Simplicity & Nostalgia: A fractured fairytale of school.

old-workOnce, in a land that seems so far away, life was much simpler. Things were predictable. If you were successful in life, you went to school, learnt the stuff they told you to learn, passed your exams, studied your chosen vocation (chosen by whom was probably debatable), started a job, stayed in that job (and maybe even hated that job but it fed your family), retired with a gold watch, bought a caravan and drove off into the sunset. This only tells half the story. The ‘good old days’ timeline for the majority of women would have been vastly different.

The response of many to the complexity of the 21st century is to remember days that were simpler, but this nostalgic view of life has been broken, mostly by technology and all those ‘terrible’ opportunities to create, connect and collaborate. While life is undoubtedly much more complex today, it also has the potential to be more fulfilling, especially to that previously mentioned 50%, who’s life choices were pre-determined by societal expectations.

This simpler life fits the ‘Newtonian Paradigm’. Sir Isaac Newton saw the operation of society like a clockwork mechanism, it was ultimately ‘reducible’,

“The machine’s function was understood to be no more than the sum of its parts. To understand the function, the machine could be reduced to its parts, and each part reduced to smaller parts, viewed in isolation to each other”
(Wells & McLean, 2013, p.68).

Last century, schools fitted neatly into the reductionist paradigm, often referred to as the factory model. It was expedient and prudent to be mechanistic about schooling, where the main benefit of all those years seemed to be ‘a job for life’. A linear curriculum, predominantly directive pedagogies, subject hierarchies and rectangular classrooms sufficiently served the purpose of school-as-factory (Davis & Sumara, 2010). As technology disrupted, the game changed. The emphasis shifted from ‘teaching’ (teacher-directed) to ‘learning’ (student-centred). 

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. (Aristotle)

Learning is complex. The study of complexity acknowledges that the ‘whole’ functions as a system, with multiple participants involved in self-organisation. ‘Complex adaptive systems’ operate in the in-between, rather than extremes where it could be thought, if there there isn’t control, then there must be anarchy. (Miller & Page, 2007).

Educators have now begun to use complexity theory to show how the relationships of individuals, collective ideas, and curriculum can be thought of as nested learning communities” (Upitis, 2004). 

With schools seen as complex adaptive systems there has been a turning point in how teachers work and how schools are designed. Command and control approaches, linear pathways and predetermined endpoints can no longer predominate in the 21st century. Teaching becomes, “a form of engaged attentiveness and responsiveness to others” (Upitis, p.28). This requires a balance – providing enough level of organisation and openness to enable productive learning. It is definitely not a learning culture of ‘free range chickens’ doing exactly what they want.

Alongside this, the physical environment also needs to support the complexity,

educational reform cannot happen in buildings that currently exists and it is the job of both the architects and educators… to determine how the natural and built environments can change in concert with educational philosophy” (Upitis p. 33-34).

Learning is complex and the learning environment needs to be responsive. The rectangular classroom, one teacher for an age-based class of 25-30 students cannot serve the complexity of nested learning communities. Maintaining the nostalgic view of education is unhelpful, to the teaching profession, to society, and most importantly, to our young people.



Davis, B., & Sumara, D. (2010). ‘If things were simple . . .’: complexity in education. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice

Miller, J. H., & Page, S. E. (2007). Complex adaptive systems. [electronic resource] : an introduction to computational models of social life: Princeton, N.J.


Upitis, R. (2004). School architecture and complexity. Complicity: an international journal of complexity in education

Wells, S. & McLean, J (2013). One Way Forward to beat the Newtonian Habit with a complexity perspective in organisational change. The University of Adelaide Business School

4 thoughts on “Simplicity & Nostalgia: A fractured fairytale of school.

  1. Brilliantly communicated – trusting that we will harness the potential in each generation and not hinder it. Our youth need environments that will cause them to flourish.


  2. Yes, I agree Anne, but as a school exec, we have budgets. Without more students you cannot build new innovative classrooms.
    It is also a massive mindshift for teachers who received their teacher training when they were K-12 students, not primarily as uni students.
    Where do we start?


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