Complex Systems Research


Complex Adaptive Systems
Complexity Theory/Thinking/Science
Dynamical Systems Theory
Generative Science
Systems Theory


Agents forming a unified whole in their interactions, relationships, or dependencies

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … range of possible activity
  • Knowing is … doing, being
  • Learner is … a complex system
  • Learning is … adapting
  • Teaching is … influencing, occasioning




As might be inferred from the list of alternative titles at the top of this page, we have collected a range of interconnected field and theories under the umbrella of Complex Systems Research. A complex system comprises a groups of agents that forms a unified whole in their interactions, relationships, or dependencies. Their emergent, global behaviors cannot be predicted on the basis of the rules governing the individual agents. Definitions and descriptions of complex systems revolve around such terms as emergent, adaptive, nonlinear, irreducible, noncompressible, non-decomposable, multi-level, self-organizing, context-sensitive, and adaptive. Common, but not universal features of complex systems include having a memory, structurally coupling with other systems, and being nested in grander systems. A sense of the variety of these systems might be gleaned from the graphic below (created by Hiroki Sayama). [caption id="attachment_93" align="alignnone" width="700"] Created by Hiroki Sayama, Collective Dynamics of Complex Systems (CoCo) Research Group[/caption]


There is a piece of common wisdom that floating around the sciences that John Barrow summarized as follows: “Arguments against new ideas generally pass through three distinct stages, from, ‘It’s not true,’ to, ‘Well, it may be true, but it’s not important,’ to, ‘It’s true and it’s important, but it’s not new – we knew it all along.’ That pretty much sums up commentaries on Complex Systems Research. All three categories of criticism can be found in contemporary discourses.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Yaneer Bar-Yam Albert-Laszlo Barabasi Gregory Bateson Ludwig von Bertalanffy Murray Gell-Mann John Holland Stuart Kauffman Melanie Mitchell Steven Strogatz Duncan Watts Stephen Wolfram

Status as a Theory of Learning

With regard to the concerns and foci of education, Complex Systems Research might be described as offering a meta-theory of learning – as the graphic below is intended to suggest.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Complex Systems Research is not a theory of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Complex Systems Research is a robust are of scientific inquiry.

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Complex Systems Research” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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