A Journey into Complexity Theory and Problem Domains

For the past 3 years, I have had the privilege of being seconded from my school district to a leadership role in an area that explores innovation in teaching and learning. It has been a fascinating experience getting a bird’s eye view of innovation across provinces and countries and having the opportunity to develop better understanding of policies, policy development, and the complexities of change in education, as well as to learn about the many different contexts in which they play out. It’s been humbling to realize how much I didn’t (and still don’t) know and I remain in awe of the many brilliant, thoughtful people working in education that I’ve had the good fortune to cross paths with during this time. The common denominator among all is a deep sense of responsibility towards the ongoing efforts of education, their humility, and deep expertise. #respect

The role has allowed me to extend my understanding of tools and processes that support innovation and system change, as well as to test out ideas.  I left my classroom drawing upon the theories and practices of Integrative Thinking, Knowledge Building, Design Thinking, and Inquiry as foundations for critical thinking and problem-solving. While here I’ve refined and expanded the toolkit so to speak, as well as participated in some remarkable experiences built around the ideas of innovation. This has sent me on a personal learning journey and it is that that I wish to write about as I reactivate this blog.

One person I’ve had the pleasure to connect with during this time is Claire BurĂ© from MaRS. Last spring Claire emailed me a list of readings and resources that might be helpful to my inquiry. On that list was David Snowden (not that Snowden). Snowden is known for his work at IBM around knowledge management and his contributions to theory on complex adaptive systems. It is the deep theoretical nature of his work, and that he firmly keeps humans at the centre of digital tools that drew me in. (I’ll have more to say on that at a later point).  I spent the entire summer immersed in his blog, writings and key note videos, discovering his Cynefin framework, before finally registering for the online foundation course

Through this exploration I have the following as an initial offering.

A) reframe:

Much of the discourse around innovation in education has been focused on the need to prepare children for jobs that don’t exist yet. Hence we get things like, “They must learn to code because that’s where the jobs will be.” Added to that are discussions around 21st century skills, for which there are many frameworks including Canada’s Global Competencies framework currently in use in many provinces. Educators have focused on fostering those competencies within different curriculum contexts, through interesting partnerships and projects that leverage digital tools, and by rethinking learning environments.

What I hadn’t landed on fully yet, personally, is clear language on what this work leads towards. Snowden has helped clarify my thinking on that.

The effort is aimed towards one thing: in a rapidly changing world people need to be able to make sense of what is happening, make decisions and take action, and because of the varying levels of complexity and the emergent nature of problems, learners need a richer set of decision making processes and tools. A teacher may choose to teach design thinking or integrative thinking as ways to approach problem-solving, both of  which are highly engaging experiences. It is fascinating to learn alongside children as they engage with these approaches to messy problems and come up with really innovative solutions and better understanding of the assumptions they make.  The risk, however, is that design thinking or integrative thinking become their default mechanisms and they begin to approach all problems situations as if they were design or integrative thinking problems.

Snowden’s Cynefin sense-making framework offers educators a way to take a step back and teach learners to first identify the nature of the domain in which a problem is situated and offers ideas on how to make sense of the context, think, make decisions, and act. The Cynefin framework describes 5 problem domains (obvious, complicated, complex, chaos, and disorder), the nature of constraints in each domain, and how to think and make decisions as one travels across and between domains.  That is something I would like to point out at the very beginning.  Do not see this as a static model. One travels within and across each domain and there are ways to do that effectively and even strategically with risks and opportunities in each. Each domain is not a model of a system, but a way to think about a system and transition within in.  What I’m suggesting is that once students have a good understanding of the nature of the 5 domains they might be better equipped to decide if the tools and processes of design thinking, integrative thinking or one of the many other approaches from the still evolving innovation landscape are needed.


This is just a sampler of the framework. In the course we’ve taken a deeper dive into each domain and gotten an overview of the kinds of decisions that a leader might make traveling across and between domains. The framework is a product of decades of thinking, experience, and refinement and I am a novice in understanding its potential and application.

Liz Keogh @lunivore, has been working with the framework for several years and provides a Cynefin for Everyone overview on her blog.

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