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Learn how to apply complex systems theory in a library

Philip Williams

Philip Williams, a librarian at Vientiane International School, Laos

This article talks about the PYP library as a complex system that fosters adaptive and dynamic change.

An understanding of complex systems theory provides libraries with a powerful conceptual framework that enables us to understand and embrace the multiple intricacies of each student, our communities of learning and the environments in which we are situated.

What is complex system theory?

A complicated system (such as a car engine) is not necessarily a complex system. Furthermore, the term system is different to the term systematic which implies an imposed order. In contrast, a complex system contains a large number of elements – components, parts, sub-systems or agents – that are connected, enabling a complex web of interactions and feedback between these elements. These systems are dynamic, adaptive and self-organizing where observable patterns emerge as a result of the interactions between elements rather than a predefined pattern or fixed hierarchy (e.g. Starling murmuration, see link below). Order that arises out of apparent chaos is inherently unpredictable because it is dependent on a vast network of interactions and iteration. The human brain of approximately 100 billion interconnected neurons embodied within a child, who is located within a social context, which itself has many interconnected individuals and groups is an ultimate representation of a complex system and indeed multiple complex systems. To deny this inherent complexity in education through a focus on reductionist approaches is to deny what makes us human and misses the very essence of learning. Learning at the deepest level is itself an emergent phenomenon. Complex systems theory therefore embraces diversity, differentiation and inquiry learning because it affirms unique individual student identity and brings us to an understanding of the systems at play in their various learning contexts. We need to “engage with complexity, uncertainty and risk, not as factors to be minimized or resolved, but as necessary dimensions” of education (Collier & Ross, 2015).

Applying complex systems theory to the library

Applying complex systems theory to the school library context leads us to a holistic understanding of each learner and the significance of the connections to the systems they participate in. For the student, the classrooms, the library or the school community connections allow for effective feedback and communication between each part of the system. Building and supporting effective possibilities for feedback within the library feeds the iterative nature of complex systems fostering adaptive and dynamic change – that is, learning. The library is a public space that is curated by staff with expertise in information management so it is ideally situated to enable and lead the development of effective iterative practices within the school. For example, displaying student work and inviting responses from the community which brings student voice out of the classroom to expand their audience for richer interactions. Building these connections and relationships embraces and celebrates diversity within the community of learners. Curating books and resources that represent a diversity of perspectives brings a richness to the learning context. Building spaces for collaboration and creating a library culture that is accessible to all students – not just the quiet bookish stereotypes – further enhances rich connections within the school environment.

Unpredictability and emergence

Change is learning and change within a complex system is inherently unpredictable. Rather than scripting change, a complex systems understanding leads us to embrace this unpredictability by investing in supporting the features of a complex system that we know will have a positive impact on the learning. Rather than employing systems of control, we can invest in the very features of dynamic and responsive complex systems – relationship, feedback, iteration, diversity, openness and connection. Feeding the attributes that we know build a resilient and powerful learner should be our focus (Guy Claxton, 2008, Lucas et al. 2013). This does involve an element of trust in the value of supporting complex systems but if we remain open, observant, reflective and proactive student learning will emerge. This does not imply a hands-off approach or an absence of structure. On the contrary, our intervention is based on careful observation, participation and interaction with students as we foster feedback, links and connections that build the resilient and self-directed learners we are looking for.

Creating diverse and flexible spaces within which students can adapt their own learning environment also builds opportunities for connection and collaboration. An active and mobile librarian, not bound behind a desk, can also provide more opportunities to build relationships, ensure a safe environment for all students and provide additional opportunities for serendipity and discovery.

Another powerful example of a complex systems approach is the impact that recreational reading has on academic achievement. By its very nature, recreational reading is intangible, open ended and impossible for us to script. Recreational reading is defined as students choosing what, when and where they want to read (Stephen Krashen, 2011). This does not mean we as educators are powerless bystanders in this field. On the contrary, we have a powerful influence on the reading habits of our students (Debbie Miller, 2013) just not in the prescriptive way that many reading and literacy programs may lead us. We know that increasing access to books increases recreational reading and leads to measurable academic outcomes (Stephen Krashen, 2011). For the library this may be as simple as extending opening hours such as weekend open times for families or supporting teachers to provide books within as easy reach of students as any other technology. Pulling down posters and replacing the valuable display spaces in libraries with well presented high quality literature (Neil Gaiman, 2013) will lead to increased circulations. Selecting books for the literary and artistic integrity of the publication is based on a fundamental belief in the power of story and creative human expression provides the ideal context for student discovery.

The library is the perfect space for connection, iteration, interaction, collaboration and inspiration. Complex systems theory therefore provides a lens through which we can find a clarity of focus as we strive to find ways to enhance learning.

Further Reading:

Claxton, Guy. What’s the Point of School?: Rediscovering the Heart of Education. Richmond: Oneworld, 2008. Print.

Collier, Amy, and Jen Ross. “Embracing Digital Messiness : Rethinking the Digital by Default Agenda.” A Manifesto for Digital Messiness. N.p., 06 Aug. 2015. Web. 20 Jan. 2016. <http://>.

Davis, Brent, and Dennis J. Sumara. Complexity and Education: Inquiries into Learning, Teaching, and Research. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006. Print.

Flight404. “Murmuration, 40,000 Starlings.” Vimeo. N.p., 16 June 2014. Web. 14 Jan. 2016. https://, Web, 14 Jan. 2016.

Gaiman, Neil. “Neil Gaiman: Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming.” The Guardian : Culture : Books. Guardian News and Media Limited, 15 Oct. 2013. Web. 15 Jan. 2016. < daydreaming>.

Krashen, Stephen D. Free Voluntary Reading. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, 2011. Print. Miller, Debbie. No More Independent Reading without Support. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2013. Print.
Lucas, Bill, Guy Claxton, and Ellen Spencer. Expansive Education: Teaching Learners for the Real World. Camberwell: ACER, 2013. Print.

Meadows, Donella H., and Diana Wright. Thinking in Systems: A Primer. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Pub., 2008. Print

Tosey, Paul, Dr. “Teaching on the Edge of Chaos : Complexity Theory, Learning Systems and Enhancement.” – Surrey Research Insight Open Access. Univeristy of Surry, May 2002. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.

The original article can be found on Philip’s blog here.

Philip Williams is a librarian at Vientiane International School where he works with students across the continuum. From the early years in the PYP, to the MYP and up to the DP, Philip enjoys being a part of the learning experience of all students and is always searching for ways to refine and develop library practices. He writes about the ideas he is currently thinking about on his blog “The Library Element” at

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