Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Complexity theory as a basic litteracy

Another realization from our future learning environment project:
The Danish school system is built on 5 basic ”litteracies” – the fundamental skills you need in order to keep learning and to function in a modern society. The 5 litteracies are: reading, writing, math, being able to use information technology and English as a second language.

Obviously, what skills should be considered basic litteracies changes as society develops. So is there some new skill that will be indespensable in the future? Well, yes.
As everybody and everything are increasingly becoming connected in global, ubiquitous, high-density, always on networks we need to understand how complex dynamic systems work. You know: the internet, the market place, ecology, politics… complex systems are everywhere.

There’s a “package” of mechanisms that are common to all aspects of complex systems. They are all inter-connected and I don’t quite know what the overall title to the package should be. But among the contents are:
- - Feedback, non-linearity
- - The emergence of natural patterns such as fractals and hexagons
- - The same patterns occuring on all scales – from atomic to galactic
- - Evolution, genetics
- - Complex behaviours emerge in the interaction between many very simple functions
- - Small changes in initial conditions can have great consequences
- - Diversity makes a system more robust
- - You are dealing with probability rather than certainty

These are crucial insights – and I believe they will become even more so in the future. In many ways they run completely counter to the linear, top-down, predictable logic that formed the basis of industrial society.
I would argue that an understanding of this package of mechanisms will be a basic litteracy – if it isn’t already. But it’s not taught in a systematic way today. It doesn’t fit into one particular subject, and the concepts seem too abstract to communicate to children.

In fact I think there are lots of ways to teach and learn about complexity that are tangible, grounded in everyday life, and intuitively easy. One example that doesn’t quite get there is LEGO Mindstorms. I sense that it can be made easier still – hopefully, we can demonstrate that within a couple of years.

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