What is complexity theory and what are its implications for educational change?

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This paper considers questions of continuity and change in education from the perspective of complexity theory, introducing the field to educationists who might not be familiar with it. Given a significant degree of complexity in a particular environment (or 'dynamical system'), new properties and behaviours, which are not necessarily contained in the essence of the constituent elements or able to be predicted from a knowledge of initial conditions, will emerge. These concepts of emergent phenomena from a critical mass, associated with notions of lock-in, path dependence, and inertial momentum, suggest that it is in the dynamic interactions and adaptive orientation of a system that new phenomena, new properties and behaviours, emerge. The focus thus shifts from a concern with decontextualised and universalised essence to contextualised and contingent complex wholes. This is where complexity theory seeks the levers of history. The paper posits the notion of inertial momentum as the conceptual link between the principle of emergent phenomena as developed principally in the natural sciences and the notion of socio-historical change in human society. It is argued that educational and institutional change is less a consequence of effecting change in one particular factor or variable, and more a case of generating momentum in a new direction by attention to as many factors as possible. Complexity theory suggests, in other words, that what it might take to change a school's inertial momentum from an ethos of failure is massive and sustained intervention at every possible level until the phenomenon of learning excellence emerges from this new set of interactions among these new factors, and sustains itself autocatalytically. The paper concludes with a summary consideration of the conditions that contribute to the emergence of new properties and behaviours in a system. Copyright © 2008 The Author. Journal compilation © 2008 Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)35-49
JournalEducational Philosophy and Theory
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2008


Mason, M. (2008). What is complexity theory and what are its implications for educational change? Educational Philosophy and Theory, 40(1), 35-49. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-5812.2007.00413.x


  • Complexity
  • Educational change
  • Emergence
  • Inertial momentum
  • Complexity (philosophy)
  • Learning
  • Educational innovations
  • Educational planning
  • History


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