Model of Hierarchical Complexity


Distinguishing among and ranking stages of complexity of a system’s dynamics

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … range of developmental possibility
  • Knowing is … stage-specific dynamics
  • Learner is … any dynamic system
  • Learning is … consolidating (current stage) and progressing (to next stage)
  • Teaching is … matching (cognitive demand to stage); supporting (development of next level)




Included among Developmental Discourses, the Model of Hierarchical Complexity is a 16-stage perspective that is claimed to be applicable across species and cultures, to both individuals and collectives, and to both machines and organisms. Based on how information is organized, each stage is defined in terms of mathematical processes that are necessary to subsequent levels. The stages are:
  1. Calculatory (computation, unreasoning)
  2. Automatic (hard-wired reaction)
  3. Sensory or Motor (conditioned response)
  4. Circular Sensory-Motor (intentional movement)
  5. Sensory-Motor (concepts formed)
  6. Nominal (relations among concepts)
  7. Sentential (imitate; develop sequences)
  8. Preoperational (deduce; tell stories)
  9. Primary (logic; empirical rules; time awareness)
  10. Concrete (do arithmetic; form cliques; negotiate)
  11. Abstract (discriminate; classify; stereotype)
  12. Formal (argue logically; problem-solve)
  13. Systematic (construct multivariate systems)
  14. Metasystematic (integrate disparate systems)
  15. Paradigmatic (consolidate metasystems into paradigms)
  16. Cross-Paradigmatic (consolidate paradigms into fields)
  17. Meta-Cross-Paradigmatic (reflect on cross-paradigms)


The Model of Hierarchical Complexity has not reached a broad audience in education, and so there are few relevant commentaries. An obvious concern would be that it is of limited utility in a pragmatic domain. A more subtle criticism would be the apparent disconnect between the explicit formal-mathematical foundation of the theory and the claim that it is culturally (and species) unbiased.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Michael Lamport Collins

Status as a Theory of Learning

The Model of Hierarchical Complexity is a theory of learning – or, more precisely perhaps, a theory of learning systems.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

The Model of Hierarchical Complexity is not a theory of teaching, but it has obvious implications for teaching at each stage.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Authors of the Model of Hierarchical Complexity have gone to extensive efforts to index their model of other Developmental Discourses, to demonstrate that it is rationally/mathematically sound, to be explicit on assumptions and metaphors of learning, and to assemble and respond to empirical evidence. That is, based on our criteria, the Model of Hierarchical Complexity is a scientific theory.

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Model of Hierarchical Complexity” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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