Beabout - Chaos, Complexity, and School Reform

Kellert (1993) defines chaos theory as “the qualitative study of unstable aperiodic behavior in deterministic nonlinear dynamical systems” (p.2). Important aspects of this definition are that it is a qualitative approach that seeks to describe system behavior and not create exact rules or make predictions about future behavior. This is consistent with the approach taken here which seeks to describe principals’ experiences richly, placing emphasis on description not generalization. Also important is that chaos theory examines unstable aperiodic behavior- that is systems that are changing, but in ways that can’t be predicted based on previous behavior. Studying a school system in a period of stability using the lens of chaos theory would be somewhat inconguous. The final part of this definition which refers to deterministic nonlinear dynamical systems shows chaos theory’s roots in the hard sciences and refer to the number of equations udes to predict system behavior and the types of variables that make up these equations. Because social-science appliations of chaos theory entail mostly metaphorical links between physical and social systems, it will suffice to point out that chaos theory deals with a subset of the types of systems that systems theory describes.

While much of what we associate with chaos theory did initially surface in the hard sciences (Briggs & Peat, 1999; Prigogine & Stengers, 1984) it has been increasingly applied to the social sciences (Kiel & Elliot, 1996) and this application to the social sciences will serve as the framework here. Applying chaos theory to school systems rests on the assertion that schools are nonlinear dynamical systems in which changes to one part of the system often lead to unintended and unpredictable changes in other parts of the system (Jenlink, Reigeluth, Carr & Nelson, 1998). This property of complex systems has been a thorn in the side of school reformers for over a generation, leading Seymour Sarason to talk about the “intractability of schools to educational reform” (1990, p. 147).

From a leadership perspective, Wheatley (1999) explains that an important lesson from chaos theory is the understanding that “a system can descend into chaos and unpredictability, yet within that state of chaos the system is held within boundaries that are well-ordered and predictable” (p. 13). It is the forces that support these well-ordered boundaries of urban school systems, as seen bin the experience of school principals, that can tell us much about the process of change in thse types of schools. Chaos theory provides many concepts that are useful for understanding the innumerable complexities of urban school systems. Some of the chaos concepts that are central to the study are: dissipative structures, morphic fields, and strange attractors.

Dissipative Structures

Dissipative structures come out of the work of chemist Ilya Prigogine (Prigogine & Stengers, 1984), who identified an unexplained property visible in the life cycle of a certain slime mold and in a chemcial reaction known as the Belousov-Zhabatinski reaction. Both of these processes involve self-organizing phenomena in which the system, sensing changes in its environment, gives off large amounts of energy in order to reconstitute itself at a higher level of organization more suited to the environmentIn this sense, fundamental change in a system occurs not when the system is in a comfortable state of equilibrium, but when the system is pushed to the edge of chaos. School change scholars have pointed out the relative ease of implementing these structural reforms and called for increased attention to the much harder, but ultimately more effective cultural changes in schools (Fullan, 2000b; Riley, 2000) This concept is important in the sampling of this study because principals, in their work supervising instruction, establishing school culture, and setting building priorities, play significant roles in determining if the district-level structural changes will actually result in better functioning schools.

Morphic Fields

Morphic fields emerged from the work of Sheldrake (1988) in biology. He noted that once one member of a species learned how to do something (like how birds open shellfish by dropping them onto rocks from high in the air) it becomes easier for others in the species to learn how to do it. Instead of the trial and error process that the first individual underwent, the rest of the species could just take this knowledge “from the field.” Wheatley (1999) has applied this field theory to organizations and describes culture, vision, and shared values as fields that shape the behaviors of members of organizations. If fields are congruent (don’t contain conflicting messages), then it becomes easier for members will adopt these messages resulting in a common vision of organizational performance, a mantra of much popular leadership literature. Discovering the components of an organization’s field and how to remove incongruencies and change damaging influences from the field may lead to a deeper understanding of school reform process. But fields are not only helpful tools for the change agent. It has also been noted by De Greene (1996) that “the field reciprocally… constrains the realm of the possible at the microlevel” (p. 280). For example, Schools that have a culture of not serving students with disabilities (as alleged in Ritea, 2007b) will have a difficult time if leadership or external forces demand that the school to begin accepting such students. This demand will be incongruent with the field Fields, then, can be seen to both foster change through positive feedback as well as limit change by limiting innovation. If a principal’s work is “to decide which goals are worth pursuing” (Evans, 1996, p.165) based on a frank and collaborative assessment of where the school needs improvement, then the collection of all these goals carries with it certain values, priorities, and a vision that make up the morphic field of an organization. Scholars have noted the problems that can occur when reforms are not consistent with each other (Berends, Chun, Schuyler, Stockly & Briggs, 2002), or with the conceptual framework of individual educators (Fink, 2003). This study seeks to understand how urban principals make decisions and prioritize aspects of reform, both of which create the morphic field that can be picked up by teachers and students in their school. Also of interest is how the principal operates in the often conflicting morphic field that exists outside of the school he/she leads. This concept will be utilized in both data collection (determining what morphic fields principals percieve within and external to the school) and in analysis (piecing together perceptions of several principals that might describe an element of the field not fully recognized by any of the individual participants). De Greene (1996) states that “fields show differential sensitivity over time and space” (p.274) and this varying likelihood of change will be an essential part of the analysis process. It is expected that some principals will emphasize change more than others, and their perceptions of change will play important roles in the new decentralized district where bureaucratically mandated reforms are not likely because of the lack of enforcement capability.

Strange Attractors

Strange attractors are pictures of a complex system whose behavior is not exactly predictable, but showed some boundaries. For example, a poor-performing urban school system like New Orleans that is plagued by student violence and poor academics and seemingly unable to improve itself may appear to be a chaotic system, but when viewed as a system designed to create compliant workers and consumers, it is functioning quite predictably based on this alternative perspective (Kozol, 1975). Strange attractors can generally be seen only when a system is observed from a level of high abstraction. Bureaucratic control and standardized instruction have been posited as strange attractors that may negatively influence the behavior of school systems (Reigeluth, 2004). It may be that our poor understanding of the complexities of reform is due to a lack of knowledge of such strange attractors that, while not listed in well-crafted mission statements, nevertheless wield immense power over the way schools function.

Why These Theories?

Proponents note that chaos and systems theories may be able to provide guidance for those looking to understand the dynamics of complex social systems (Reigeluth, 2004). These are systems in which mandated policies cannot be expected to be followed verbatim (McLaughlin, 1990) and in which systems can be perturbed, but rarely managed directly (De Greene, 1996). School systems have been incredibly resistant to change and much of this can be attributed to the fact that reformers have been generally ignorant of the complexity of schools as social systems and treated them as simple cause-effect machines (Rust & Freidus, 2001). While there have been those critical of the hard-science roots of chaos theory and its applicability to education (Benson & Hunter, 1994; Hunter & Benson, 1997), their complaints, however, have centered on its application to micro-level analysis such as teacher-student or sudent-student interactions. In this case, chaos and complexity theory is applied to the entire school system- a complex system that is very much in line with the types of systems for which the theory was developed.


Benson, G. D., & Hunter, W. J. (1993). Chaos theory: No strange attractor in teacher education. Action in Teacher Education, 14(4), 61-67.

Berends, M., Chun, J., Schuyler, G., Stockly, S., & Briggs, R. J. (2002). Challenges of Conflicting School Reforms. Santa Monica, CA: Rand.

Briggs, J., & Peat, F. D. (1999). Turbulent Mirror: An illustrated guide to chaos theory and the science of wholeness. New York: Harper & Row.

De Greene, K. B. (1996). Field-theoretic framework for the interpretation of the evolution, instability, structural change, and management of complex systems. In L. D. Kiel & E. Elliot (Eds.), Chaos theory in the social sciences. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press.

Evans, R. (1996). The human side of school change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Fink, D. (2003). The law of unintended consequences: The 'real' cost of top-down reform. Journal of Educational Change, 4(2), 105-128.

Fullan, M. (2000). The three stories of education reform. Phi Delta Kappan, 81(8), 581-584.

Hunter, W. J., & Benson, G. D. (1997). Arrows in time: the misapplication of chaos theory to education. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 29(1), 87-100.

Jenlink, P. M., Reigeluth, C. M., Carr, A. A., & Nelson, L. M. (1998). Guidelines for facilitating systemic change in school districts. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 15, 217-233.

Kiel, L. D., & Elliot, E. (1996). Chaos theory in the social sciences. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press.

Kellert, S. H. (1993). In the wake of chaos: Unpredictable order in dynamical systems. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kozol, J. (1975). The night is dark and I am far from home. New York: Bantam Books.

McLaughlin, M. (1990). The rand change agent study revisited: Macro perspectives and micro realities. Educational Researcher, 19(9), 11-16.

Prigogine, I., & Stengers, I. (1984). Order out of chaos: Man's new dialogue with nature. Boulder, CO: New Science Library.

Reigeluth, C. M. (2004, April 12-16). Chaos theory and the sciences of complexity: Foundations for transforming education. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, San Diego, CA.

Riley, K. A. (2000). Leadership, learning and systemic reform. Journal of Educational Change, 1(1), 19-55.

Rust, F. O. C., & Freidus, H. (Eds.). (2001). Guiding school change: The role and work of change agents. New York: Teachers College Press.

Sarason, S. (1990). The predictable failure of educational reform. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sheldrake, R. (1988). The presence of the past: Morphic resonance and the habits of nature. London: Collins.

Wheatley, M. J. (1999). Leadership and the new science: Discovering order in a chaotic world (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

© 2008 B. Beabout

Add a New Comment
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License