Monday, November 9, 2015

TEACHING COMPLEX SYSTEMS IN A COMPLEX SYSTEM

I will be teaching next semester's COGS 498 seminar, which will be dedicated to complex systems. Though the title of the course text is titled "Philosophy of Complex Systems," the term "philosophy" must be understood in the broad sense to embrace a nested set of interdisciplinary concerns.

Understanding that a course is a complex system and making use of complexity theory in planning the course, we have found twelve students who share the common characteristic of being interested in learning. Other than that, they span all four years of college experience from freshman to senior and come from various majors across campus, including cognitive science, computer science, finance, economics, applied mathematics, public health, etc.

As I typically do with such seminars, assignments are structured as a series of co-authored papers, six per student, with no student co-writing with another twice. The audience for the papers is not the teacher, but the class as a whole; furthermore, each paper will be read aloud in class to set the agenda for the discussion. This means that the papers are intended to serve a real learning purpose for a collective of students who as a system attempt to understand material that is often thought beyond the reach of undergrads.

The structure already has resituated many constraints of the usual classroom setting. To start, learning is collective. It is not a matter of conveying insights from the mind of a teacher into the private minds of students, but of processing the particular parts of difficult text that may easily escape the mind of an individual. The structure also works against last minute, perfunctory papers, and the psychological pressure of having to share thoughts with the collective offers incentive for students to take their writing seriously. The net result is that students will go from having to write a paper to getting to write one because their interest and engagement in the material will deepen into genuine curiosity.

The first time I used the approach I was shocked at the quality of the papers compared to those in other courses. All papers were A quality for undergraduates. It became clear that conventional grading techniques would not work here, and so drawing again on complexity theory, grading was replaced with a system of peer-ranking of others' engagement in the material and their oral contributions to helping the collective better understand the material. This means, of course, that students do not know their grade until the end of the course. Initially, I suspected student resentment over this fact, but instead I found that it refocused their concern away from grades and toward the material with no resentment.

In this particular iteration of the seminar setting, this class will examine one chapter a week of a very large book after an initial two lectures on complexity theory in general and an introduction to the course. Students will then read and write on the first eight chapters of the book on the general foundations of complexity theory. These include the following chapters: Cliff Hooker, Introduction to Complex Systems; Mark Bickhard, Systems and Process Metaphysics; Robert Bishop, Metaphysical and Epistemological Issues in Complex Systems; David Green and Tania Leishman, Computing and Complexity--Networks, Nature and Virtual Worlds; William Harms, Evolutionary Games and the Modelling of Complex Systems; Wolfgang Hofkircher and Matthias Schafranek, General Systems Theory; Cliff Hooker, Conceptualizing Reduction, Emergence and Self-Organization in Complex Dynamical Systems; and Jan Schmidt, Challenged by Instability and Complexity.

After we work our way through these challenging papers, the students will collectively decide what to examine from the topical papers that make up the remainder of the book. They address issues in biology, ecology, engineering, climatology, economics, anthropology, psychology, medicine, military science, public policy, management and the philosophy of science.

It is worth re-iterating that this book is too hard for undergraduates in a typical classroom setting. Yet, while it might appear foolish to throw such a text at this group and particularly at lower division neophytes, the collective interaction and peer-mentoring by the more informed students make this work. In more than twenty semesters of this evolving format, I have yet to see it fail, even in one case when I selected a bad text for a particular seminar during which the students collectively engaged in a semester-long critique of what makes a book bad in academia.

As for this particular book, it is expensive, but I've yet to find something else that does the job. It is truly excellent. The full reference is Hooker, C. (2011). Philosophy of Complex Systems. Elsevier. If you're ever looking for an outstanding collection of essays on complex systems, this is a go to book that I hope will become a standard.

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