Understanding Educational Complexity

Integrating Practices and Perspectives for 21st Century Leadership


Author: Brad Kershner
Our ability to understand and improve the field of education depends upon our ability to understand human development, culture, and society. We cannot understand what is happening in schools unless we understand the context in which schools exist. Through meaningful stories of school leadership and critical reflections on theories of complex systems, this book offers a framework for understanding how the intractable dilemmas of education reflect and embody the social, cultural, and developmental patterns of society. From the concrete dilemmas of school leadership to the abstract vistas of integral meta-theory, this book is a guide to understanding how it all fits together, and how to encourage the holistic growth of students, teachers, leaders, and educational systems.

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Brad Kershner, Ph.D. (2018), Boston College, is a school leader and independent scholar. His research, teaching, and writing cover a wide range of interdependent topics, including education, leadership, parenting, race, technology, metamodernism, integral theory, meditation, developmental psychology, complexity, and sociocultural emergence.
“A masterpiece of big picture thinking that is also firmly rooted in rich descriptions of leadership practice. Brad Kershner, a proven teacher and school leader himself, is among the very first to portray how complexity theory can illuminate what it is like to lead schools in times of rapid and turbulent change.”
Andy Hargreaves, Professor Emeritus, Boston College, author of Professional Capital, Sustainable Leadership, and Uplifting Leadership

“Dr. Kershner has written an immensely important book, not just for educators, but for anyone interested in how to think in a more complex and adequate way about organizations, learning, and culture. This is one of the best uses I have seen made of Integral Theory, providing a path breaking application, demonstrating the power of truly comprehensive frameworks. All school leaders should read this book, and most sociologists and philosophers as well.”
Zachary Stein, author of Social Justice and Educational Measurement and Education in a Time between Worlds

“If education is about growth in knowledge in a wide and deep sense, shouldn't the educational systems, cultures, and practices be informed by the best possible maps of the different fields of knowledge and their interrelations? Moreover, if education is about psychological growth and the development of the entire personality of children, youth, and adults, shouldn't education follow the steps of the best developmental psychology, and align with our knowledge of how the human mind and personality learns, grows, and prospers? In today's world, neither of these two things is true. Education-as-we-know-it is informed by rich academic and research traditions of pedagogy, but not by developmental psychology, by systems perspectives, or by a holistic theory of the fields of human knowledge. [..] Brad Kershner offers us this fundamental upgrade in his book. Well-read in growth and development, the varieties of systems theory, and holistic meta-theories of knowledge, he ventures into sensitive and detailed case studies of American schools and projects—with the gaze that only the experience and ethos of a teacher who truly cares about children can grant—and unpacks their potential. No single blueprint is offered, but the rich timbre of commentary, reflection, and explication opens doors and pathways to an entirely new world of education. [..] Of all theorists in the interrelated fields of development/systems/metatheory, Brad Kershner is, to my knowledge, the foremost in his grasp of schooling and the teacher's perspective. Of all teachers and educational theorists, he is the foremost theorist in said fields, able not only to apply them but to synthesize and comment upon their limitations and uses. And these fields can and will reshape the future of education. Indeed, they must. And society cannot transform to sanity and sustainability without a fundamental reform of education. For this reason, I believe that Brad Kershner's book plays an indispensable role in the future of society as a whole. It is a rare and impressive achievement that marries the teacher's heart to the theorist's mind.”
Hanzi Freinacht, author of The Listening Society, Nordic Ideology, and The 6 Hidden Patterns of History

“True reform in any school community involves structural changes which emerge from shifts within each human participant. New ways of being dance with new ways of doing, forming new narratives about the community. Understanding Educational Complexity is the rare book that is able to shine light on such complexity. In these pages are deep lessons drawn from the experiences of a true reformer—someone who is able to form and reform their own ideas about a subject. Dr. Kershner uses concrete examples to show how an adult learner who celebrates the process of change has a greater impact than a leader who views reform as a discrete set of policies or practices.”
Nadav Zeimer, author of Education in the Digital Age
List of Figures

1 The Complexity of Everything
 1 Two Schools, Two Principals, Myriad Challenges
 2 Wicked Complexity and Integral Theory

2 Complexity Leadership
 1 Distributed Leadership
 2 The Complex Systems View

3 Jeffrey Jackson School: Repetitive Reform and the Slow Process of Adaptive Change
 1 Culture, Climate, and Collaboration
 2 Distributed Leadership: Consistency and Structured Collaboration
 3 Instructional Leadership: Principal Presence in the Classroom
 4 Reform Is in the Eye of the Beholder

4 Saint Catherine’s School: Collective Urgency at the Edge of Chaos
 1 DREAM BIG: Creating a Common School Culture
 2 Distributed Leadership: Creating Structures for Organizational Learning
 3 Instructional Leadership: Challenging and Supporting Teachers
 4 Guiding Emergence through Challenge, Support, and Balance
 5 Case Study Summary: Contextualizing Processes and Outcomes

5 Perpetual Learning in an Integral Ecology
 1 Post-Postmodern Pluralism: Integrating Perspectives on Leadership and Change
 2 Subjective Realities: Understanding the Spectrum of Perspectives
 3 Social Realities: Surfacing System Infrastructures and Ideological Influences

6 Methodological Hindsight: Reflections on Systems Thinking, Integral Theory, and Educational Research
 1 Fostering and Assessing Development in Complex Systems
 2 Plea for a Post-Postmodern Paradigm of Practice
 3 Positionality as a Kosmic Address

Postscript: Phronetic Social Science and Methodological Metacognition

School leaders, educational researchers, teachers, parents, graduate students, and anyone interested in complexity theory, integral theory, and the interdependence of education, culture, and society.