Curriculum Theory

Human ecological complexity: Epistemological implications of social networking and emerging curriculum theories

Gilstrap, D. (2011). Human Ecological Complexity: Epistemological Implications of Social Networking and Emerging Curriculum Theories. Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education. 8(2), 36–51.

When I began to read Donald Gilstrap’s (2011) article comparing (human) ecological complexity to aspects of social networking and curriculum theory, I was ambivalent. I expected scientific definitions to be twisted to fit philosophy. Ecological complexity is a product of at least six distinct dimensions (Loehle, 2004), where system effects differ from the sum of their parts (Pittroff & Pedersen, 2005; Urry, 2003). Only in revisiting the six dimensions of ecological complexity did I see these as providing Gilstrap’s “lens” through which “new forms of educational research that incorporate human ecological complexity… in transdisciplinary and methodological ways” (Gilstrap, 2011, p. 48) could be viewed.

Spatial complexity is the growth patterns of enions—the many parts of a complex system (Strevens, 2003). In Gillstrap (2011) this could be those taking part in a social network internationally (on a macro scale) or a network of Facebook friends surrounding one individual (on a micro scale). Temporal complexity is inferred by changes in population size over time—birth, death, immigration, emigration. In Gilstrap’s Facebook comparison, this can equate to closed accounts, new accounts, friends added, friends removed, lack of activity or increased activity over time. Structural complexity refers to relationships within a system (Loehle, 2004), such as competitive, facilitative and parasitological interactions—comparable to sporting events, charities and services paid for in time or money. Process complexity relates to a change in something occurring sequentially over time. The growth of a saltmarsh from simple coastal sedimentary deposit, to a system accommodating a multitude of organisms, can be likened to a web of social networking incorporating thousands of members. Behavioural complexity relates to the variety of behavioural patterns exhibited by individuals, and is scalable to whole populations and communities (McFarland, 1985). Finally, geometric complexity examines the three-dimensional aspect of natural systems, from soil bacteria to the canopy of a rainforest. This can find it’s allegory in Gilstrap (2011) with the following illustration…

Figure 1. Three-dimensional visualizations of isomorphic group ecologies in teaching and learning.

Figure 1

An isomorphic Markov chain, illustrating the multiple variables of integrating social networks in curriculum design—whilst two variables may show a linear relationship, this cannot be the case for such a complex system. Adapted from “Human Ecological Complexity: Epistemological Implications of Social Networking and Emerging Curriculum Theories,” by D. L. Gilstrap, 2011, Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education. 8(2), p. 48.

Eisner (1967) stated that the results of human influence on each other is “in small part predictable” (p. 554), but complexity theory has allowed us to see why that may be and to investigate the unpredictable with sharper “transdisciplinary and methodological” tools (Gilstrap, 2011, p. 48).


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