Emergent Complexity Discourses


Attending to the co-amplifying possibilities of systems comprising coupled agents

Principal Metaphors

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




Most, but not all Emergent Complexity Discourses are explicitly aligned with Complex Systems Research and the phenomenon of emergence – that is, with how systems transcend the summed possibilities of their parts. A uniting theme of Emergent Complexity Discourses is that global behaviors cannot be predicted on the basis of the rules governing the individual agents. In the context of this website, the following associated discourses might be considered as synonymously with Emergent Complexity Discourses, at least insofar as they are focused on matters of human learning:
  • Cognitive Complexity Theory is a complexity discourse that is specifically focused on human learning, with prominent associated interests in collective action and technological augmentation of human possibility.
  • Emergentism, broadly speaking, is the embrace of the phenomenon of emergence (as described above), especially with regard to topics associated with mind and consciousness.
  • Autopoiesis (Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela; 1970s) – From the Greek αὐτo- “self” + ποίησις“creation,” Autopoiesis is used to describe any system that is able to self-reproduce and self-maintain.


A useful distinction is often drawn between “complicated” and “complex.” These words have the same etymological roots, but in contemporary parlance, complicated has come to refer to predictable, mechanical phenomena, whereas complex is used to describe more unruly forms. Complicated systems are the subjects of classical Newtonian mechanics. Complicated systems are better characterized in the language of Darwinian dynamics. (With reference to this meaning of “complex,” the modifier “emergent” is redundant. However, it is used here to underscore the intended sense.) While only a relatively small region of our map is explicitly labeled as Emergent Complexity Discourses, the sensibilities that define this cluster can be appropriately applied to most, if not all, Coherence Discourses.


  • Autopoiesis
  • Cognitive Complexity Theory
  • Emergentism

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Emergent Complexity Discourses” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.

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