Quantifying the Complex Adaptive System Metaphor: Generating the Educational Transformation Heuristic

 Patrick J. McQuillan,  


Efforts at educational reform in the U.S. are too often ineffective, in large part because the change process is erroneously assumed to be a predictable, linear matter of technical precision. All educational change involves systems, and systems change is complex. Indeed, schools are complex systems, interconnected networks of interacting elements that constantly change, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. To promote robust and equitable outcomes for all, schools and the larger systems of which they are a part need to become complex adaptive systems (CAS), systems that can deftly adjust in humane, inclusive, and thoughtful ways to emerging shifts in priorities, practices, and student populations. In contrast to assumptions that have informed many reform endeavors, the CAS attends to the iterative, recursive, interdependent, and unpredictable nature of educational transformation—processing information from the environment and modifying behavior in response to an ever-changing context. Drawing on the educational transformation heuristic—largely derived from features of the CAS—one can identify interrelationships among a rich cross-section of related features and analyze emerging patterns to gain a broad understanding of the dynamics of change, which should illuminate various issues surrounding educational transformation, including whether any reform is likely to realize its intended objectives.


Keywords: complex adaptive systems, opportunity gap, emergence, systems change, educational transformation heuristic