Monday, September 28, 2009

Non Equilibrium Thermodynamics: a New Model for Teaching

Drink a cup of coffee and get into hyper-focus mode before you read this next piece. It is not for the casual reader. This is an excerpt from my thesis paper “Thriving on the Edge of Chaos: an Argument for a Complex Adaptive Theory of Education.”
The simple translation is this: students learn better from the bottom up.
As a teacher of high school social studies, I began experimenting with the idea of using an interactive game not as a side-unit of instruction nor as a supplement to the curriculum but as the curriculum itself. In doing this, I became more of a facilitator (creating a feedback loop) and switched from the use of lecture to an open-ended game format in order to deliver course content. I changed the structure of my classes to give students more opportunities for creative and critical thinking. As the classes changed in this way from the use of a traditional hierarchy to a lateral distribution of power, or heterarchy, I observed profound changes. The classes experienced a major increase in participation and, arguably, thinking as a result of complex, higher order behavior.
During the use of this game (called Global Challenge) I realized something interesting was taking place; a phenomenon of sorts. It remained an idea without a model for many years until two things happened:
1. I discovered a book by the famous biologist Edward O. Wilson entitled Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998). This book opened up the door on how one might merge ideas and subject areas in order to discover universal truths. There was occasional mention in the book about how physicists do not work enough with mathematicians and biologists, even though one might find answers for their area of study in a completely different discipline. The idea occurred that, by analogy and metaphor, professionals could find universal answers. One might even see the possibility for a “borderless,” 24-hour learning environment, uninhibited by pre-fabricated, school-imposed barriers on learning.
2. On a trip to England in early 2002, I discovered another book in the London Museum of Science called Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software (2001) by science writer Steven Johnson. This book exposed some other ideas, mainly the notion that the most productive and creative behavior seemed to happen from the ground up (Johnson, 2001). This book, and discussions with a long-time friend, led to the discovery of something more profound – chaos theory. Chaos theory disproved the second law of thermodynamics and offered hope that things do not have to disintegrate.
Since entropy and thermodynamics are important to the model or metaphor being presented in this paper, they are worthy of deeper analysis here. According to Gleick
(1987) the concept of entropy derives from thermodynamics and is a part of the Second Law (of thermodynamics). Thermodynamics, according to the Encarta World English Dictionary (1999), refers to a branch of physics dealing with the conversions of energy from one form to another “and how these affect temperature, pressure, volume, mechanical action and work.”
Gleick wrote that entropy was the tendency of systems in the universe to move towards a state of increasing disorder. Gleick also noted that this term has taken root in the non-scientific world and has woven itself into our culture. He gave as examples the non- scientific explanations for disintegrating societies and economic decay. People, it seems, use the term entropy to describe any system that is likely to fall apart.
In thermodynamics, certain things are true such as losing heat when transferring one form of energy to another. This would make perfect efficiency impossible. In addition, Gleick (1987) pointed out that the universe, because of this, was a “one way street.” A process tending towards disorder could not be reversed. These things may be true in the world of thermodynamics, he pointed out, but are not so true in complexity. He went on to say that thermodynamics did not explain the creating of amino acids, microorganisms, self-reproducing plants and animals, and the complexity, even, of the human brain. Systems such as these did not fall victim to entropy, but rose to a higher level.
When Johnson (2001) wrote about non-equilibrium thermodynamics, he spoke of the work done by Ilya Prigogine in the 1950s, and defined non-equilibrium thermodynamics as “environments where the laws of entropy are temporarily overcome, and higher-level order may spontaneously emerge out of underlying chaos” (p. 52).
Putting these things together, one might move in the direction of accepting complexity as a better system to use when defining and explaining the social system in use in education. Where thermodynamics refers to the transfer and conversion of energy, complexity is more of the working model, large enough to explain all systems. Entropy has become an excuse from which cynics can look to explain disintegration of social systems. When, in fact, such disintegration may be because of faulty design, imposition of too much order, lack of balance in the system and, most importantly, a model not suitable to handle random variables. At this point, these are suppositions but are worth considering.
The question naturally emerged as to whether there was some way to make sense of all the disarray and confusion people found in their personal and professional lives. What if there was a larger order to things that humans simply were not seeing, one where order would arise out of seemingly meaningless interactions? What if chaos and confusion were part of a larger design and could lead to greater things?
From a psychological, emotional, and social viewpoint, this could revolutionize the way people think and interact, just knowing that everyday friction and random interactions might actually lead to something. In Consilience, Wilson (1998) argued that there may be a higher order, one that fuses or synthesizes many subjects at the same time; that there might be, in fact, some universal laws that underlie all knowledge. This made an excellent case for interdisciplinary studies. After reading Johnson, however, I became more interested in emergence and chaos theory, thinking that such ideas might make for an appropriate model for education. These two ideas, if synthesized, could form a model for a higher order of learning based on complexity.
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