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Helping Others to Learn About Complexity:

CAS and Learning

In a CAS, agents operate according to their own internal strategies or mental models. Each agent can have its own "rules" for how to respond to things in its environment; each agent can have its own interpretations of events. Agents can share mental models, or be totally individualistic. Further, agents can change their mental models. Because agents can both change themselves and share mental models, a CAS can learn; it's behavior can adapt over time.

Learning, therefore, is an emergent property of a CAS; it does not need to be imposed or controlled from outside the system. At the same time, we must also acknowledge that although we all live in many CAS, not all of us learn deeply about complexity from simply being a part of what is going on all around us. So, while we cannot force learning to happen, we can certainly take actions that make learning more likely to occur.

The Nine Emerging Principles of Complexity (described elsewhere in this Resource Kit) give us insight into the conditions that promote learning in a CAS.

  • Tune to the Edge. If we expect others to learn about complexity, we should provide lots of information, encourage differences of opinion, connect often with others, be careful in the use of power, and provide safe environments to contain the anxiety associated with learning something new.

  • Paradox. Contradictory and unexpected happenings provide a great opportunity for learning... if we take the time to engage others in reflection.

  • Multiple Actions. There are many ways to learn. Experiment. don't be afraid to try a new approach. Do more of what works and less of what doesn't.

  • Generative Relations and Learning Communities. A CAS is an inherently social entity. Learning about the theory behind CAS should likewise be communal. While different people will have different needs for such interaction, it is difficult to imagine how an isolated individual could ever really learn about CAS. Simply putting people together for interaction about complexity topics increases the chances for learning.

We could make similar points from the other principles of complexity. The more we understand about CAS, the more we understand about how to help others to learn about CAS.

Figure 1: Traditional Assumptions and New Research About Adult Learning

A Changing Paradigm

Assumptions about classroom learning:

  • Everyone starts with the same base of knowledge.
  • Everyone learns at the same pace.
  • Everyone learns best from listening.
  • Everyone will bridge naturally from theory to application.
  • Everyone will learn on his or her own.
  • Learning is the transfer of knowledge from a teacher to a relatively passive learner.

Research has shown:

  • Learners are incredibly diverse, both in terms of knowledge and ways of learning.
  • We embed learning in our own individual experiences, so we learn best when we direct our own learning.
  • We learn most effectively in context, so learning should be linked directly to work.
  • We learn from each other, so workplaces should enable us to communicate and collaborate freely.
  • We continuously create knowledge, so we need to learn how to capture what we know and share it with others.
  • We learn unconsciously, so we need to learn how to recognize and question our tacit assumptions.

Our understandings (and, as we shall see, our misunderstandings) about learning are profoundly influenced by the unconscious metaphors we use to understand organizations - the machine and military metaphors. You will see these metaphors underlying most of the training and education you have taken part in. If an organization is a machine, then learning is about installing a "program" - the right knowledge, the right way to do things. If an organization is a military unit, then learning is about repeating drills to demonstrate the right way, following the directions, and developing discipline. Of course, the activities of most organizational training sessions are more subtle than the exaggerated picture we have just painted. Nevertheless, see if you do not agree that the list of traditional assumptions behind classroom learning (top of figure 1) rings true both for your own experience and the machine/military metaphor.

The bottom line is that most of our experience of learning within organizations is inconsistent with what we know about CAS.

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Copyright 2001, Paul E. Plsek & Associates,
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