Simple Rules for Complex Systems!

What are your biggest frustrations as an educator?

  • Are you overwhelmed? Too many demands; too little time?
  • Do you feel fragmented? Pulled in a hundred directions at once?
  • Do you feel isolated? Not enough opportunity to work with colleagues?
  • Do you feel pressure? Seemingly contradictory mandates and unspoken expectations?

arguing peopleYou are definitely not alone. What can we do to simplify? What can we do to build more coherence in these crazy systems we call school?  Scientists tell us that a short set of simple rules can set conditions for surprising outcomes in complex systems. Check out this brief explanation: Simple Rules for Governing Complex Systems by Brian Sauser.

Clearly, schools fit the definition of a complex system:

  • Open to inside and outside influences
  • Diverse across multiple dimensions
  • Interdependent in nonlinear and unpredictable ways.

So what are the simple rules that might set conditions for coherent, adaptive, and generative learning in schools? We doubt that one set of simple rules would work in all situations. Here are three possibilities.

Whitney Young is a kindergarten teacher who taught her students this set of simple rules:

  • Teach and learn in every interaction.
  • We all contribute a piece to the puzzle.
  • Pay attention to patterns in our classroom.
  • Notice, talk about, and change patterns we don’t like, and keep patterns we do like. 
  • Take risks.

Mandy Stewart is an assistant professor at Texas Woman’s University. In a 2014 summer literacy program, she worked with eight adolescent students who have recently come to the U.S. Most of them are actually refugees whose families are settling into a new life here. To build on their first language and to support their emerging bilingual/bi-literacy proficiency, Mandy used these simple rules to guide her instructional decisions:

  • I learn, you learn.
  • I teach, you teach.
  • I write, you write.
  • I read, you read.
  • I care about you; you care about others. (And maybe me, too.)

Cupertino USD is a Pre-K – 8 school district in California. A new superintendent joined the district in 2013-14 and introduced a short set of simple rules from Radical Rules for Schools by Patterson, Holladay, and Eoyang. Since then, leaders throughout the district have participated in deep training related to the use of tools to support these simple rules. Even the school board has adopted these simple rules for their decision-making:

  • Teach and learn in every interaction.
  • Pay attention to patterns in the whole, part, and greater whole.
  • See, understand, and influence patterns.
  • Recognize and build on assets of self and others.
  • Seek the true and the useful.
  • Act with courage.
  • Engage in joyful practice.

North Star of Texas Writing Project is a local site of the National Writing Project. As these teachers work together to enhance the writing instruction in their classrooms, and as they provide in-service support for teachers in area schools, they have agreed that they want to set conditions for seven generative patterns of learning in classrooms and in professional development teams. For each pattern, they point to a simple rule that seems to generate that pattern in the system.

  • Empathy — Take multiple perspectives, imagining how others think and feel.
  • Deep Content Learning — Build capacity to make sense of the world—the past, present, and future.
  • Inquiry — Embrace uncertainty—notice and interpret patterns at the whole, part, and greater whole.
  • Authenticity — Eagerly engage in tasks you see as significant.
  • Apprenticeship — Work with peers and teachers as you build confidence and expertise.
  • Re-visioning — Reflect, assess, and take informed action to adapt to changing conditions.
  • Dialogue — Engage in conversations about your learning.

We are learning that a set of simple rules like these make our shared agreements explicit and that we can begin holding ourselves (and one another) accountable for acting in coherent and collaborative ways. We are also learning that the exact wording of the rules is less important than the conversations we have about the rules and what those rules mean for the patterns we want to see across our complex systems.

Which of these rules resonate with you?  Which of these rules would help set conditions for the patterns you want to see in your classroom? on your campus? in your district?


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One response to “Simple Rules for Complex Systems!

  1. Pingback: What We Can Learn from Fire Ants about Adaptive Capacity | What? So What? Now What? for Schools

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