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Home  >  Discarded  >   Something to learn about Education

Something to learn about Education: its situatedness within complex dynamic systems

One of the great tragedies besetting human existence is the gulf created by language. Not necessarily by national languages (that problem can be solved with a good dictionary), but the sometimes insidious difference between semantics derived from one's background.

As a visitor to a politics-in-the-pub-style event once said to me, "It's the same old crowd who comes. The others won't bother, they just don't speak the same language".

How true. The problem is not only the sheer lack of understanding, often an expression within the context of one field is entirely appropriate because it precisely describes the content while that same content is inaccessible to an outsider using that particular word. Perhaps a more common phrase would make it easier, but then it would not be precise, and hence not appropriate.

In the following article, rejected by a reviewer from, or seconded to, the Royal Society of Queensland, the reasons for the rejection are mainly attributable to the reviewer's unfamiliarity with the nature of complex dynamic systems.

These were some of the grounds given: The parts of the paper lack cohesion; initially a great deal of explanation is given to the explanation of complex dynamic systems in the scientific field, the relevance of this lengthy explanation to the education field (and the link to the issues) is not made clear; the author mentions data, but much of the education "faults" mentioned are issues (quite valid in many cases) but they are not data; the conclusion tries to tie scientific use of complex dynamic systems to evaluating education, but with limited success.

Complex dynamic systems have been used to explain the interconnectedness between cognitive streams in society, where a number of factors have contributed to Australia's problematic state of education. The statistics across a range of areas point to a systemic problem, in other words a situation that cannot be fixed by a change here or there, especially if concentrating on education only. It is those pervasive problems which are particularly dangerous since their rectification requires a much more comprehensive effort.

To view a society under the auspices of complex dynamic systems is the only way in which a realistic and encompassing analysis can be undertaken, because it is only with this focus in mind that the interdependent nature of the society's subsystems can be evaluated.

Unfortunately, such a perspective is unfamiliar to many, and using its language leaves them confused. Given the constraints of an average text of this kind, a compromise has to be reached - include certain aspects of complex dynamic systems if directly relevant to the topic, but not more, and leave room for the topic of - in this case - education itself. Even then my explanations have been described as "lengthy". So, what is on offer is "lengthy", but even then it evidently was not sufficient to explain the connections.

Yet to make things easier I have refrained from using synonyms, just in case something gets lost in the translation in an already demanding text. Even then the reviewer was unable to make the link between a descriptor in one paragraph and the same word appearing somewhere later.

Or take the complaint about "data". If "faults" are not "data" (and indeed they are not), why then insist on this presumed error and let it influence one's judgment? I can and do distinguish between the two, which is the reason "data" should be understood as just that, the data underpinning the statistics which demonstrate the state of education and other affairs in society. I then describe the result as "faults". Such a construed criticism could suggest an intent on behalf of the reviewer to dismiss the article not for any inherent errors, but because of some other agenda.

Could it be that the real reason for the rejection was my critical mention of Griffith University? That would be in line with a pattern that has emerged over the years: individuals or entities which change their normal protocol as soon they realise they are dealing with Griffith University. See Response to the summary → Final comments for some examples.

Furthermore, when reading the article it should become obvious that many of the points raised have their origin in a mode of behaviour which has been favoured by certain sections of society for some time now. One example is feminism which has its own, sometimes fervent, adherents. Nevertheless, for all their intensity it must be said that human society has existed for millennia, whereas effective feminism has been around for only the last 50 years - a mere blip in history.

It is the very sign of a society in decay when those who warn of the danger are no longer understood.

What follows is the article; readers can make up their own mind. The issues raised there are serious. They have become so because over all those years people's blindness has allowed them to grow and fester.

PS: Here is what someone previously from academia has to say about interdisciplinary work. The article as a whole raises other issues as well, by the way.

Something to learn about Education: its situatedness within complex dynamic systems


Over the years Australia's education system has fallen short of its expectations. Many reports have pointed out deficiencies in several sectors. This paper examines the situation by looking at a number of areas under the auspices of complex dynamic systems where a range of factors influence each other and contribute to the overall scenario. To do so the nature of those systems is briefly described together with the approach necessary to evaluate their behaviour. Since society represents a human activity system and therefore is a subset of complex dynamic systems in general, the state of education reflects the nature of the former and offers itself to a similar approach.


Education exists as an integral part of human society in one form or another. The need for its members to learn from inappropriate actions as well as positive ones and the desire to pass on these experiences have manifested in the manner in which education has been implemented relative to a society's evolutionary situatedness. The degree of formality of that process is a reflection of the society's size and complexity. In a tribe the possibility of each member having partaken of similar experiences is greater than in a population where labour is more dispersed and the knowledge derived from one member's particular life is not necessarily shared by some other.

Industrialised societies such as Australia exhibit a large variety of professions, of labour, and therefore knowledge which needs to be imparted during certain periods of a person's life. The types of knowledge which form the basis for its more specialised counterparts later on have not only found their way into the general curriculum of schools but have also been subject to ongoing discussions about what exactly constitutes a desirable inclusion under the perspective of necessary bases with a view towards further specialisation, assumed or otherwise.

Like never before education and its various sectors are therefore discussed, criticised, modified, sometimes abolished, sometimes added to, and compared with statistics from other populations. Yet as always, educating the young provides the general standard according to which the following generations will fare. Especially in a globalised and competitive world the standard generated by the adults derived from the opportunities given to them in their youth is of utmost importance.

Because education as a social phenomenon is an integral part of its over-arching human activity system and hence its infrastructure, and since the overall resources available to the latter determine the quality and quantity of the former, the ultimate status of education is influenced by the nature of its host.

This paper tests the assumption that the current problematic nature of education as highlighted by so many reports is due to a range of factors which have arisen within the wider context of society leading to an accumulative impact on that particular area.

Human activity systems are complex dynamic systems. Their main features are examined as well as the method of analysis which is appropriate as a consequence and how education can be viewed under those auspices, especially since such a view has so far been largely restricted to areas such as meteorology or hydrodynamics. The current text is not a critique of the data themselves but rather about the role they have come to play within the wider system of society and the impact they have on, in this case, education.

Complex dynamic systems

In a complex dynamic system its members are able to assume varying states due to their innate plasticity and influence each others' states as a consequence. Thus they exhibit a feedback mechanism in which the cumulative effect of the participating members define the overall state of the system.

An analysis of hydrodynamical systems by Lorenz (1963) showed that their deterministic nonperiodic flow produced unpredictable results due to the lack of initial definitions by the observer, giving rise to outcomes which fell outside the predicted range. Alluding to weather forecasts the paper concluded that long-range predictions are impossible. The necessary initial conditions are insufficiently defined to begin with and subsequent changes in the observed parcel of air are equally opaque. The weather of course represents a complex dynamic system par excellence.

Transposing those findings into the wider realm of our environment, in principle the same applies. Since the interdependency of causal states and their effects extend across the system as a whole, the very definition of what constitutes a 'system' is a matter of convenience for the observer. Returning to meteorology, a parcel of air is affected by and affects its surrounding air mass just as it is influenced by the terrain, perhaps some industrial activity there, and influences the terrain and the activities in turn, leading to the feedback mechanism. The terrain can be modified by humans, industrial activity can result in topographical changes, which again provide the conditions for further ramifications. During the entire process the innate plasticity of any of the participating elements causes additional variations to be introduced alongside the external influences.

The well-proven methodology involving observation, analysis and conclusion had, for the most part, been restricted to an interpretation along linear lines. Humans have interpreted their environment by firstly observing and secondly by the attempt to replicate their observations through a model. Models are a compacted form of a particular aspect of their reality, subject to the current scope of understanding. Therefore historically speaking, our view of reality comprised linear interpretations of what we observed, and the result, however useful in the end that may have been, represented a linear view. Given the narrow functional scope of such a model, this type of replication can indeed prove useful. A pump, a machine, any idea for that matter, is restricted to a relatively small functional radius; that is to say, its intended effect is restricted to its immediate environs thereby hiding the effects of complexity.

However, more information, a larger number of people, a wider functional radius of implemented replications and/or ideas, make the traditional perception of the model in relation to its counterpart in the real ever more precarious. Often it required the processing capacity of computers and the ability to collect the vast amount of necessary data to recognise even the existence of anything beyond the linear, let alone understand it. Yet it is the linear version which is the exception; it is the complex dynamic system which in the end has always determined our state of affairs, at whatever scale.

Since, firstly, a realistic interpretation of such a system requires an enormous amount of data as a starting point (a point which is arbitrary since the system existed long before any observation took place and did so irrespective of the intent of the observer), secondly, the collection of such data is impossible because even if the means to collect them were available during the observational phase the system has not stood still since, thirdly, the cause and effect relationships within that - arbitrarily - defined system at any point in time are indeterminable due to their mutual variance and interdependence extending beyond the current focus, and the interpretative processing of such data requires some time (during which the entire range of the afore-mentioned factors comes into play once again), the conceptualisation of complex dynamic systems along the usual linear path is inadequate.

Linear models can be expressed through mathematical symbols because of the latter's representative quality. As such they are linear symbols, in the sense that they stand for an explicitly defined quantity.

For example, consider the method employed in order to provide a programming language with semantic qualifiers in mathematical form, something already leaning more towards the vagueness of language compared to the equations an engineer for example would use (Strachey & Wadsworth, 2000). Even here for every step in the program there needs to be an explicitly defined expression for the next step to be performed. Surrounding processes and their results, such as those produced by the operating system, still require a precise definition representing the outcome of the process. Mathematical symbols provide the precision, implemented through the programming language.

Considerations as to the finite potential of symbol-based language (such as mathematics) and their ultimate validity in the context of potentially ambiguous conditions (for example, what exactly is meant to indicate when a representative process should stop) go beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice to say, when it comes to complex and ever-changing conditions the descriptors need to reflect the complexity of the system. The descriptors need to encompass its nature, rather than be unseated by it.

One type of descriptor lending itself to a formal identification of some element within a system is functionality. It refers to the manifested effect the element has on its neighbours. While a content-related identifier would be more informative in terms of the element's composition, focusing on the type of behaviour concentrates on the effect it produces.

For example, if adding a certain dye to water produces the colour green, the content-related identifier could be 'brilliant green', or 'C27H33N2.HO4S' (Wikipedia, 2015). Functionally speaking it could be labelled 'green dye'. Clearly, the chemical formula is more informative. On the other hand, to identify a type of behaviour in terms of the exact state of the originating neural system is currently not only impossible, given the limitations imposed by the complexity of such a system even a comprehensive knowledge of neuronal content will render a description along those lines impractical.

Functional identifiers such as 'courage' or 'ego-centricity' not only tell us about the observed effect they produce, they do not semantically interfere with the moment-by-moment actuality of the underpinning events. An event somewhere suggesting a functionality, the functionality producing an effect somewhere else, the effect suggesting its own functionality, and so on throughout the system - this type of analysis answers to the same requirements of objectivity, precision, and logic.

Moreover, complex dynamic systems are subject to the same physical laws as linear models, starting with the fundamental law of thermodynamics which states that heat is a form of energy and in a closed system the total amount of all kinds of energy is constant (Pitt, 1975). Therefore the system operates within the over-arching equations defining the resources available vs the resources needed for its operation.

Human activity systems

An important aspect of complex dynamic systems derives from the role of observer. Since the systems are interdependent and reach beyond a currently established focus, the very presence of an observer suggests an additional relationship among the participating elements. When it comes to human activity systems the result is a matter of degree, as elaborated on in an article about the role of observer when studying online and offline communities (Nørskov & Rask, 2011).

Not only are the members of the system human, so is the observer. Since both, the members as well as the observer, make use of the same neuronal apparatus underpinning the mind, under a system's view it is the mind which is subject and object at one and the same time; in other words, the mind investigating itself. The implications are profound.

The observational radius imposed by a current focus delimits the resultant scope through its surrounds, however much they may be taken into account for the purpose of the exercise. Implicit in the juxtaposition of focus vs wider awareness is the ability of the observer to step outside the immediate borders in order to access further information. Yet the ultimate limit of such surrounds is a matter of existent data. The sum total of existent data provides the context, the temporary focus accentuates the detail; hence the current focus represents a subset of the context.

Since subsets of systems with their own sets of functionalities are necessary for their host to exist, the argument can be turned around by saying that should a particular set be representative of a host that system itself needs its subsystems to operate. It follows that a system that is elevated to the role of host acts now as the context and whatever it may focus on can only ever be a subset of its composite whole.

Returning to the role of observer of a group, while that participant interacts with the group, their role can only be comprehensive if the scope of the former extends beyond that of the latter. It cannot be comprehensive should the participant be an integral part of the group.

Cognitively speaking, this is the reason why two hundred years ago a researcher into electricity could not have entertained the notion of transistors, or why societies needed to traverse the pastoral stage before becoming agriculturalists, and only then a further advance to industrialisation became feasible. Current concepts or ideations within a culture emerge from the ongoing combination of simple concepts leading to ever more complex forms (Gabora, 1998).

When observing human activity systems the integrity of the observer not only refers to the more familiar characteristics of objectivity, diligence etc, but also to the need to maintain an elevated position in relation to who or what is being observed. Which also means that assertions coming from a member of a particular group need to be critically examined as to their relationship with the group.

The issue of unreliability of witnesses falls into that category. As Clare (2012) has pointed out, several measures are recognised under the law to mitigate the problem, although preventing it altogether is not possible. Particularly during moments of stress the persona of the observer tends to merge with the situation, making it even harder to adopt a distanced view.

Yet statements matter, regardless whether they emanate from scientific analyses or are part of general, even ad hoc, opinion. Since in human activity systems perceptions lead to responses which consequently spread to their members and attend the forming of further views, their existence not only needs to be taken into account but they also provide the clues as to how and why a certain custom, or a fashion, or behaviour has emerged. On a larger scale even cultures benefit from that approach.

Societies define themselves through such a feedback process. When it comes to an analysis of human activity systems it is up to the choice of type descriptor regarding their elements' functionality whether the re-representative result synchronises with the system at hand, notwithstanding the influence the labelling of a system can have in terms of a still wider feedback mechanism redirected towards the system in turn, commonly referred to as a 'self-fulfilling prophecy'.

Due to their interdependence the innate nature of participating elements form the aggregate status of the entire system, their respective standard either mitigating or amplifying their surrounds.

Higher complexity in a system leads to more variance and hence to greater stability of clusters with their own contribution to the wider status. That relationship can already be identified in single brains, where the density of neuronal connections across various areas of the cortex in a number of animals points to their cognitive functions (Elston, 2003). The higher the density, the higher the cognitive capacity. Given the evolutionary trajectory of mammals the essential functionality of the neuronal clusters labelled 'brain' would be similar across the timelines, the only difference being the respective degree of complexity. In humans the resultant system is enriched by the additional contribution of higher cortical activity enabling abstraction and verbalisation, although ultimately the entire event space still relies on the quality and quantity of its neurons.

One attempt to chart the progress of emerging concepts across an entire society is "The Tipping Point" (Gladwell, 2006). There the tipping point refers to the moment some influence begins to spread away from its initial neighbourhood. As Hunter (2006) points out in his description of the work, there are a number of uncertainties. Expressed in terms of complex dynamic systems the difficulties arise from the indeterminate number and nature of those who are part of the transmission as well as all the rest who at any point in time are not affected by the agent. In Gladwell's book the agents create social epidemics, Hunter draws an analogy with viruses. In both cases the success of the transmission relies on the degree of affinity between the agent and its targets. Functionally speaking, the higher the affinity between the agent and its surrounds the higher the probability of transmission. Note that success in this case is defined by the effect the agent has during its life cycle, not what the result means in terms of the system's viability.

One example of a relatively low-complex affinity relationship is the potential transmission of the lyssavirus. Only mammals are affected, including humans (Department of Health, 2013). Thus the virus is affinitive with mammals, but not with, say, insects.

On a higher level of complexity a particular type of interest leads to a number of activity clusters in a society which then are capable of developing their own subsystems. In Australia cricket is more popular than soccer. As of 2013 the country had 1587 cricket clubs but only 1152 soccer clubs (ClubSearch, 2013). The general affinity between Australians and cricket is greater compared to soccer.

Although described under a different nomenclature, affinity relationships are behind the conceptualisation of crime in terms of "high visibility" and "extreme harm" descending in layers down to "relatively hidden" and "relatively harmless" regarding its effect on society (Lanier & Henry, 2007). The layers are representative of the people defined according to this "crime prism" and who occupy their respective position as a function of their affinity with their surrounds. As Henry (2012) points out, this and the concept's earlier version as the "pyramid of crime", in the service of defining anti-social behaviour in general, suffers from shortcomings once the model is transposed into differing societal scenarios where the definitions of negativity may have changed their roles. The definitions relate to content, whose nature is subject to change. An affinity declares a relationship between contents, a dynamic descriptor not dependent on the type of content per se.

The phenomenon of affinity already exists at the level of neuronal activity. Studies on the effects exterior stimuli produce within certain brain areas demonstrate the role affinity relationships play in terms of perceptual performance by already active neurons compared to areas of lesser activity (Sadaghiani, Hesselmann, Kleinschmidt, 2009).

The effects by elements within a human activity system relying on their respective affinity relationships with their surrounds lead to an ongoing modification of the system in terms of the elements' status within the system. In the absence of mitigating influences by other, competing, factors the system trends towards the quality represented by the triggers. Therefore the lowering of overall standards produces an environment which becomes more conducive to the effects similarly low-quality performers have on their neighbourhood, now more easily propagated through the system. Higher-quality elements become less affinitive with their surrounds. The thus affected environment enhances the efficacy still more destructive influences have, moving towards a run-away condition in which a point is reached where the resources needed to reverse the trend have vanished altogether. Such a point would be a more appropriate meaning assigned to the 'tipping point' referred to earlier. Similarly, a raising of standards, if made possible through the continuing availability of appropriate subsystems, advances the system as a whole.

The general conditions produced by the cognitive environment are commonly referred to as 'culture', an event space with its own subsystems and their mutual affinity relationships either supporting or mitigating emerging functional agents. The feedback mechanism is the engine which exposes the subsystems to the wider environment as they move through their life cycles; the result is the culture made manifest at any given time. Note that ultimately the viability of the system is determined by the synchronicity between the system's dynamics and the limits imposed by the sustainability equations, starting with the law of thermodynamics.


The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has issued five reports on the state of international education in the years 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009, and 2012 under its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). In the first report (PISA, 2000), covering 32 countries, Australia came in 6th position on the mathematical literacy scale and in 8th position on the scientific literacy scale. In the second report (PISA, 2003), covering 41 countries, Australia's position was 5th for science, 7th for problem solving. Three years later (PISA, 2006), the figures were 13th for mathematics and 9th for science out of 57 countries. In 2009 the figures were 16th for mathematics, 11th for science, out of 65 countries (PISA, 2009). And by 2012 Australia's position was 19th for mathematics and 17th for science among 65 countries (PISA, 2012). (The above figures only serve as a general comparison and reflect the nomenclature used in the respective documents. For the purpose of data ordering only the first set of booklet columns was used, and the sequence does not discriminate against easier and/or more difficult booklets. For those details see the reports)

Given the comprehensive range of evaluating material employed by PISA a decline of 13 percentage points in mathematics and 12 percentage points in science over a total period of 12 years points to a considerable spectrum of negatives.

As far as Australian results only are concerned, the issue of falling standards has already been raised by Donnelly (2003), citing responses from a national survey of about 2000 academics (Anderson, Johnson, Saha, 2002). Some of the points made are, vice-chancellors or deans have no way of knowing about the intellectual standards of their university's degrees; the standards required for university entry have been dumbed down; a pressure towards lower standards in order to fail fewer students; secondary schools did not sufficiently prepare students who then require remedial courses in English and maths; the increased financial costs of meeting the needs for under-performing students; the prevalence of educational fads such as "whole language" and "fuzzy maths"; and increased participation rates not always translating into higher standards.

Another major investigation into the effects certain paradigms have on education has been conducted by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training (2002). A move towards practices more suitable for girls under what has been termed the Gender Equity Framework resulted in lower outcomes for boys. Some of the areas recommended for attention were, gender equity policy, literacy, student/teacher relationships, behaviour management, and the presence of appropriate male role models in schools.

If female pupils seem to benefit from a changed approach to imparting knowledge but not male pupils, and if as a result universities need remedial courses to overcome the shortfalls, then despite the perceived advantage of the modified framework the reality waiting at the other end proves otherwise. Furthermore, if studies on the international scale demonstrate the decreased quality yet again, the conclusion can be reached that those changes over the years have touched relatively fundamental factors in society.

The continuing issues arising from the deteriorating state of Australia's education system prompted a more recent review of the school curriculum (Donnelly & Wiltshire, 2014). A summary of the problems illustrated by the review gives some idea about the complexity of the situation: academic rigour is important; subjects need to be taught in synchronisation with each other and fragmentation of the curriculum lowers the overall standard; some teachers are not sufficiently qualified to teach their subjects; some of the information taught is plainly wrong; the inclusion of indigenous culture is deemed desirable yet none of the countries upheld as good examples bother their students with it; while concepts of a sound curriculum exist schools are allowed their own final decision; there is acknowledgment that knowledge needs to be tested for but the word 'fail' is never mentioned.

Over the years a considerable number of initiatives have emerged under the STEM label (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) with a view towards enhancing the skills related to mathematics and science. A list of some of them features no less than 105 entries from around Australia (Office of the Queensland Chief Scientist, 2015).

Such a plethora of programmes can be expected to amplify the efforts in a synchronised system. Since they clearly do not while the entities behind the initiatives do suggest a considerable quality, the problem lies with the system. The sheer numbers also point to the rightly perceived need to bolster maths and science skills in a variety of contexts, all of which should have been subsumed under the respective subjects taught in schools. The fragmentation of the syllabus, as remarked upon in the Donnelly-Wiltshire review, indicates a dispersal of resources resulting in a possible addition here, another there, but not effective across the board, while at the same time leaving the opportunity open for teachers to fill any gaps with their personal preferences. Typical is the letter written to the editor of Brisbane's Courier Mail by a teacher who, in response to an article criticising the felling of trees in backyards, will now "explore a more personal approach to the felling of trees" in her primary school class (Mailbox, 2014).

A variety of subjects, and the variety of topics within those subjects, lead to the spreading of limited resources working against the finite deadlines exams impose. In the rush to qualify their students for the National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests, schools conduct special preparatory sessions with allegations of leaked material fuelling the debate about the tests' validity itself (Chilcott, 2010a). Although only 15 of the 6000 Queensland teachers involved in the administration of the tests have had the allegations substantiated at the time (Chilcott, 2010b), the need to go to extraordinary lengths for what should be an ordinary event says something about the relationship between that exam and the syllabus. To further enhance their chance of higher status based on exam results, the principals of some schools persuade academically weaker students to stay away from the tests altogether (Chilcott, 2010c). They are then joined by parents who withdraw their children from school come testing time (Vonow, 2014).

These kind of actions performed at the higher levels of education may well be the result of a broader problem. Kids Helpline general manager Wendy Protheroe says that in the months leading up to the NAPLAN tests about 1400 children aged up to 13 phoned because they experienced "study issues" (Hosking, 2012). Parents take on their children's fears, sometimes to the point of taking out their frustration on the principals themselves. According to a Australian Catholic University study covering approximately 26% of the country's principals, threats of violence by parents increased from 19% in 2011 to 25.2% in 2014 (Riley, 2014, p. 132). Physical violence by students rose from 17.3% in 2011 to 24.6% in 2014. In terms of adult-adult bullying the rate is four times higher compared to the general population, threats of violence are five times higher, and actual violence rates are seven times higher (p. 14).

The concern by parents driven by what they perceive to be serious issues is reflected in the use of stimulant drugs such as Ritalin on children between the ages of 7 and 11 by more than 320% between 2007 and 2014 (Fife-Yeomans, 2014). This remarkable increase is indicative of the degree of emotional involvement by parents with the day-to-day affairs of their children, responsible for the expression 'helicopter parents'. It also links back to the ever-changing nature of the syllabus itself which makes parents less confident about what it is their children need to master.

The lack of confidence also exists within the wider arena where the intent to protect the child has had the opposite effect. So much so that the Child Accident Prevention Foundation of Australia has found it necessary to urge parents to allow their children to take acceptable risks and so avoid setting them up for a life of low self-esteem, obesity, poor co-ordination and stifled mental development (Noone, 2014).

Background conditions seem to matter significantly when it comes to performance in schools. The degree to which 15-year-old students are engaged with the school, displaying appropriate behaviour, engaging with the syllabus, indeed coming to school in the first place, is mostly influenced by their home environment rather than the characteristics of the school (Gemici & Lu, 2014). Also significant was peer influence, pointing to the role of affinity relationships mentioned earlier. At the same time their negative aspect led to at-risk students having a weaker emotional engagement when attending schools with an otherwise high average academic performance.

Therefore demands on governments to fund the range of initiatives demanded by a variety of interest groups with a focus on educational facilities may often miss the point, considering the actual relationships between a society's subsystems, comprising students, parents, schools, and departments.

There is no assurance that something as fundamental as eating can feature in a decision-making process occurring in some office of an education department. Yet the incidence of overweight and obese 5-14-year-olds in 2007-08 stood at 23% of the child population (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2011). Overweight and obesity heighten the risk of physical as well as mental health problems, thereby affecting performance in school. In 2011 several sets of data indicated the population's love for fast food to the tune of spending an expected $37 billion in takeaway outlets spurring the ongoing growth in the industry (Courier Mail, 2011). In 2013 that growth was another 3% (Euromonitor International, 2014). In response the federal government announced a $100 million program to provide professional sports coaching in schools (Courier Mail, 2015).

Eating too much is not the only source of obesity. As Singh (2014) writes, parents are increasingly loath to expose their children to anything they connect with their perception of risk, from 'unsafe' playgrounds to real and imaginary predators to cold weather even. Risk assessment as a skill is no longer taught, "every little thing" that might hurt them is being removed and as a consequence their ability to handle pain and failure in the future has been stunted. The phrase "If only one child benefits, then xy has been worthwhile" has become a virtual mantra. Consistently lowering the standards in favour of a minority creates a general environment that becomes the new template against which the term 'minority' is now understood. Continuing down that path leads to a steadily decreasing overall quality, in line with the feedback mechanism in complex systems. Not surprisingly, a study comparing fundamental movement skills over the past 20 years found a marked decrease in primary school-aged children, noting an "alarming rise in obesity in this cohort" (Tester et al, 2014).

At the other end of the eating disorder spectrum is the obsession with thinness. The constant messages about obesity - however well-meant - trigger an emotional response that in a growing number of children translates into self-starving. As a study commissioned by the Butterfly Foundation notes, the rate of eating disorders in Australia is increasing and parallels the increase in childhood obesity (Paxton et al., 2014). The authors' estimate of recovery for 50% of patients is between six and eight years (p. 53). Using data additional to the above-quoted recovery times the benefit cost ratio in terms of intervention is stated as 5.38 to 1 (p. 66). Still, in terms of the overall sustainability envelope governing complex systems the periods point to the time lag between the eventual benefit and the costs born during the intervention phase. As desirable as a positive outcome would be, the system nevertheless uses its resources up to that time and needs to be capable of doing so.

For public or private initiatives to work requires a certain degree of commitment if not discipline among the general population. It starts with the behaviour of parents. As Brooks (2014a) writes, bad manners and disrespect for teachers in the service of obsessive over-protection prompt children to emulate their parents, spreading to anti-social behaviour overall. The pervasiveness of the general media provides information across society which is picked up by parents and young people alike. As a result the continual mention of negatives overshadows the rest. When an issue reaches even the highest echelons of academia the societal ambience suffers even more.

In 2008 Griffith University asked Saudi Arabia for $1.3 million, in return offering to "reshape" its Islamic Research Unit (Bendle, 2008). Vice-chancellor Ian O'Connor's defence was accompanied by allegations of plagiarism from a Wikipedia page, and his principal policy advisor felt that Australian universities were not secular institutions anyway (Bendle, 2010). Saudi Arabia's abysmal human rights record is well documented (Courier Mail, 2008; Amnesty International, 2015). Yet even chancellor Leneen Forde defended the university's decision (Johnstone, 2008). Compare this with the response by Francis Crick when Churchill College at Cambridge built a chapel at the behest of a benefactor (Dawkins, 2006). Crick resigned his fellowship.

In a democracy critical comments are necessary. Once the opprobrium reaches a certain dimension however the relatively superficial view created in the public's mind can lead to hysteria. The media regularly report incidents of child sexual abuse, often in great detail which can be repeated several times in the same article (Madigan, 2014). A metropolitan daily is read by many, including children and their parents. Coupled with the however inconvenient interpretation of the human Eros, repeated messages of this kind can create an amplified psychological resonance. Expectations are being raised and hence sexual abuse allegations in the Family Court have become a common occurrence (Pavey, 2012), sometimes containing quite bizarre claims outlined in such articles. Again, there are no age restrictions placed on those texts.

Attitudes towards sexuality are arguably one of the most fundamental drivers of cultural expressions. The obsessive preoccupation with the meaning of 'deviance' has been a hallmark of Middle Eastern religions, in the West mostly represented by Christianity (Tannahill, 1981). Despite the resultant morals, customs, and laws having been exchanged over the centuries, the intensity accompanying them has largely remained, aided and abetted by those who obtain their gratification behind the mask of moral outrage, so vividly depicted in a historical account by Huxley (1977). As Foucault (1977) observed, punishments tend to be more severe for ideological transgressors than common-law offenders.

The repercussions are felt across the board. Education Queensland director-general Julie Grantham ascribes the decreasing number of male teachers to the "terrible connotation" regarding young children and males in the community (Chilcott, 2012). The problem is getting worse, prompting Brooks (2014b) to devote an entire article to the difficulties male teachers experience, with even vexatious claims doing nothing to save their careers. Similar to the Family Court, parents resort to tactics handed to them by the emotional environment in order to punish teachers.

A report on students' interests in mathematics, engineering and science (which includes future teachers) describes the difficulties in attracting a sufficient number of candidates (Chubb & Kusa, 2012). Noting the lack of qualified teachers the report recommends offering greater support to women since most maths and science teachers happen to be male. The authors also note that according to the European Round Table of Industrialists the more developed the country, the less inclined students are to pursue these disciplines.

Given the historical gender-based leanings across occupations including education, addressing the shortage in maths and science goes beyond the availability of relevant courses. Coupled with detrimental sentiments that are driven by a range of agendas, the complexity of the issue points to the interdependence among cognitive streams within society.


In order to demonstrate a mutual influence between the subsets of a society the data need to be drawn from a variety of directions, laterally across the present as well as vertically into the past. Although by no means exhaustive, their selection for this text seeks to point out the type of relationships that have contributed to the general state of affairs. While their respective contents differ, the effects in terms of their functional significance in relation to their neighbours have found their way into the statistics cited. They equally reveal their functional equivalence across the scales, from neuronal dynamics up to society at large; something less obvious when considering content only.

Australia is relatively young when measured against the time scale of cultures; in human terms it would be a teenager. Nevertheless, as in the lives of individuals, reality does not wait for maturity to arrive. Globalisation, diminishing resources, fundamental changes in climate, movements across populations, and the jostling of established and emerging nations for power require that society to grow up quickly.

The precise understanding of what complex dynamic systems mean in practical terms may be new, but older, successful cultures have had the advantage of centuries' worth of experience, brought to bear upon such areas as education. A cohesive, synchronised approach which also includes the element of self-confidence presents an advantage in any case, whereas a lack of it is reflected in the current results.

The cultural depth that prompted successful societies to forge ahead has by its absence formed a mindset which in its naivety sees nothing wrong with including a hunter-gatherer-style existence that remained unchanged for tens of thousands of years in a curriculum meant to prepare the young for the challenges of today, let alone the future.

Given the interdependence within the subsets of human activity systems, a fragmentation of resources across schools and their syllabi negatively influences the quality of students, a burden that is shunted onwards towards universities with their own finite resources.

A lower quality and quantity of graduates reaches back to the pool of resources from which the next tranche of participants will be drawn. A diminished knowledge base overall affects one's attitude towards life's daily activities, so that even the selection of food becomes problematic.

Other influences derived from perceptions about oneself and one's role as a parent segue with existing sentiments thereby reinforcing the destructive effects of all. Once parents worry too much about the well-being of their children, the heightened sensitivity also plays a part in other areas which have come to their attention via the media. The media are driven by market forces which respond to demand, amplifying the current concerns. In turn, the reiteration of the latter keeps the emotional agenda alive.

Yet whatever the dynamics within a society, they rely on the sum total of resources available at the time. Since the complexity of the human brain requires a certain amount of training in order to meet the demands of the system's present state, the resources need to be able to meet those demands until the individual becomes productive.

If too many resources are spent on the educational phase compared to those needed for the system to remain functional in terms of its present level of complexity, the overall status suffers. As the figures indicate, the demands responded to so far represent an ever-growing drain on finite resources. At the same time the evolving complexity due to global advances in science and technology puts an additional pressure on a system whose members focus on individual areas only while neglecting the wider contingencies. The members' situatedness within their own space prevents them from seeing beyond their conceptual boundaries. It further contributes to the fragmentation, preparing the ground for more niches.

Aspects such as overindulgence and the elevation of the Child through spreading the mother instinct across society by its proponents have so dramatically repositioned the evolutionary vector that within the span of a few decades, after overcoming challenges for thousands of years as a species, a significant portion of young and old has lost the ability to use their limbs and has deteriorated mentally. Turning an entire nation into a crèche has exposed the adult population to the shortcomings of childhood. The same drivers push for a further softening of standards to mitigate their discriminatory effects. Such initiatives aid fragmentation, enhancing the degree of individualism in society which consequently makes it even more difficult for the entire system to be synchronised. At first the convenience had been an option; then it became a habit; in the end it turns into a necessity. At that point the society is in a state of decay.

Discussing the fluid states in society has traditionally been the prerogative of philosophy. An understanding of complex dynamic systems supports the argument for widening the framework of science to evaluate human affairs in a more realistic manner.

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May 2015

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