This is a revised version of an article written by Terri Bawden and Sandor Szabados which first appeared in the Fall 1995 of Curriculum in Context: Journal of the Washington Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

An Organic View of Educational Change

“Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river. The current of the river swept silently over them all- young and old, rich and poor, good and evil – the current going its own way, knowing only its own crystal self. Each creature in its own manner clung tightly to the twigs and rocks of the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current was what each had learned from birth. But one creature said at last: ‘I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom.’ The other creatures laughed and said: ‘Fool, let go and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed across the rocks, and you will die quicker than boredom. But the one heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go and at once was tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks. Yet in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom and he was bruised and hurt no more.”

These creatures from the opening lines of Richard Bach’s (1977) book, Illusions, exhibit a fairly typical fear of change. Most everyone tries to cling to what is known in order to feel safe. We may not always be happy with what we have but at least it is predictable and secure. Or is it?

Machines to Organisms

Ironically, recent discoveries in the natural sciences demonstrate just the opposite. The Newtonian model that described our world as a machine and has provided for centuries some degree of predictability and security doesn’t work anymore. Newton’s laws explain certain phenomena but they do not provide a complete picture. In fact, it would be counterproductive to limit our sights to the partial solutions offered by them.

We can no longer rely on the classical notions of cause and effect in order to solve out future challenges. The field of education is one area that needs to be looked at differently in order to find successful solutions to its problems. If we continue to treat schools as if they were machines in need of constant maintenance and repair, they will no longer able to do efficiently what they were originally designed to do. Examples of this are numerous. Violence in schools is more prevalent today – student who are not openly defiant are often passively aggressive. Teachers are reluctant to discipline them for fear of lawsuits, or worse, yet, physical retaliation.

Despite repeated efforts at reform, test scores have not changed appreciably. One might question whether test scores should be the measure of success, but employers continually say that students are not able to perform basic skills in the workplace. Even though administrators are strict, or perhaps because of it, students are disenfranchised, teachers are disillusioned, and parents are angry. These are just a few of the symptoms of a disintegrating system that used to work but no longer serves the needs of our current students. There are new dynamics in society and the world has changed, but our schools are virtually what they were during the agrarian and industrial age. New bells and whistles have been added and the capacity increased, but their operation has remained basically unchanged. Attempts to achieve higher levels of performance have failed even tough they have been ratcheted up notch by individual notch. What we have failed to realize, however, is that schools are not machines. They are complex dynamical systems, living organizations that interact with the environment in much the same manner as plants, animals, and humans.

A new paradigm based on notions derived from recent discoveries in the natural sciences can help us understand how to operate schools more efficiently. The microbiologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1968), a pioneer in the theory of systems, showed that openness is a basic feature of organisms that allows for input from the environment. He declared that this trait is necessary if organisms are to survive and thrive.

The Nobel prize-winning chemist Ilya Prigogine (1984), was the first to carry out in-depth studies and give detailed description of inorganic structures that can turn disorder into order by reorganizing at a higher level of complexity when subjected to large quantities of energy from outside. He named them ‘dissipative structures.’

The term indicates the two natures of the systems: On the one hand, the tendency to disperse in a disorganized manner; on the other, the ability to reorganize at a higher level of complexity. For instance, when a pan with a thin layer of water is heated uniformly from below, molecules at first rise in a random way. When the heat is turned up, whorls begin to form that become increasingly agitated as the heat increases. When the vibrations reach a critical point, the whorls reorganize into a coherent whole forming a lattice of six-sided cells. A system closed to the environment will disorganize and eventually perish because it does not accept new input. This condition is called ‘entropy’.

Only openness to new information and feedback, the process in which a part or the whole of the output is fed back into the input, provide for maintenance and growth. It may take centuries as in the case of biological evolution, or it may be rapid as in the case of technological advancements. In either case, when an open system has reached a critical mass, it will suddenly reorganize in a manner that allows it to completely absorb the new input.


Change begins as a result of a minor fluctuation that a system at first attempts to suppress. Eventually, an adaptation is made that will vary depending on the intensity of the fluctuation. Minor changes are hardly noticeable as evidenced by the slow process of evolution.

Major changes, however, occur when a system reaches a ‘far-from-equilibrium’ state, much like the condition of intense conflict and antagonism that precedes a war. When the intensity of the fluctuations reaches a level of disorder that the system is unable to suppress, it will become highly unstable and unable to continue unaffected.

At this stage, known as ‘bifurcation point,’ it may disintegrate and become extinct or, like a phoenix rising from its own ashes, become completely reorganized. When the latter occurs, some of the fundamental aspects will be preserved, even though the system will be completely restructured. The preservation of some key features establishes ‘points of self-reference,’ constants which are crucial to its continued existence. Self-reference provides a code that allows a system to retain its essential identity while undergoing even catastrophic change.

Cosmic Dance

How does an understanding of systems theory affect the way schools are organized? To begin with, rather than trying to impose a high degree of control much like a master puppeteer, participants must instead learn to dance. The physicist Fritjof Capra (1975), described the behavior of the building blocks of matter – quarks and electrons – as a cosmic dance of energy. Although unpredictable in its unfolding, it operates within a specified domain much like dancers who are free to move anywhere as long as they remain in the ballroom. Even in the midst of what appears to be chaos, there is implicate order.

There is an activity used in teachers’ workshops that demonstrates this principle. It is called Mirror Dancing. Two people face each other. One person is the designated leader who begins making motions that the other person must follow in a mirror image. After a period of time the follower is asked to lead and the leader to follow. Finally, they are told to begin the dance again, but this time neither the leader nor the follower are designated. Instead they must exchange roles without talking. Surprisingly, much like a meson is exchanged between proton and neutron, there occurs a natural give and take between the partners and it becomes obvious when one will take over as a leader and moments later become the follower. In debriefing, the participants say that it is stilted and boring to be the follower all the time, while being the leader is too much responsibility. The shared dancing is much more interesting and enjoyable.

In her seminal book Leadership and the New Science, Margaret Wheatley states: ” we sit in our offices, structured into rigid relationships, besieged with stacks of data that accumulate daily, armed with our complex formulae of interpretation – we have a long way to go before we can move onto the dance floor. As we struggle with the designs that will replace bureaucracy, we must invent organizations where process is allowed its varied-tempo dance, where structures come and go as they support the process that needs to occur, and where form arises to support the necessary relationships.” (1992, p.68).


Studies of complex dynamical systems show that information is the glue that holds them together. Paradoxically, the greatest generator of information is chaos. Wheatley argues, “Of course this is exactly what we fear. We have no desire to let information roam about, to let it procreate promiscuously where it will, to create chaos. Our management task is to enforce control, to keep information contained, to pass it down in such a way that no procreation occurs. Information chastity belts are a central management function.” (p. 105).

According to Wheatley, “The function of information is revealed in the word itself: in-formation.” (p.104). A system, whether natural or man-made, must have new information in order to survive and thrive. Yet the tendency in human organizations is to control and even suppress its free flow. The paradox of this approach is that, by struggling against chaos, we assure self destruction. However, by allowing a natural ebb and flow between equilibrium and instability – a dance between chaos and order – we assure preservation and growth. This is becoming more than a metaphor with the increased use of Internet as a way of bonding disparate entities all over the world through cyberspace.

In his book Stewardship, Peter Block states that “knowledge is power, so give it away.” (1993, p 67). He compares our old ways of organizing to a patriarchal system where the boss knows what is best for everyone. Information is merely a way of telling people what the administration has already decided. Block proposes that our new way of organizing must centered on partnership with everyone having free access to information. In an educational setting it would result in a student-centered model where the programs that affect them should be made with their input.

What are the major obstacles to efficiency in schools? Mostly it is a rigid schedule that artificially attempts to impose order. Under the new paradigm, self-directed work teams would form naturally around projects and common goals. Instead of distinct grade levels, teachers would work with groups based on talents and outcomes. Assessment would be based on whether students can demonstrate accomplishment of the goal. As long as criteria for evaluation are established, students may respond to assignments in several ways, much like Odyssey of the Mind provides a problem with certain limitations and students respond on a continuum of creativity.


One of the many positive results of reorganizing in this manner is the synergism that fosters superior performance and creativity. It is the tendency of life to communicate, collaborate, and network. As Marilyn Ferguson said in her book The Aquarian Conspiracy, “Networks are the strategy by which small groups can transform an entire society.” (1980, p.214).

Synergy is usually felt rather than seen, much like a field of energy is observed by its effects. A magnet’s intrinsic properties are known only when it attracts a like material. Likewise, some schools buildings are filled with positive energy which emanates from every classroom, while in others the negative energy is almost palpable.

In education the quest for accountability is hindered by the zeal to apply the ‘objective’ quantitative method of the hard sciences. The reductionist Newtonian approach is applied to the interpretation of the ever-increasing amount of collected data, with disregard to the qualitative experiences of teachers, parents, and students who can tell us what works. Ironically, nuclear physicists rely more on intuition to guide them to scientific insights and discoveries. As Einstein said: “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.”


Change does not usually happen as a result of a law or mandate. Rather, it comes about as a consequence of different ways of thinking based on new information. As Marilyn Ferguson commented: “If education cannot be mended, perhaps it can metamorphose! Trying to explain the difference between reform and transformation, we have been trying to attach wings to a caterpillar.” (1980, p. 321).

Education is approaching a crucial juncture – a bifurcation point – where old methods are colliding with new demands. If we resist the flow of change, we can temporarily dam or divert it, but inevitably, it will occur. Instead, we can respond proactively by choosing to work with the forces at play and using them to our advantage. Only by confronting the chaos generated by these opposing forces with ideas form the theory of complex dynamical systems – can education be not merely reformed but trans-formed.

As Einstein said: “You cannot solve the problem with the same kind of thinking that has caused the problem.”


Bertalanffy von, L., General Systems Theory, New York:Braziller, 1968

Bach, R., Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, New York, Delacorte Press, 1977

Block, P., Stewardship: Choosing Service over Self-Interest, San FranciscoBennett-Koehler Publishers, 1993

Capra, F., The Tao of Physics, New York: Bantam Books, 1975

Ferguson, M., The Auquarian Conspiracy, Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1980

Prigogine, I. and Stengers, I., Order Out of Chaos, New York: Bantam Books, 1984

Wheatley, M., Leadership and the New Science, San Francisco: Bennet- Koehler, 1992