Teaching for a Complex World

I taught high school English for 11 years.  I really like English.  I get downright giddy about grammar and punctuation.  But as a teacher – in the face of growing inequity, civil unrest, widespread war, climate change – I sometimes found myself wondering how the literature and writing skills I taught in school would prepare my kids to face the complex challenges they would surely encounter in their lifetimes.  If it was difficult at times for me to feel English mattered deeply, what must my students think of the 73 minutes they surrendered to my class each day?

Looking back over the last several years, it’s easy to pinpoint a few moments that led me to where I am now.  In the summer of 2007, while working on my master’s degree in English, I enrolled in a course called The Georgic Tradition.  For six weeks we studied the literature of agriculture starting with Virgil’s The Georgics and ending with Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  This course, more than any I’ve taken before or since, made literature, even ancient literature, feel vital and current.  Field trips to a local farm, garden, and sugar bush and guest speakers, including an apiarist and environmental author and activist Bill McKibben, tied texts spanning millennia to the current moment.  Touching on culture, politics, and economics, the course was deeply interdisciplinary.  By the end of that summer, I found myself wondering how I could create a similar experience for my students.

I took the next summer off of my English studies to broaden my own education.  At Antioch University, a course called The Principles of Sustainability helped me develop a clearer sense of direction.  An ecologist and field naturalist, the professor taught the education course through the lens of complex systems, demonstrating how the natural laws that govern ecological systems can inform our understanding of manmade social, economic, and political systems as well.  The course gave me a language for understanding connections that had seemed only intuitive before; the scientific concepts echoed universal themes that had spoken to me over my years of studying literature.

I returned to the classroom that fall determined to help my students connect their literary studies to their real-world experiences.  I saw systems thinking as a powerful lens through which to connect disciplines in high school.  Using math to model systems and systems as structures and metaphors to grapple with complex topics in social studies and language arts, I imagined we could help students connect their learning in school to the natural and social processes they saw unfolding in the world around them.  That was the year I applied for a Rowland Fellowship.

The Rowland Foundation offered me time and support to explore, read, research, write, collaborate, and reflect.  That year, working with an energized and inspiring team, I helped to develop an interdisciplinary, 9th grade program at Otter Valley High School.  We united English, science, and social studies content through the theme of sustainability and the lens of systems thinking.  We rolled the program out in 2010.

The work that absorbed me as a Rowland Fellow continues to inform my evolving ideas about the role of education in changing times.  These days, I’m working on a Ph.D. in educational leadership.  Through my research, I’m gaining a deeper understanding of what it means to work with, study, and explore the highly interdisciplinary field of complex systems.  I’ve come to believe that if we – as a society – are going to find authentic solutions to environmental, social, economic, and political challenges ahead, we are going to need a populace willing and able to grapple with complexity.  We are going to need to educate systems-literate citizens.  So I want to understand what draws the mathematician, biologist, neural network engineer, ecologist, economist, and public administrator to complexity and what skills they need to do the work they do.  My big question these days is, What role might high school play in developing complex systems foundational knowledge? 

I still love English.  More than ever, I feel that offering students opportunities to identify the universal themes, diverse perspectives, and ambiguous realities so often and articulately expressed through literature matters deeply.  Those concepts can be particularly powerful when literature is taught in its historical, political, and cultural context.  Systems scientist Peter Senge wrote, “The widening gap between schools’ aims and what will be needed of tomorrow’s globally oriented, socially responsible knowledge workers has become the biggest unrecognized threat to America’s future.”   I’m not sure what I’ll do upon graduation, but I know my work will be informed, at least in part, by this idea.  What will our kids need to know to thrive in the years ahead?

Caitlin Steele 2009 Cohort

A long-time high school English teacher, these days Caitlin is now a full-time student in The University of Vermont’s Ph.D. program in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. Her research focuses on complex systems as an interdisciplinary lens in high school curriculum. Through ongoing work with the Rowland Foundation, she has remained actively involved in state-wide conversations around school change in Vermont.

This is a chapter from Caitlin’s story. Tell us yours.

Senge, P. M. (2012). Creating schools for the future, not the past for all students. Leader to Leader, (65), 44–49.

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