Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology

Volume 33(2) Spring / printemps 2007


Krista Poscente is the recipient of the 2005/2006 Gallagher Galileo Fellowship and a PhD student in the University of Calgary’s Graduate Division of Educational Research. The focus of her work with the Galileo Educational Network is research on building the capacity of K-12 mathematics teachers through distributed Math Fair and Lesson Study.

Complexity and education: Inquiries into learning, teaching, and research, 2006, Brent Davis and Dennis Sumara. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 202 pages. ISBN: #0-8058-5934-9 (paperback)

Reviewed by Krista Poscente

Complexity and Education by Brent Davis and Dennis Sumara is an exceptional and well-written introduction to complexity thinking as relevant to the field of education. Brent Davis is a Professor and Canada Research Chair in Mathematics Education and the Ecology of Learning in the Department of Secondary Education at the University of Alberta. Dennis Sumara is Professor of Curriculum Studies and Teacher Education in the Department of Secondary Education at the University of Alberta. The wealth of knowledge and experience of these authors is evident in the quality and resourcefulness found in Complexity and Education.

Phenomena such as brain activity, consciousness, intelligence, personality, memory, knowledge, and social collectives transcend diverse disciplines such as neurology, psychology, education and sociology. Complexity thinking encourages and enables the boundaries of these disciplines to dissolve. Complexity thinking is increasingly being embraced by educators who are concerned with neurological processes, subjective understandings, interpersonal interactions and cultural dynamics.

With complexity thinking being relatively young and emerging, Davis and Sumara have provided an orientation to complexity theory. Even with an entire chapter devoted to defining complexity, an exact definition is somewhat elusive. According to the authors, complexity can simultaneously be considered a field of study, a philosophy and a pragmatic approach that assumes a complex world.

Complexity has origins in physics, chemistry, cybernetics, information science and systems theory. Hard complexity theory originates in physics, is analytic and is concerned with the nature of reality. Soft complexity theory, with origins in biological science, is more interpretive and aims to describe living and social systems. Lying somewhere in between hard and soft complexity theories, Davis and Sumara define complexity thinking as “a way of thinking and acting” (p. 18).

In the first half of the book, Davis and Sumara have situated complexity thinking in contemporary understandings of educational theories. Chapter 4 presents educational theories as an evolution of understandings about the relationship between objective knowledge and subjective understanding. The subjective/objective relationship is used to describe and explore structuralism, constructivism, cognitivism, post-structuralism, phenomenology and complexity. The chapter’s simple yet accurate and explanatory illustrations helped me to clarify my neophyte understandings of these philosophical educational theories.

The second half of the book is a pragmatic and broad overview of research and practice that is consistent with complexity thinking. Davis and Sumara draw on personal experiences in complex learning systems to further explain the emerging field of complexity thinking. Intertwined through the remaining chapters, side-bars discuss various research experiences through the context of a complex learning system. The insightful side-bars clearly illustrate the principles of complexity.

For readers who embrace Vygotsky, chapter 6 is definitely a worthwhile read. Davis and Sumara align complexity thinking with Vygotsky’s thinking as well as with activity theory and situated learning theory. The dialog about Vygotsky’s theoretical separation from behaviourism makes up for any unintended omissions.

Davis and Sumara recognize that most of the contributions to complexity theories have been descriptive rather than pragmatic and caution the reader about the consequences of applying descriptive theories to the classroom. Complexity requires acknowledgement of the many different nested layers in a learning system: the individual learner, the classroom, the discipline and the culture; each layer needs to be understood differently. Complexity research is more about fostering the conditions for emergent understandings than prescribing or managing entrenched habits for interpretation.

With more than 150 references transcending many disciplines and decades,Complexity and Education is well-researched and mirrors the multidisciplinary nature of complexity thinking. Davis and Sumara have provided a comprehensible guide by developing a foundation for understanding complexity thinking. Borrowing one of Davis’ favourite words, Complexity and Education is a ‘perturbation’ which challenges readers to examine their own assumptions and theoretical perspectives.

Complexity and Education is relevant and appropriate to anyone involved in the field of education; students, practitioners, educators, researchers, and instructional developers and designers. Educators who are interested in inquiry-based education will find Complexity and Education very pertinent. At $19.95, direct from the publisher, this paperback is very affordable. Davis and Sumara provide a common-sense, insightful and timely guide to the emergent field of complexity thinking. Complexity and Education is definitely a must read.

ISSN: 1499-6685