "bodies [all actants, not merely the human] enhance their power in or as a heterogeneous assemblage. What this suggests for the concept of agency is that the efficacy or effectivity to which that term has traditionally referred becomes distributed across an ontologically heterogeneous field, rather than being a capacity localized in a human body or in a collective produced (only) by human efforts" (22).

Like agency, knowledge is a distributed, network function, an emergent property of multiplicity. We need a network to know, but this is not how we usually think of knowledge. Traditionally we think of knowledge as nugget of something that can be transferred like a token from a teacher's mind to a student's mind, but there ain't no token, and there ain't no transfer. Something else is going on.

Based on his work in building artificial intelligence systems before he became a philosopher, Paul Cilliers explores the distributed nature of knowledge in Complexity and Postmodernism, where he notes that modelling a complex open system requires a modelling apparatus that is as complex as the system being modelled. This is very different from our usual approach to modelling which typically reduces the size and scope of the thing being modelled to make it more handy. Unfortunately, it always eliminates details of the original, and in complex open systems, all details are critical, and the loss of any detail distorts the system itself. Think of it this way: if you want to model a building as a closed system of static planes, lines, volumes, spaces, and other geometric elements, then you can do that rather easily in a computer or with pen and paper, as those tools can work in the simple/complicated domains to capture and represent closed systems.

If on the other hand you want to model a building as a complex open system emerging from ten thousand years of architectural design, building techniques, the technical and economic streams of building materials, the social, political, and economic streams of real estate, the lives and inputs of builders and laborers, owners and occupiers, the interactions over the 100 year lifetime of the building with wind, rain, weather, gravity, temperature … well, if you want to understand that, then you will need more than pen and paper or even a supercomputer. You will need a human mind. Or something better. You will need a complex, sensitive fabric at least as complex as the complex open system being modelled. The human mind is the most complex, sensitive fabric that we know of, and it is capable of modelling in distributed representations (distributed in space/time) an amazing amount of this incredibly complex open universe that we inhabit.

But those representations are not little chunks, or little signs. Cilliers explains that "in most semiotic systems the sign acquires meaning by referring to something—it represents the referent" (81). So we typically set up a one-to-one correspondence between the sign house located at sectors 57 and 92 in our brains and an actual house, or class of things out in the real world. When we need to think house, our brain navigates to 57 x 92 and finds house, like a dictionary definition. It doesn't work this way. The sign house is never localized in our brains as a unique thing, nugget, or token. Rather, house is distributed across our brains in a familiar pattern of firing neurons. And as neuroscientist Olaf Sporns notes in his book Networks of the Brain (2010), the brain builds the pattern house on the fly, using what neurons are available at the moment, which helps me understand why memories and ideas can seem different from recall to recall, like fractals: similar enough to be usable, but different enough to be noticeable.

Meaning, or knowledge, then cannot be localized to a single neuron or even cluster of neurons. Meaning is distributed across a pattern of neurons on an as-need basis. And I will insist that just like agency, meaning extends beyond our brains to include our entire bodies, our histories, and our communities. It takes time and a whole community to learn. It takes a very complex fabric to represent reality, or as much of it as we are capable of representing (I do not think our minds, as richly complex as they are, are complex enough to represent all of reality. Something always exceeds our reach, but I can't prove that). Agency and knowledge are always the results of multiplicities, never of individuals. This is the proper understanding.

Educational ethics, then, must map the multiplicity of all actants. This is an impossible task, but nonetheless necessary. Welcome to the rhizome.


  1. I continue to think about and in multiplicities, agency (belief in one's ability + context to act it out) and more, all in the context of notions of narrative (nStory=narrative). Narrative organizes complexity, making it appear if not simple, at least negotiably complicated. We appear wired for narrative as a way to both tell our story (Today I went for a 7 mile run down the highway, enjoying the sun warming my face.), or others' stories, and also to read the world (Freire). I'm in the midst of struggling to write about this, and once again, your post expands my thinking. Or at least my reading into and out of your text, grows the my thought rhizome.

    My support of personal and self-directed learning is not about individual actors, it's about attempting to resist single narratives, homogeneity, closedness, in favour of growth, or what you've called here, "self-eco-organizing." Improv if you will. Lines of flight.

    Is this an ethics of observation, sense-making as David Snowden says of complex domains? Empathy as a "feeling into" (just read interactions of multiplicities? How much of openness is about personality, a preference for the improvisation of jazz over the sheet music?

    Working with teacher candidates creating lesson plans, I struggle to help them understand multiplicities: interactions of students, content to personal and social experiences, physical space, technology, lunch.

    Donald Hoffman ( says we don't see the world as it is. We construct it, as we need it. We are pattern makers and we draw on past experience to make sense of what we encounter. The referent then may be as much, or more, the construct, than the real thing before us. I must think more on this. Thanks for further sparking my thinking.

  2. Barry, I always benefit when you drop by. Thanks.

    I followed the links, which is how the rhizome seems to work these days, and found a couple of new stories. Empathy seems to help us create the stories just behind what we see, and our minds seem to create the "what we see" just behind what we see in our eyes. Both are narratives. Mind you, I don't think this means that reality is all in our head; rather, it is a dialogic between reality and each of us. Reality really is here—as close as our breath—but we really do have to engage it. Both reality and we have work to do, it seems.

    Thanks for running this leg with me.