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Education as a complex adaptive system?

September 27, 2011, 4:35 pm

In the latest issue of the Journal of Engineering Education, there’s a guest editorial by Rick Stephens and Michael Richey, both from The Boeing Company, that describes Boeing’s internal efforts to educate its engineers. Here’s the video abstract:

You’re more likely to associate the name “Boeing” with airplanes than with education, but in fact it turns out that Boeing’s educational portfolio is massive: 7 million hours of instruction to more than 150,000 employees across 45 countries — in 2009 alone! That comes out to about 28,000 hours of instruction per week, which would put Boeing in the league of a mid-sized university in terms of contact hours in the classroom.

But comparing Boeing to traditional educational structures is decidedly not the point of the article. The Boeing people ask: Why is it, after so much has been invested in STEM education research and practice, that we still have problems finding people qualified to work in the STEM disciplines? The authors argue that perhaps we (meaning, the traditional educational establishment) are asking the wrong questions or using the wrong model for education itself. From the article:

The educational system that produces the critical talent for the United States’ future security and prosperity is complex …It is composed of systems nested within subsystems, each operating on multiple temporal scales where observable causality is often hidden… Changes to this system emerge through evolutionary processes and are encumbered by complex physical, behavioral, and social phenomena as well as competing interests. Faced with overwhelming complexity in the learning ecosystem (including shifting economic, political, and business environments), we tend to focus primarily on issues that are relevant to the cultural boundaries within which we operate…

Our Santa Fe Institute and SRI Inc. research is attempting to model educational subsystem behaviors through the lens of complex adaptive systems to better conceptualize the current educational ecosystem. Therefore, we plan on identifying methods to model the larger system. A deep understanding of this structure (exponential complexity encountered as knowledge is distributed through the organization) is required in order to transcend subcultural boundaries and meld a unified framework. From this might emerge a fresh composite that values different cultural and situational perspectives.

So, they are viewing education very much in the context of the business they run and the engineering problems they face — and that produces a vision of education that is strikingly different than what we currently see. For them, education is an ecosystem, full of dynamically-connected multiple agents that move in a web of interactions that ultimately change the course of the system itself over time.

If you look at some of the descriptors of a complex adaptive system, these are certainly not the descriptors of traditional, formal higher (or lower) education. Emergence, self-similarity, self-organization… doesn’t sound like the usual notion of college, does it? Indeed, it’s hard to conceptualize just how a complex adaptive systems model of education would be implemented at all. But perhaps that’s an indicator of failed thinking — must we think of education as something to be implemented? Or is it something that happens? Whatever the case, the authors argue it’s just such a system that is needed to support environments where learning by doing takes place and where engagement happens both inside and outside of a classroom.

What do you think? Are these folks from Boeing on to something?

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