Sunday, January 3, 2010

Is "Complex Learning Theory" about learning complex things, or a complex theory about learning?

Complex Learning Theory:
Is that a theory about learning complex things,
or a complex theory about learning
It's all too chaotic for me.

(c) 2001 David Calloway, KnowledgeSound

I'm repeating this old article, because it's still relevant. It began as a note to my research advisor: "In case you were wondering why my 'Chapter 2-- Learning Theory' is taking so long to write…"

Whenever I look for something on the Web, I end up chasing after something else. So, to keep myself on course, I lean into the wind, furrow my brow, and doggedly recite, "North -- North -- North -- Noth -- Noth -- Nouth -- Nouth -- South -- South..."

In my Masters research paper I investigated ways the Web could be made a simpler, more organized learning tool. And this is a research paper, so I need theories, right? I didn't find "Simplicity theory," but I did find "Complexity Theory." Hmm- Maybe that has something useful to say about this!

I went to my friendly search engine, Google, and typed in "complexity theory learning". Of course, Google returned about 5300 links, most of them patently irrelevant. The first one was dead-on: "Complexity Theory Learning." Great! But the content was a bit too-- well, complex. So, I clicked "More Like This".

Yes, this is perfect! Not only do I find Chaos & Complexity Theory in Education, but it's at nearby UDel (! Now thoroughly mesmerized, I ignore the cautionary, and not highlighted, "Chaos &…" part, and surge onward.

Well, not quite perfect. It's got a good overview paragraph, and lots more links, but nothing specifically about learning. Here's "An annotated list of websites of interest to those pursuing complexity theory " ( Well, I am interested, and... am I pursuing complexity theory? Uh-- I think so.

Okay, now I'm in the annotated list. Hey, there's Complexity on Science Friday NPR (! Well, I like Science Friday, but it’s stupid to have to sit at my computer just to listen to the radio. So, I pass that up, and continue reading...

Hmm. Here's a category called "Education and Complexity Theories". That sounds on-target, but it has only three choices. I'm not looking for Math, and Connectionism sounds too touchy-feely for serious academic work. Social Systems sounds kind of like a party, so I go to: Clemson Research Institute for the Study of Complex Social Systems (CRISCSO) (

All right! And it’s got pictures! But where's the social part? What's this "generated by equations" stuff? Finally, I see For beginners. A-hah! Let's see where that goes: Chaos and Complexity Theory for Beginners. Perfect! (There’s that word again. Remember the last time I said that?)

Hmm. What's this? "PoincarĂ© Map of the Logistic Equation with a Spreadsheet"? I don’t know, that sounds kinda heavy, but with my defenses too numbed to smell a trap, I proceed to:

Having Fun With a Chaotic Equation:
Using a Spreadsheet Program to
Plot the Logistic Equation

Fun, Plot Logistical Equation, Chaotic, Spreadsheet… What are those words doing together?

It’s a plot, all right! This can’t be happening! I laugh, I cry, I stare into the glare of the oncoming headlights. My ears ring, my head spins, and I grab the arms of my chair. Noooo! I’m falling into the black hole of Web obfuscation! And it's got a code! Lemme outta here, that stuff's highly contageous! (Cue sound effect of door slamming, as normal breathing slowly resumes.)

Whoa, that was a close call. Whatever the title, beginners are clearly NOT welcome here, I can see that. Maybe academics should leave popularizing to marketers and other professionals.

Hastily I escape back to UDel, realizing that my only hope is Complexity on Science Friday NPR ( Maybe at least I can download it to my PDA and listen to it on a trip. Having to sit still at my PC for an hour and be lectured at by Ira Flato is not an ideal condition for learning.

What's this? "Requested file not found. The link you followed may be outdated or inaccurate." Groan. Help! After I click the "More Info" button, the mass of trouble-shooting instructions fade to a muddy blur.

Does anybody remember why I'm doing this? I don't. This is all just too complex. Or, as Fagin put it in Oliver, "I think I'd better think it out again!"

I still don't know how Complexity Theory applies to Learning. My brain is numb. I don't have any more time to look.

Learning Theories has just gotten too Complex for me.