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Understanding Today's Schools with Chaos Theory
Mar 1, 2008

Today’s schools are more complex systems than the one-room schools of the past. However, most of the beliefs and expectations about schools today still remain the same as they were in the olden days. In the one-room schools of old times, the teacher was responsible for all the instruction of all the students, the maintenance of the building, keeping the stove filled with wood and cleaning the floors (Lortie, 1975). In a one-room school, the teacher was responsible for all that transpired within its four walls-what the teacher wanted to do about curriculum and instruction was what the school did. This legacy of independence and isolation remains alive and well in many schools today (Glickman, 2001). Although the old one-room school is physically gone, it still pervades the minds and actions of many teachers and administrators of today.

Chaos Theory

Over the last fifty years Chaos Theory has evolved as a new science which assumes that the natural order is irregular, discontinuous and erratic (Gleick, 1987). Newtonian physics implies that there is a rational order to everything, that we can predict the events of any system if we are able to plug in enough variables. The idea behind “chaos theory” is that we can predict what systems might do, but we cannot be sure. Everything exists as a series of possibilities.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century several other sciences have evolved that have sought to solve the problems in prior models. For example, the theory of relativity eliminates the illusion of absolute time and space. Quantum mechanics eliminates the Newtonian dream of controllable measurement processes, as well as the fantasy of deterministic predictability. Chaos theory, the third new science, embraces irregularity as a norm. Scientists from different fields have begun to observe the regular patterns within the irregularity of the natural world.

In the old views of nature, notes Gleick (1987), it was held that simple systems behave in simple ways while complex systems imply complex causes. In the new view, it is believed that simple systems give rise to complex behaviors and complex systems give rise to simple behaviors (Snyder, 1995).

The new science of chaos centers around two points. The first is the exploration of the hidden order that exists within the chaotic systems. The second is the study of how self-organization emerges from chaos (Hayles, 1990).

The three principal conditions for a chaotic system are: (1) that it operates in a non-linear way; (2) that it is iterative (the output of one cycle becomes the input of the next); and (3) that small variations in initial conditions lead to large differences in outcomes. Many systems within educational organizations appear to meet these conditions (Cunningham, 2000).

The concepts of chaos theory can explain the way schools work. For example, teachers do not exist as separate entities, but are affected by the relationships that exist within schools. It may also shed some light on how we can deal with and understand how things in our classrooms, schools, and entire communities are interrelated and all reflect in some manner upon each other.

There are several aspects of chaos theory such as nonlinearity, complexity, butterfly effect, fractals and feedback mechanisms that may have significance for educational settings.


In a linear system there is a simple cause and effect relationship; A causes B which causes C, and so on. However, a chaotic system is nonlinear. A may not necessarily cause B at all times. Lots of variables come into play and interact with each other. School systems look like nonlinear chaotic systems, too. In school district A, the purchase of new computers might have a positive impact on student achievement, while in school district B, this might bring little or no gain in student achievement.

It is widely believed that experienced teachers have better classroom control. If you have a veteran teacher in a classroom, you will have an orderly environment and the administrators, thinking in a linear way, might believe that the more veteran teachers in a building, the more orderly the environment will be. That might not be the case in every school district, especially in urban schools; there are instances where young and inexperienced teachers contribute positively to the school environment much more than veteran teachers.


Chaotic systems take complex forms, making their precise measurement difficult if not impossible (Glickman, 2001). Different measurement instruments have been put in place to evaluate and compare the performance of a school. However, due to the complex nature of schools, none of these assessment methods seem to measure precisely the school performance and have very limited validity for the following reasons (Cunningham, 2000):

• The prior achievement of pupils is not taken into account and this is a major factor in pupil achievement at a later stage.

• Schools are differentially effective in different subjects and with pupils of different ability, which is not reflected in a single figure.

• Schools change over time; however, the achievement data used reflects only one group and is essentially historical data.

• Student mobility between schools is not reflected in the assessment.

• Social factors, sex of students, ethnic origin and social background are not taken into account. These factors are out of the school’s control.

Therefore, assessing school performance and comparing one to another have become increasingly difficult given the complex nature of today’s schools.

The Butterfly Effect

The butterfly effect means that a small and seemingly unrelated event in one part of a system can have enormous effects on the other parts of the system. Theoretical meteorologist Edward Lorenz made the term ‘butterfly effect’ famous when he argued that a butterfly stirring its wings in Bejing today could unleash powerful storms in New York city next month. One implication of sensitive dependence on initial conditions is the impossibility of predicting not only next year’s weather, but the long term future of any chaotic system (Glickman, 2001).

In terms of school improvement, what we understand from the butterfly effect is that it is impossible to predict the long-term effects of school improvement efforts. Planning in a chaotic system like a school should be medium range (one or two years) rather than long range (five to ten years). Formal planning in an unpredictable system needs to focus on process rather than product with the goal of producing “a stream of wise decisions designed to achieve the mission of the organization” (Patterson, Stewart and Purkey, 1986).

The butterfly effect ensures that no lesson will ever go completely as planned, or have the same effect on any two students. It indicates the need for teacher flexibility in teaching, as well as the need for individual attention to students, each of whom is experiencing a given lesson within his or her own personal context (Glickman, 2001).


A fractal is a geometric shape that is similar to itself at different scales. Mid-sized branches of a tree are remarkably similar in shape to the larger branches from which they come. Smaller branches, in turn, are the same shape as the mid-sized branches from which they come, and so on.

Through work with fractal generations, it has become apparent to scientists that predictability does exist (known shapes re-appear), and randomness plays an important and unexpected role. What has been learned is that, within chaotic and seemingly unpredictable systems, structures of order exist through which the system recreates itself.

Complex social systems can also reveal self-similarity on different scales: at each level of the system, specific patterns of organization and culture reappear. Like fractals in nature, schools reveal self-similarity in different scales. For example, a school-wide staff development day, a department meeting, a classroom lesson, and a halfway interaction between a teacher and student might all reveal the same cultural characteristic. Thus, reflective inquiry at the school, team, classroom and individual level can help educators better understand their school culture, change needed, and pathways to improvement (Glickman, 2001).

By being reflective practitioners, teachers can develop their teaching skills, acquire more insightful experience in their fields and learn to look at problems from a different perspective. They also understand their weaknesses, areas of strengths and recognize the repeating patterns of their teaching styles.

Feedback Mechanisms

Chaotic systems contain feedback loops enabling outputs to feed back into the system as input. Feedback can bring stability or turbulence to a system. For example, a thermostat is a feedback mechanism that causes temperature stability. Conversely, when the sound from a loudspeaker feeds back through a microphone, it is rapidly magnified to create a disruptive shriek (Gleick, 1987). Feedback can also cause a system to move toward greater levels of complexity.

Feedback in schools can take the form of student performance data, survey results, quality circles, third party reviews, and so forth. The important thing is that meaningful data on the results of change efforts be made available to teachers, and that they be given opportunities to reflect on the data and redirect their change efforts accordingly.

With all the unpredictability present in classrooms, beneficial feedback is critical for both teachers and students. For teachers, student performance data, direct student feedback, and classroom observation data can all assist them to improve classroom instruction. For students, feedback on their cognitive and affective performance-from teachers, parents, and peers-is an essential part of the learning process. The fact that in chaotic systems like classrooms output becomes input means that the artificial distinctions we often draw between learning and assessment need to be removed: in reality, learning and assessment cannot be separated (Glickman, 2001).


The deterministic view of education that schools are simplistic, cause-effect systems which can be easily manipulated, quantized and controlled is not addressing the problems of today’s schools. From an alternative perspective, chaos theory gives us an understanding that the things we consider unimportant or trivial in our daily lives might have an equal weight in terms of affecting the results as the things we consider important. Just as it is characterized in the Qur’anic teaching that every minute thing or action is recorded in a Book regardless of its proportion. “Whatever your preoccupation (O Messenger), and whatever discourse from Him in this (Qur’an) you may be reciting, and whatever work you (O people) may be doing, We are certainly witness over you while you are engaged in it. Not an atom’s weight of whatever there is in the earth or in the heaven escapes your Lord, nor is there anything smaller than that, or greater, but it is (recorded) in a Manifest Book” (Yunus 10:61). It further suggests that everything we do has a significant impact on us, our communities and ultimately society as a whole.

In conclusion, chaos theory has the potential to offer deeper understanding of how today’s schools function in an ever changing world of our times.

Aydin Kara is a graduate student at University of Dayton. He studies educational leadership and administration. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


  • Cunningham, R. 2000. Chaos, Complexity and the study of Education Communities. Institute of Education.
  • Gleick, J. 1987. Chaos: Making a new science. New York: Penguin Books.
  • Glickman, Carl D. 2001. Supervision and Instructional Leadership: Allyn and Bacon
  • Lortie, D. C. 1975. Schoolteacher. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Patterson, J. L., Purkey, S. C., and Parker, J. V. 1986. Productive school systems for a nonrational world. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.