The class as a learning entity (complex adaptive system): An idea from complexity science and educational research

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Craig Newell


Educational theorists are making increasing use of the metaphors and concepts of complexity thinking in their discourses. In particular, Professors Brent Davis, Elaine Simmt, and Dennis Sumara have written extensively about using complexity thinking to shift attention from the individual student as the locus of learning (cognizing agent) to the social collective—the class—as the locus of learning. In this model, the class (students and teacher) is (potentially) a complex adaptive system. The students and teacher remain complex adaptive systems in their own right, but through dynamic local interactions there is the possibility of emergent behaviours indicative of learning that transcends that of the individuals within the class. The social collective we know as a class becomes an instance of the Aristotlean adage, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” (With the coda that we cannot understand the whole by merely understanding the components.) Davis, Simmt, and Sumara have segued from complexity-informed descriptions of educational collectives to discussions about facilitating the self-organization of classes into complex adaptive systems – learning systems, in their language. In this paper, I discuss complex adaptive systems and look at how Davis, Simmt, and Sumara developed their thesis that the class collective, rather than individual student, is the appropriate level to investigate learning and teaching. We conclude by addressing some of the possibilities and challenges inherent in such a redescription of communities of learners.


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How to Cite
Newell, C. (2008). The class as a learning entity (complex adaptive system): An idea from complexity science and educational research. SFU Educational Review, 2.
Author Biography

Craig Newell, Simon Fraser University

Faculty of Education Doctoral candidate - Curriculum Theory and Implementation (Math. Ed.)