Society… as in any living organism, is the co-operative consensus of multitudes of cells, each living in exchange with others. (Dewey, J., 1931. Individualism Old and New. London: George Allen and Unwin).
It’s a truism to say that education is complex. We accept it and we talk about preparing our learners to be “future-proof”, “agile” and “adaptable”, but then when we ping straight back into acting mechanistically, led by notions of optimisation, specifications, objectives and outcomes.
In complex contexts, being entangled means that we are all interdependent in the system, including any interventions we might make to change it. We don’t act on the system from outside. ‘Like a bramble bush in a thicket’ (Alicia Juarrero), small changes can make big differences, but in unpredictable ways. There is no simple linear cause-and-effect. Unanticipated aspects emerge as the different parts shift and the system self-organises.
Surely knowing this would alter how we approached our schools, universities and education systems? You’d think so.
Before I arrived at last month’s Cynefin Retreat, I certainly knew this in theory. I’ve been exploring complex adaptive systems in education for the last 10 years. But I now know that I didn’t fully appreciate it in practice.
NOTE: Retreat delegates are all active participants, not just observers.
All too often, our arrival at a professional gathering is accompanied by a comfortable switch from “active” to “passive” mode, as we ease lazily into absorbing the content thrust our way by a variety of “thought-leaders” in the field. Another crowd on their perpetual circuit, peddling solutionism, leading thoughts this way and that!
No such guilty pleasures here in the beautiful Vale of Glamorgan. As soon as we arrived, we were launched down the mines of the Welsh rural context at St Fagans National Museum of History – deepening our sense of place before we were tempted to retreat to the clean safety of decontextualised “academic” debates. We looked at education and learning through the lens of the local – tribal, political, industrial – such as, the “Welsh Not” and Welsh mine workers’ institutes of the late 19th century.
Welcome to the Triopticon
After a chance to get to know each other over dinner and drinks that night, we started Day 2 ready to enter the Triopticon! Imagining some kind of Greek tragedy or Foucauldian version of the Hunger Games, I wasn’t quite sure what I was letting myself in for. But under the guidance of Beth Smith, Anna Panagiotou and the rest of the fantastic Cynefin team, it soon became clear.
First, Beth clarified our direction. Together, we would explore three different perspectives on education and learn from our Eagles (more on that in a moment!). Then, drawing on these and our own collective expertise, we would identify a few specific projects that could be the ‘next right thing’ in their particular contexts.
This was putting into practice Dave Snowden’s now famous ‘Frozen 2’ strategy that identifies and harnesses the evolutionary potential of the present, rather than fixating on an ideal future state that we are trying to engineer into being.
Over the next two and a half days, we worked hard in various formations – trios and flocks of Ravens, colonies of Beavers, being provoked and challenged by a few wiley Coyotes. We shared our experiences and perspectives on learning and education as professionals from a variety of sectors, but also more personal, as learners ourselves, as parents and as citizens.
We finished on the morning of Day 4, tired but satisfied that we had developed project plans, based not on the outcomes we wanted, but on an understanding of the landscape of what changes were possible.
If you are interested in the specific flow of the Triopticon, you can read more about the method here.
The medium is the message!
As I reflected on the process, it was very clear that the most prominent aspect of the experience wasn’t any one person, idea or outcome. It was the structure of the method itself.
So often in education, we get obsessed with structure. And for good reason. We are carrying precious cargo and we want assurances that it’s going to get there in one piece (where ‘there’ is another conversation for another day!). However, we fixate on precisely the wrong kind of structure. From a toxic legacy of Aristotelian logic, Cartesian separation, Newtonian cause-and-effect and Thatcherite neo-liberalism and New Public Management, our educational institutions cling to the increasingly untenable myth of certainty that management by spreadsheets provides.
The irony is that opponents of such a top-down structure often validate it by rejecting the structure out of hand (as though there were no alternatives). The pendulum swings to the opposite extreme, emphasising learner-centred education and self-directed learning.
In the Triopticon, I experienced a generative structure that didn’t oppose individual agency, in fact, it created the necessary conditions for it to emerge, alongside other attributes that we need much more of in education: collective inquiry and epistemic justice.
By way of a few examples, the menagerie of wilderness creatures gave us roles that engrossed us as they transformed us. You could call them something functional but that would be way less fun (and probably less effective)! This was a very concrete experience of a constructor – a key aspect of the latest developments in Estuarine Mapping. It made certain things possible, and other things impossible. As Ravens, we were only allowed to share reflections amongst Ravens, which meant that space was created for everyone to share their own perspectives. No one Raven could dominate.
It also stopped us from deferring to the Eagles – Jane Booth, Caryn Vanstone and Lene Rachel Andersen – and putting them up on a perch as the “experts”. They, themselves, were also collaborators, called upon to reflect on each others’ presentations.
As the lead facilitator, Beth could easily have been set up as the authority, controlling proceedings according to her whim and interpreting people’s responses through her own lens.
Similarly, Dave could have easily been handed the epistemic authority by the many admiring participants. But he was kept in a box marked ‘Trickster’ (as a Coyote)!
Everyone was unconsciously contained and connected by a variety of constraints (p14 in the EU Field Guide has a really useful typology), such as time boxes, deadlines, rituals and roles/responsibilities. All of them are carefully designed to facilitate the decomposition and recombination of ideas – and sometimes confusion (aporia)!
A particular favourite of mine was a phase called Ritual Dissent. After we had transformed from Raven into Beavers to build project plans, each plan was interrogated through enforced and vehement (but not personally abusive!) criticism by other Beaver groups. This was a kind of ‘pre-mortem’ to identify potential weaknesses in the projects early and iterate quickly to build in more resilience into the structures. No beaver wants a dam that breaks at the first sign of stress! It was another amazing example of collective intelligence being harnessed intentionally to recognise and embrace the inherent complexity of the issues and contexts being addressed.
Lastly, throughout the retreat, there was an ongoing opportunity for us all to share thoughts and provocations that stuck with us as micro-narratives in the Sensemaker app. This was yet another way to see the emergent patterns of stories and perspectives being shared in real-time, allowing the Cynefin team to reflect and adapt the process as needed.
Buzzing with possibilities
I am writing this on the train home, completely exhausted but buzzing with possibilities! So alive to the many adjacent possibilities that exist.
This Cynefin retreat (and, specifically, the Triopticon) had not only been about educating in complexity. It was an education in complexity. It was a learning experience with more integrity and fidelity than I’ve ever seen to the fact that we (and the issues being addressed) are complex adaptive systems.
Let’s keep acting like it, in full acknowledgement and wonder at the stunning complexity of what we face.
About The Author
Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.
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