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Best article of 2016—Educational Psychologist!

Educational Psychologist is the leading academic journal for educational research. Earlier this month, they awarded the 'best article of 2016' to an article written by Michael Jacobson, Manu Kapur, and Peter Reimann.

In the second iteration of the award, the prestigious Educational Psychologist has deemed the best paper of 2016 to be Conceptualizing Debates in Learning and Educational Research: Toward a Complex Systems Conceptual Framework of Learning' (Jacobson, Kapur, Reimann, 2016)! Authors Michael Jacobson and Peter Reimann are both professors here at Sydney University—the latter being the current co-director of CRLI—and their external collaborator Manu Kapur is a recently appointed professor at ETH in Switzerland. 

In the paper, the authors propose that theory and conceptual perspectives from the study of complex systems (sometimes called ‘complexity’) offer a powerful way to reconceptualise many theoretical issues faced in educational research. To illustrate this, they used the long-running debate between 'cognitive' (study the mind and brain to understand learning) and 'situative' (study the collective or social environment to understand learning) research perspectives as an example of something that can be productively thought anew their proposed Complex Systems Conceptual Framework of Learning.

the authors proposed that theory and conceptual perspectives from the study of complex systems offer a powerful way to reconceptualise many theoretical issues faced in educational research

Michael Jacobson, the lead author on the paper, explains one of the motivating problems they tried to address was that educational researchers "have a tendency to think about learning in systems of education in terms of theories that focus on particular ‘levels’ of the system.” For example, one researcher might try to understand learning from a 'cognitive' level by looking at the learning processes and dynamics of individual learners and teachers, whereas another researcher might try to understand learning from a ‘situated’ level of collective student and teacher interactions and socio-cultural norms and practices. Jacobson further notes that “the debate in the literature about the ‘primacy’ of cognitive or situative perspectives for educational research spans several special issues and numerous papers in top journals for over a quarter of a century, and it remains a serious issue that the field cannot reconcile or vindicate one theoretical camp over the other.”

This debate and others in the field cannot be not addressed by uncritical pluralism, where all approaches are viewed as intrinsically valid. Far deeper, Jacobson and colleagues argue we need to view learning as occurring in complex educational systems, and that educational research can be enhanced through use of conceptual perspectives and methodologies that have been successfully employed in the study of other physical and social complex systems. For example, viewing the cognitive-situative debate using complex systems constructs such as individual ‘agents’ interacting at a micro level (i.e., cognitive) can lead to the ‘emergence’ of collective behaviours and norms at a macro level (i.e., situated), which once emerged can interact across levels to influence, enhance, or constrain behaviours at the micro level of the educational system.

educational researchers have a tendency to think about learning in systems of education in terms of theories that focus on particular ‘levels’ of the system

A recent study by Jacobson and colleagues (2017) exemplifies this approach by looking at a range of factors influencing learning, including classroom social dynamics and individual cognitive processes, and importantly how these can dynamically influence each other in a public school learning context. And an ongoing study by the Learning, Cognition, and Brain Sciences (LCBS) research group—Co-directed by Michael Jacobson and Micah Goldwater in Psychology—is building on the conceptual perspective of interactions across complex system levels further by introducing neuroimaging methodologies, which can help disambiguate behavioural data through linking hypothesised cognitive level functions with neural level activity in a study of direct instruction versus productive failure learning designs.

Jacobson believes that theorising that links across levels of analysis relevant to complex educational systems is going to be increasingly important for educational research in order to more deeply understand critical dynamics of learning and to then better inform educational practices. Theorising using approaches such as the Complex Systems Conceptual Framework of Learning may seem challenging to some researchers comfortable with their current disciplinary communities of practice, however, Jacobson, Kapur, and Reimann hope that their framework might enable “critically important insights of central relevance to our field that might not otherwise be possible with current perspectives and approaches.”

Read the abstract for the article below:

Conceptualizing Debates in Learning and Educational Research: Toward a Complex Systems Conceptual Framework of Learning 

Jacobson, Kapur, Reimann (2016)

Abstract: This article proposes a conceptual framework of learning based on perspectives and methodologies being employed in the study of complex physical and social systems to inform educational research. We argue that the contexts in which learning occurs are complex systems with elements or agents at different levels—including neuronal, cognitive, intrapersonal, interpersonal, cultural—in which there are feedback interactions within and across levels of the systems so that collective properties arise (i.e., emerge) from the behaviors of the parts, often with properties that are not individually exhibited by those parts. We analyze the long-running cognitive versus situative learning debate and propose that a complex systems conceptual framework of learning (CSCFL) provides a principled way to achieve a theoretical rapprochement. We conclude with a consideration of more general implications of the CSCFL for educational research.

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