Blog 37

Complexity Thinking in Education: Leveraging Difference for Learning


Gail Mitchell, Faculty of Health

Ten years ago I realized that I could not teach one more course where students were disengaged and uninspired.  The notion that there is a right and wrong approach to learning and that some authority will ensure success has been deeply engrained in student thinking.  “What do you want me to learn?”  This echoing question propelled me to look for pedagogical theories that would help transform my experience as an educator and the students’ experiences of engagement and meaningful learning.

I bumped into complexity thinking about a decade ago and it has been a source of ideas that invigorate my teaching-learning.  Complexity is being embraced by scholars in multiple disciplines, including education, health, physics, and the arts.  Also referred to as systems theory, complexity shows how students and teachers can connect in webs of relationships where everyone matters, everyone contributes, and everyone benefits.

Here is an interesting  presentation about complexity and the future of learning.  A long but worthwhile video on imagining the future of education.  The video offers an American perspective, but you will also recognize truths about the Canadian educational systems. (Sante Fe Institute, 2012)

I found that there are other educators at York also looking for new ways to engage with and inspire learning among groups of students who have choice of content for their leaning within the broader constraints of a course or program of study.  The early innovators, with funding from the Academic Innovation Fund and the Ontario Centres of Excellence, collaborated to create the e-learning platform called Daagu that is currently being used by Faculty at YorkU. Take a look at this 3 minute video, funded by a Teaching-Learning Development Grant from YUFA, to learn more about how Daagu looks and works.

After using Daagu with several hundred students in undergraduate and graduate nursing programs, some interesting patterns are emerging. The one I would like to focus on in this blog is about difference/diversity and the ways differences—different views, angles, examples, experiences, feelings, possibilities, concerns, hopes—are involved in deep and meaningful learning.

The idea that engaging with different ideas, views, and perspectives is essential for meaningful learning is not new. One can find, in contemporary literature, the significant influence of French philosopher Deleuze (1994) and his insights into the complexities surrounding human thinking and our continuous engagement with difference—enveloping, differentiating, embracing, rejecting, obscurities and clarities, distances and depths that represent human learning.  Cole’s (2015) reading of Deleuze led him to propose that “learning is a necessarily complex and relational process (including elements of non-relation), which makes questioning of accepted knowledge an imperative and working together communally around knowledge problems essential”(p. 74).  Deleuze’s work challenges traditional views of learning that link knowledge with content that is delivered and taken up by the learner. Students may regurgitate what is given, but that does not mean there has been meaningful learning. Indeed, I am witnessing what I consider to be a loss of student voice and critical thinking. Some students submit papers that describe what experts and evidence present without any self-reflection and articulation of their personal views.

In speaking with several colleagues about the potential of this pattern of difference and learning, I have seen deep concern and maybe even fear. I hope to learn more about the fears and concerns through this blog and our ongoing discussions. What I see and feel, is that there is a fear that students will learn the wrong ideas, that they will not learn what they must know, that by engaging with difference, the students will become confused and lost in a sea of thinking that has no authority to control and direct right thinking. This fear is understandable, at some level, but it is not substantiated with evaluation or even deep discussion of the real and complex ambiguities surrounding every day life and work. From my view, students are not given sufficient credit for their abilities to question, mull, provoke, and discern meanings and possibilities of the big issues they are engaging each and every day. Seems to me, the question is: Do we educators have the courage to let go of control and take the free fall leap to trust relational learning and student participation in creating the curriculum?

Complexity pedagogy is showing promise as a viable and fertile approach for teaching learning in networks of persons who share goals—especially educational goals for engaged and imaginative learning that exceeds expectations.  Complexity leverages difference in order to create a vitality in the network of learners such that the greater the differences expressed, the deeper the consideration of questions and possibilities. I look forward to hearing your comments and views.



Cole, D.R. Cole, D. R. (2015). Deleuze and learning. The SAGE Handbook of Learning,                   73-82. ISBN-10: 1446287564.

Deleuze, G. (1994). Differences and repetition (P Patton, Trans.). New York, NY: Columbia University. (Original work published 1964)

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