OECD Education Working Papers

This series is designed to make available to a wider readership selected studies drawing on the work of the OECD Directorate for Education. Authorship is usually collective, but principal writers are named. The papers are generally available only in their original language (English or French) with a short summary available in the other.

English, French

The Simple, the Complicated, and the Complex: Educational Reform Through the Lens of Complexity Theory

This paper explores the nature of complexity theory and its applications for educational reform. It briefly explains the history of complexity theory and identifies the key concepts of complex adaptive systems, and then moves on to define the differences between simple, complicated, and complex approaches to educational reform. Special attention is given to work currently underway in the fields of healthcare, emergency management and ecology that draws on complexity theory to build more resilient and robust response systems capable of adapting to changing needs and of identifying key pressure points in the system. Finally, this paper presents several examples of educational reform programmes undertaken worldwide that have implemented complexity theory principles to achieve positive results. It also recommends involving multiple stakeholders across the different levels of governance structure, increasing lateral knowledge-sharing between schools and districts, and transforming policy interventions to bring greater flexibility to the reform process. This move toward feedback-driven adaptive reform allows for better targeting of programmes to specific contexts and may prove a key way forward for educational policymakers.


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