Rethinking the Application of Complexity Theory on Education Management and Leadership – A Proposal

This is a dissertation proposal that I submitted recently for my application to do a masters. It is an attempt at branching out beyond philosophy into the area of policy and leadership/management theory, as well as complexity science. An ambitious attempt at doing a multidisciplinary topic while still revolving around philosophy. I personally am quite excited about it.


Dissertation Proposal

This proposal is for a philosophical thesis, where I argue that the true spirit of complexity science has been misrepresented, and several of its concepts misunderstood and/or misapplied in the existing literature on complexity science and education management and leadership. I will review and critique the existing literature and provide a correct interpretation and understanding of complexity. Following which, I will proceed to show how complexity science should be correctly adopted into education management and leadership. At the end of this project, I hope to: (1) provide a correct and sophisticated understanding of the interaction between agents in a complex system, so that education managers and leaders will have an awareness of the complexities involved in the education system (be it on the level of the state or on the level of the school); (2) produce a set of conceptual resources that education managers and leaders can use to identify and understand complex emergent phenomena and the components that give rise to the phenomena; and (3) address certain fundamental concerns, such as the issue of moral responsibility.

The education system – as a whole with its policies, tools, methods, content and people – is a complex system by itself. It shapes a variety of people (such as policy-makers, teachers, parents, and students) and it is, in turn, shaped by the very people it shapes. The relationship between the people and the education system is one where the system and the people co-evolve together in the process of mutual interaction. Education managers and leaders are tasked with the duty and obligation to manage and guide the direction of the system and the people under their care. This is not an easy task to manage.

Often, many issues and problems arise as a combination and interaction of several factors at play. In such cases, it is impossible to identify a single factor as the root cause of such problems. Consequently, it is not possible to resolve such issues easily by treating just one factor. Yet, this is often the approach taken by many education managers and leaders, for it is the only approach that they know. This problem can be traced back to the pervasiveness of reductionist thinking, which has spread into many disciplines due to the success of the scientific method. The consequence of this is that many other equally valid approaches of knowledge creation and problem solving have been undervalued, or left undeveloped.

To be clear, reductionism is very effective in the sciences. The reductionist method requires the theoriser to isolate the subject from its context by placing it in an imagined ideal environment or within a fixed environment, so as to study the linear causal relation that the subject has with a specific variable. This approach has allowed for great progress to be made in our understanding of the world, and for the development of various technologies that fulfil our human needs. However, reductionism is not always effective in areas outside of the sciences. As the one and only method taught in most disciplines today, the reductionist approach to understanding and problem-solving is the only method that most people are aware of. There are many who cannot help but to perceive the world and structure their perceptions and thoughts in an abstract linear way (Arthur, 2014). This presents a great problem for education managers and leaders to effectively understand and resolve complex issues and problems that arise within the context of education.

Not only does reductionist thinking lead people to think in linear causal terms, but reductionism also promotes abstract thinking. This leads many, especially managers and leaders at the top to think of their teams and organisations under them as abstract concepts, almost like a black box that receives input and generates output, leading them to ignore the complex dynamics of interaction within such human organisations and the individuals inside. This mode of thinking does not allow education managers and leaders to have a better sense of the ground for they receive their feedback often through the intermediaries working under them. In all, these factors pose a huge challenge for managers and leaders to come up with good solutions. Often, the solutions they design are based on a linear understanding of cause and effect, and are criticised not only for being ineffective, but also for showing a lack of understanding of the problems on the ground.

Complexity science seems like a very promising solution to the problems mentioned above. Though complexity science is a relatively new field in science (about 30 years old), scientists have developed a rich array of concepts useful for understanding complex systems and the phenomena that arise from it. In fact, complexity science has been so effective in making sense of a complex mess of interactions in a system that its tools and methods have been extended into the social sciences (for example, see Arthur, 2014).

There are two broad categories of complex systems: (1) complex physical systems where the components of the system behave according to a fixed guiding principle; and (2) complex adaptive systems where the components (also known as agents) adapt and change their behaviour and strategy based on their mutual interactions with one another. What differentiates a complex system from a merely complicated one can be summed up in a single sentence: the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. The unique feature of complex systems is that the aggregate of behaviours of its components result in an emergent phenomenon that is quite unlike the behaviour of the many individual components in isolation. There is no linear causal relationship between the components and the emergent phenomenon. Instead, such emergent phenomena arise as a result of the non-linear interactions of the component parts with each other (Holland, 2014).

Human organisations are complex adaptive systems since humans are capable of altering their behaviour and strategy based on their previous interactions with each other. The education system, likewise, is also a complex adaptive system. In the education system, not only do the human agents change, but the policies, tools, methods, and content are subject to change (by other human agents) in response to certain events. There are many issues in education that emerge from an aggregation of the whole system, and cannot be effectively traced back to a single root cause: e.g. success/failure of the system to educate a generation, the rise/fall of a school’s ranking, rise/fall of teacher attrition rates, the emergence of a school culture, etc. To single out a root cause and structure these incidents in terms of a linear causal relationship would be to ignore the rich dynamic complex interactions at work.

While there have been quite a fair amount of papers written about adapting complexity thinking into education management and leadership, many scholars have, unfortunately, misrepresented the true spirit of complexity science, and have misunderstood or misapplied the concepts into this domain. Some authors have prescribed remodelling an organisation to resemble the structure of a complex system, or to adopt practices that seem to model after complex systems, such as opening up more lines of communication, allowing greater interdisciplinary or diverse approaches to problems, or encouraging a bottom-up initiative (Briggs, 2008; Klein, 2004; McMurtry, 2011; Morrison, 2010; Ng, 2013; Rayner, 2008). While I do not doubt the effectiveness of these prescriptions, it seems that these authors do not show a clear understanding of complex systems. As I mentioned earlier, human organisations are already complex systems. Modelling organisations to follow the structure of complex systems, or to adopt practices that model after complex systems, reveals a superficial understanding of complexity science. In fact, their prescriptions – of a big scale reform – betrays several key concepts in complexity thinking, and ignores the dynamics of a complex system and the agents involved.

Secondly, some authors have demonstrated a misunderstanding of concepts in complexity science. For example, some authors have misapplied the concept of “self-order,” to the extent of prescribing to managers and leaders to refrain from a top-down approach to their organisation (Morrison, 2010). Instead, they are asked to encourage a kind of grassroots or bottom-up initiative, leaving it to people to organise their own initiatives within the organisation. This is not how the concept of “self-order” should be understood or applied. Instead, “self-order” is a phenomenon that emerges from the interactions of complex systems, where in the midst of the mess of interactions between agents, there is a clear discernible direction or order that people can perceive. Yet, even if there was a top-down initiative or order, the phenomenon of self-order may still occur anyway, and sometimes in a direction contrary to the order issued from the top. This concept is just a description of the feature of complex systems, and should not be regarded as a prescription. To treat this concept as a prescription for managers and leaders would be to commit the problem I mentioned in the previous paragraph, of trying to model a human organisation after a complex system, when a human organisation is already a complex system.

Third and most importantly, due to such misrepresentations and misapplications of complexity, certain philosophical issues have been incorrectly framed, thus leading to pressing problems on the fundamental level of management where there are only uncertain responses. This reduces the viability of complexity science as an alternative for dealing with issues faced by education managers and leaders. One such problem is the ethical issue of responsibility: who can we assign praise or blame, or who can we hold accountable, if problems (or successes) arise as an emergent phenomena due to a myriad of factors that are beyond the reach of a manager, who can we hold accountable, or who can we praise or blame? (Fenwick, 2009) This is a valid concern, however, I believe that the question cannot be answered properly because of its present framing in a misunderstanding of complexity science. Once the issue is framed and grounded in a proper understanding and application of complexity science in education management and leadership, we will be able to produce clear answers.

This issue of responsibility will be an issue that I will attempt to address once I have clarified what complexity science is about, and shown how it should be applied and adopted into education management and leadership. I propose that the dissertation be structured as follows:

Chapter 1: Introduction

In this chapter, I will introduce the types of complex problems that education managers and leaders encounter in the context of education. I will then discuss how the reductionist framework is often utilised in such a context but fails badly because it attempts to structure non-linear phenomena in abstract linear terms.

Chapter 2: Literature Review of Complexity Theories and Complexity Theories Applied to Management and Leadership in a General Context, and in the Context of Education

In this chapter, I will review the prominent schools of complexity theory that developed in the sciences, and proceed to trace its development in the social sciences. I will highlight key concepts relevant to educational management and leadership, and highlight how complexity theory has been adapted for the social sciences. Moreover, I will also review a wide array of literature on complexity science applied to management and leadership, both in a general context and in the context of education. There seems to be better success in the implementation of complexity thinking to general management and leadership (Morrison, 2010). In doing this, I hope to develop an understanding of the ways in which scholars have tried to implement a scientific theory and framework onto human organisations and people. As I review the literature of management and leadership in the context of education, I will highlight issues and concerns raised by these authors about the use of complexity. Some of these concerns are valid and I hope to be able to address them in the following chapters.

Chapter 3: Critique of Literature on Complexity and Educational Management

In this chapter, I will critique the literature which I will review in Chapter 2, by highlighting specific areas where complexity thinking has been misunderstood or misapplied in education management and leadership, and show how the true spirit of complexity science has been misrepresented in the process. I will also highlight how certain fundamental concerns cannot be answered, such as the issue of moral responsibility, because of the question is framed in a misunderstanding of complexity, thus leading us to rather unsatisfactory and uncertain responses.

Chapter 4: How Complexity Science should be understood in the Context of Educational Management and Leadership

In this chapter, I will demonstrate how complexity science, when properly understood, should be construed in the context of management and leadership. I will then extend this approach to cover the specific area of educational management and leadership, by detailing the additional factors involved.

Chapter 5: Resolving the Issue of Moral Responsibility in a Complexity-Based Education Management and Leadership

In this chapter, I will explore the issue of moral responsibility in a complexity-based approach to education management and leadership. If there are indeed complex phenomena that are non-linear and outside the control of the manager/leader, how much accountability and responsibility would such a manager/leader have? Is it even possible to assigned praise or blame, or to hold people accountable when such phenomena occur? I will first describe the problem as it is raised in some of the existing literature, and explain what is wrong with the way the problem of responsibility is framed. Following which, I will frame this problem in the correct understanding of complexity (which I will set out in Chapter 4), and provide a nuanced treatment of the issue.

Chapter 6: Education Management and Leadership, and Complexity Science Revisited

In this chapter, I will return to the types of complex problems education managers and leaders face (as mentioned in Chapter 1). I will show how a clear understanding of complexity science, in the context of education management and leadership, will lead to a rich understanding of the issues at hand, and a better appreciation of the relations between the components. I will contrast this with the reductionist approach, and highlight the differences, specifically what we lose in the process of using reductionist methods to solve these issues. However, this does not mean that reductionism is to be thrown out completely. I will make a case of when reductionism is useful in education management and leadership, and when a complexity approach would be beneficial. At the end of the day, these are two different methods, each with their own advantages when applied to the correct situation and context.

Chapter 7: Limitations of this Research and Future Areas of Research

Though complexity science has, over the past three decades, developed a rich array of concepts for understanding and analysing complex phenomena, it lack a lot of richness in the ways for understanding, diagnosing, or even managing complex systems. This is due largely to the fact that complexity science rose out of the reductionist framework, and it has a long way to go before this field is further enriched in its methods and tools for richly understanding complex relations and interaction between agents and the means of comprehending and managing complexity. In this chapter, I will highlight some of the limits of complexity science, and show how it affects the above research on education management and leadership. I will propose areas of research that could take this project further, and hopefully, to overcome some of the limitations of this research.



Arthur, W. Brian, Complexity and the Economy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

Briggs, Ann R. J., “Modelling Complexity: Making Sense of Leadership Issues in Education,” Management in Education 22 (2008): pp.17-23.

Fenwick, Tara, “Responsibility, Complexity Science and Education: Dilemmas and Uncertain Responses,” Studies in Philosophy and Education 28 (2009): pp.101-118.

Holland, John H., Complexity: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

Klein, Julie Thompson, “Interdisciplinarity and Complexity: An Evolving Relationship,” E:CO 6 (2004): pp.2-10.

McMurtry, Angus, “The Complexities of Interdisciplinarity: Integrating Two Different Perspectives on Interdisciplinary Research and Education,” Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education 8 (2011): pp.19-35

Morrison, Keith, “Complexity Theory, School Leadership and Management: Questions for Theory and Practice,” Educational Management Administration & Leadership 38 (2010): pp.374-393

Ng, David, “Leadership Learning through the Lens of Complexity Theory,” Human Systems Management 32 (2013): pp.43-55

Rayner, Stephen G., “Complexity, Diversity and Management: Some Reflections on Folklore and Learning Leadership in Education,” Management in Education 22 (2008): pp.40-46.