Learning at the Edge of Covid Chaos

We live in a time of chaos, as rich in the potential for disaster as for new possibilities.

Margaret Wheatley

It is perhaps an understatement to say that, in regard to higher education, we are living in interesting times. This piece is written (in June 2020) during a period of particularly momentous upheavals. We face a series of national and international crises. The impacts of these various crises, and the effects of the various actions taken to deal with them, are felt everywhere, and higher education systems are not immune. The shapes and forms of higher education are being severely shaken and stirred as the tectonic plates upon which they have been built shift dramatically beneath them.

In the UK, the challenges for higher education have been exacerbated by the paradigm shift from the long-standing acceptance of higher education as a public good, largely financed by public funds to regarding it as a lightly regulated market in which consumer demand, in the form of student choice, is sovereign in determining what is offered by service providers (i.e. universities).

So, what might we do, in higher education, to negotiate our way through what many find to be an unfamiliar, discomforting, increasingly complex landscape?

The use of the word ‘might’ in the question above is intentional. The eminent drama teacher and educationalist Dorothy Heathcote used to say that the most important word in education is the word ‘might’. Demand of a child ‘What is the answer to this question or problem?’ and it closes down the possibilities. But ask ‘What might be the answer?’ and it opens up those possibilities, and encourages curiosity, creativity and creative approaches to problem-solving.

One of the things we might usefully do, and which those who make and decide educational policy are frequently criticised for signally failing to do, is to strive to understand the complex and often chaotic nature of what confronts us. Managing complexity and the complex adaptive systems that are our higher education institutions, is now the greatest challenge for institutional leaders, and there are three factors that might provide them with the best opportunity to capitalise on that complexity: creativity, operational dexterity and reinventing the relationship with their students.  

Complex adaptive systems are like eco-systems: they are constantly changing and evolving, and their complexity means that the ability of human agents to control them in any meaningful, purposeful way is virtually non-existent. Such systems are adaptive in that they are self-evolving, agile and, importantly, inherently unpredictable. Crucially they rely on disequilibrium and feedback in order to develop and grow. To stay viable, they need to keep themselves off-balance, maintaining themselves in a state of non-equilibrium. A successful complex adaptive system frequently creates or deliberately seeks out feedback and information in the form of perturbances or disturbances that might threaten its stability and knock it off balance, thus producing the disequilibrium that is necessary for growth.

Such systems tend to ‘self-organise’ around changes, and small changes can have big impacts: the well-known ‘butterfly effect’. So, in a time of crisis, when, with the best possible motives of course, we start changing the ways we operate, we may have little or no idea of the possible consequences.

The diagram below illustrates the ‘complexity continuum’ between stasis and chaos. Based on the work of Ralph Stacey and Paul Tosey it illustrates how a system’s search for, or need for, equilibrium in the form of certainty and agreement produces stasis. It also shows how the further one travels away from certainty and agreement, the nearer one approaches a state of chaos. Right at the ‘edge of chaos’ is the point at which a system is poised just before it moves into an actual chaotic state. It is where the components of a system are in a state of flux, never quite locking into place but, at the same time, never quite dissolving into turbulence.

It is there, right on the edge of chaos, where creativity is most potent. It is also an area where levels of energy and emotion are high, where risk-taking, excitement and exhaustion co-exist in a ferment of activity. It is characterised by encounters with uncertainty, anxiety, doubt, chance, error and ‘muddling through’. There is great potential for novel forms of relationships emerging, but there is also the possibility of disintegration.

The problem, for higher education systems (as in many other systems), is that there is a constant ‘gravitational pull’ towards certainty and agreement: towards stasis. That pull exists at all levels, from the macro level of educational policy to the micro level of module learning outcomes, and it requires and takes up a lot energy to resist it. Higher education institutions are also characterised by organised or ‘engrooved’ sets of social and cultural practices. These are long-established, often tacit, patterns of behaviour that are difficult to change and which often act as barriers to operational dexterity as changes often falter and practices ‘snap back’ to old models.

So in what, for many higher education institutions, is a time of existential crisis, survival depends on creativity and the need for individuals and groups who are able to adapt and operate successfully in a highly complex and rapidly changing environments. Those higher education institutions that are tied to models and paradigms of learning and teaching (and the systems that support them) that are designed for a far less complex, more stable, predictable world will, inevitably, struggle.

Fortunately, higher education is full of intelligent, creative people who understand all too well – through their own day-to-day experiences – that learning and teaching is complex and, sometimes, chaotic, and that the systems and processes that we create around that experience, or have created for us, are not always best suited to dealing with that complexity. It is also clear that the professional act of teaching with the still significant but also significantly decreasing autonomy attached to this role, provides fertile conditions for people to be creative in order to confront those complexities and to really enhance students’ learning.

Changes in higher education rarely manifest themselves with dramatic abruptness. More often than not, they creep up silently, diverting the flow of continuing traditions and practices stealthily but resolutely. The coronavirus crisis has fundamentally changed that ‘slow evolution’. It has swept as a tidal wave across and through our educational systems.  But there is another wave sweeping through and across our systems: a relentless wave of digitisation and technological innovation, and it is vital to remember that while waves can drown you and currents can drag you away, you can also ride the waves and exploit the currents.

As wave after wave of new technologies have emerged and are still emerging, different ways to creatively interact and collaborate have arisen with them. In this context, play has become a persuasive and powerful tool. The invitation to play can bridge the gap from observation to participation. There is now extraordinary potential for cross-discipline conversations and projects around the vast wealth of possibilities presented by existing and emerging technologies. We will need to draw on our ability to tell stories, to create visually compelling messages and designs, to come up with new ways to organise and synthesise information. The key, however, is to ensure that these playful interactions are not about our relation to technology, but about creating new ways of experiencing education.