Chaos Theory and Education
by Michael Lorenzen
(This is an old short paper in dire need of being updated. It used to live at an old defunct website. I have been requested to put it back online. Here it is.)
The universe is a chaotic place. It is full of uncertainty and it can be difficult to predict exactly what is going to happen at any given time be it the present or the far future. Scientists and mathematicians have developed a theory to explain this phenomenon. It is called chaos theory and it is highly relevant to the field of teaching.
Education is an uncertain endeavor. Not only is it difficult to exactly predict what will happen in the class each day, it is nearly impossible to ascertain what the best course of education for any given person or class may be. The reasons for this are simple. Education is connected to the rest universe and as such is fully subject to the chaos that naturally exists in reality.
Chaos has been contemplated by mankind for several millennia. The concept can be seen in early religious philosophy (Hinduism has believed in chaos from its inception) to the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh. Isaac Newton also considered the nature of chaos in the universe. A modern view of chaos theory was written by Gollub and Solomon. They wrote (282), "A chaotic system is defined as one that shows sensitivity to initial conditions. That is, any uncertainty in the initial state of the given system, no matter how small, will lead to rapidly growing errors in any effort to predict the future behavior. In other words, the system is chaotic. Its behavior can be predicted only if the initial conditions are known to an infinite degree of accuracy, which is impossible."
It is easy to see from this description that all work, be it professional or not, is subject to the whims of chaos. Any one in public service, be it a doctor or a cashier at Quality Dairy, deals with uncertainty while dealing with the public. It is impossible to predict with certain accuracy what is going to happen next. Even less public driven jobs have this uncertainty. The long term is even worse. How can any given action be used to explain why something happens later? Sometimes good guesses can be made. ("Hey, maybe I should have told that guy to stop smoking.") Still, it is difficult in to prove causality in most cases. There are usually several alternate explanations for every occurrence.
Education and teaching are forced to deal with chaos. The initial, and all subsequent conditions, are not know to an infinite degree of accuracy with any given student or class. Hence, chaos must ensue. This chaos can be seen in two ways. First, every class session is uncertain until it occurs. Despite the best developed lesson plans and class management techniques, the class will be subject to an infinite number of possible occurrences. Second, it is difficult to see the connection between teaching and learning. How can a teacher know what is taught is best for the student's learning in the short and long terms. Sometimes, good assumptions can be made by studying students. However, all students are subject to a variety of chaos in their lives at school and in the world. Which effect beyond teaching could have effected the result? Educators will always deal with uncertainty in both how and what they should teach.
Lampert describes several good examples of the first kind of chaos in education. Wrote Lampert (181, 182), "When I consider the conflicts that arise in the classroom for my perspective as a teacher, I do not see a choice between abstract social goals. What I see are tensions between individual students, or personal confrontations between myself and a particular group of boys or girls. When I think about rewarding Dennis's excellent, though boisterous, contributions to problem-solving discussions, while at the same time encouraging reticent Sandra to take an equal part in class activities, I cannot see my goals as a neat dichotomy and my job as making clear choices. My aims for any one particular student are tangled with my aims for each of the others in the class, and, more importantly, I am responsible for choosing a course of action in circumstances where choice leads to further conflict."
Lampert accurately describes the first form of educational uncertainty. She further makes it clear that not only do students add to uncertainty in the classroom, so does the teacher. The teacher is an agent of chaos in the classroom. Every decision a teacher makes leads to an infinite number of possible new class scenarios. Of all the people in the room, the teacher is the most chaotic element because the teacher makes the decisions that drive many of the reactions of the other agents in the room. And, the failure to make a decision, in and of itself, is a decision and this also contributes to chaos.
The connection between teaching and learning is also tenuous at best, which creates further uncertainty. Wrote Buchmann and Floden (213), "Students' behavioral, emotional, and cognitive responses are affected by the contexts in which they live, of which school is only one (albeit, for some, an important one). The child whose creative writing suddenly improves may have been inspired by a parent's comment, not the teacher's language arts unit. The student who has never completed her homework can turn in a carefully composed essay. The lesson that has always excited students can miscarry with this year's class. Although experienced teachers have some sense of how students will react to a lesson or assignment, some uncertainty remains."
How does thinking about chaos theory help teachers? It helps when you look at the way chaos theorists view uncertainty. Since you can not account for everything, approach each task ready to deal with anything. (You may think that your ship is unsinkable. However, if you sail it enough times, eventually, it will sink.) Since you can not ever be certain as to results, do what you think based on your education and experience when designing something. This is a wise view and one held by many educators who do not actively think of chaos. Actions must be taken in the classroom despite uncertainty caused by chaos. Wrote Buchmann and Floden (221), "Neverless, teaching and learning require decision, not helpless hesitation. Decisive action, however, may give the appearance of certitude. Indeed, it is this appearance that deceives novice teachers into thinking that their experienced colleagues are sure of their subjects, students, and efficacy. Brisk confidence can still be helpful." As long as uncertainty and chaos are awaited with acceptance and calmness, confidence is a good approach to chaos.
The good news about chaos is that it is natural. It is a key component of the universe. Chaos may cause uncertainty but it also creates the opportunities that create hope and change. Teachers need to prepare for chaos and accept uncertainty as a natural condition. Teachers can not control the entire universe. But they can make impacts on the small slice of the universe they reside in despite all the chaos evident in it.
Floden, Robert E. and Buchmann, Margret (1993). Detachment and Concern: Conversations in the Philosophy of Teaching and Teacher Education. New York: Teachers College Press.
Gollub, Jerry and Solomon, Thomas (1996). "Chaos Theory." In K. Anne Ranson (Ed.), Academic American Encyclopedia , V. 4 (pp. 282, 283). Danbury, CT: Grolier Incorporated.
Lampert, Magdalene (1985). "How Do Teacher Manage to Teach?: Perspectives on Dilemmas in Practice." Harvard Educational Review (55): 178-94