Chaos, complexity and complicatedness: lessons from rocket science


Geoff Norman, 1200 Main Street West, Hamilton, Ontario L8N 3Z5, Canada. Tel: 1 905 5259140, ext. 22119; Fax: 00 1 1 905 5727099; E-mail:


Medical Education 2011: 45: 549–559

Context  Recently several authors have drawn parallels between educational research and some theories of natural science, in particular complexity theory and chaos theory. The central claim is that both the natural science theories are useful metaphors for education research in that they deal with phenomena that involve many variables interacting in complex, non-linear and unstable ways, and leading to effects that are neither reproducible nor comprehensible.

Methods  This paper presents a counter-argument. I begin by carefully examining the concepts of uncertainty, complexity and chaos, as described in physical science. I distinguish carefully between systems that are, respectively, complex, chaotic and complicated. I demonstrate that complex and chaotic systems have highly specific characteristics that are unlikely to be present in education systems. I then suggest that, in fact, there is ample evidence that human learning can be understood adequately with conventional linear models.

Conclusions  The implications of these opposing world views are substantial. If education science has the properties of complex or chaotic systems, we should abandon any attempt at control or understanding. However, as I point out, to do so would ignore a number of recent developments in our understanding of learning that hold promise to yield substantial improvements in effectiveness and efficiency of learning.