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Sunday, May 19, 2013


A Physics of Education?

The behaviour of children in Self-Organised Learning Environments everywhere Is reminiscent of self-organising systems. A self-organising system (SOS) consists of a set of entities that obtains an emerging global system behaviour via local interactions without centralised control (Elmenreich,W. and de Meer,H.(2008). Self-organising systems fall under the general area of Chaos Theory in Physics. It is interesting to apply the definition of Chaos to education in general: ‘A system whose long term behaviour is unpredictable, tiny changes in the accuracy of the starting value rapidly diverge to anywhere in its possible state space. There can however be a finite number of available states, so statistical prediction can still be useful.’ (Complex Systems Glossary, Internet references).

The sentence above perhaps sums up, in the language of Physics, what we understand as education and assessment. Working with a group of children, a school cannot predict what will emerge at the end of schooling, but can make statistical guesses based on test scores.

In a SOLE, children seem to maximise the information content of what they are researching. This too is uncannily close to the definition of the term ‘Edge of Chaos’. The definition is ‘the tendency of dynamic systems to self-organise to a state roughly midway between globally static (unchanging) and chaotic (random) states. This can also be regarded as the liquid phase, half way between solid (static) and gas (random) natural states. In information theory this is the state containing the maximum information.’ (Complex Systems Glossary, Internet references).

Finally an explanation of the children’s ability to read in groups above their individual capabilities could be found in the science of Emergence. Emergence is commonly found in nature and is the appearance of properties that are not evident in the parts of a system. Nebula’s, flowers, cells, markets all show emergent behaviour. The definition is: ‘System properties that are not evident from those of the parts. A higher level phenomenon that cannot be reduced to that of the simpler constituents and needs new concepts to be introduced. This property is neither simply an aggregate one, nor epiphenomenal, but often exhibits 'downward causation'. Modelling emergent dynamical hierarchies is central to future complexity research’ (Complex Systems Glossary, Internet references).

These subjects are in their infancy. However, they have the potential to explain not just how learning happens, but why it happens the way it does.