Sugata Mitra describes learning as an edge of chaos phenomenon, a concept that seems to fit so nicely with the very idea of learning as a process for deriving a new sense of order out of disorder. The chaos and complexity that is inherent in educational systems (schools in particular) is inescapable.
Through any lens schools are complex places. A melting pot of human, social, political, economic, technological, physical and philosophical tensions. At once the stronghold of our cultural traditions and facilitators of our future wellbeing, schools serve as pillars of stability constructed at the event horizon between our now and our tomorrow. Perhaps at this point in time more than ever is this tension between the role that schools play in indoctrinating our youth into the ways of society at odds with the imperative to prepare them for their futures.
Sardar describes these as “postnormal times”. "Ours is a transitional age, a time without the confidence that we can return to any past we have known and with no confidence in any path to a desirable, attainable or sustainable future.” (Sardar, 2010) At the edge of chaos schools confront the pressure to pass down the knowledge of this past that we have increasingly left behind and cannot return to, while preparing our learners for a future we can hardly imagine.
But this contradiction in purpose should not cause despair even while we come to understand its implications. As educators, we are in the business of helping individuals and even whole societies of them to confront and adapt to change. When we empower our students to step into the role of learners, as we shape their dispositions for learning and as we take their understanding of their world to the edge of chaos and beyond, we prepare them for a world of complexity, uncertainty and change.
When we value the process of learning and recognise that the capacity to learn and relearn is our most certain pathway to success in a world of uncertainty, we begin to imagine a future that is a paradise for education. Freed by technology from the need to be societies' dispensers of information, educators can focus their attention on the skills and dispositions of learning. With vast fields of knowledge as our playgrounds we are able to instill our learners with a love of learning and the skills and mindsets they require to be powerful life-long learners.
Learning and creativity are endeavours which should be understood as closely connected. Creating is placed at the top of Bloom’s revised taxonomy of learning with good reason. Creativity might be seen as learning in its purest form, where the learner moves beyond what is known and explores new territory. Creativity is what allows us to take learning beyond the edge of chaos and is required if we are to bring any sense of order to the complex and changing world we confront.
Mihaly Csikszenthihalyi describes how the creative process is stirred into existence. "The creative process starts with a sense that there is a puzzle somewhere or a task to be accomplished, perhaps something is not right, somewhere there is a conflict a tension, a need to be satisfied.” The volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world of the postnormal overflows with opportunities for creativity. The challenge for schools is to reimagine learning as a creative endeavour. To scaffold the processes required for intelligent action, to train our students to maximise their cognitive tools and to provide a strong foundation of knowledge and skills upon which they can innovate.
When we change our thinking away from learning as a process of accumulation and see it as one of creativity, we are able to shift the focus of our efforts and provide opportunities that require our students to blissfully think and act with what they know at the edge of chaos.
By Nigel Coutts
Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi (2013) Flow: The psychology of happiness’ and creativity: The psychology of discovery and invention. New York; Harper Perennial.
Mitra, S. (2014) The future of schooling: Children and learning at the edge of chaos. Prospects, 44:547-558
Sardar, Z. (2010). Welcome to postnormal times. Futures, 42(5), 435-444.