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Table 8.1: Five components of panarchy and their explanations

Systems thinking and Panarchy

Seeing nature as a series of interactions through complexity theory like panarchy may sound intimidating, but can provide insights for teachers who experience the anxieties mentioned above and for those who wish to think deeply about curricular change. Have you ever experienced teachers, hippies, or wise elders telling you that ‘everything is connected?’ Well, panarchy theory is a way to understand the systems (from ecological to social) within which we are all inter-dependent.

Panarchy theory is a systems-thinking adaptation of ecological and complexity theories that is used to explain “the evolving nature of complex adaptive systems” (Holling, 2001, p. 392). That sounds like teaching doesn’t it? Curriculum theorists have considered complexity theory to be an excellent way to describe learning systems (Davis & Sumara, 2008). Education systems are complex adaptive systems - think about how your classes rarely go the way we expect them to! Rejecting the notion that there is a simple equilibrium for systems, panarchy acknowledges the complexity of dynamic states of equilibria for ecological, societal, and economic systems (Gunderson & Holling, 2002). We are interested in the implications of panarchy theory as a way to describe how humans move and adapt through multiple equilibria of thought and expression (Varey, 2011). This is particularly useful when analyzing transformation over space and time through an Indigenist approach (Wilson, 2009), which also celebrates complexity and interconnectedness.

Acknowledgement of the complexity of overlapping and adaptive systems can frame the beginning of a new approach to understanding how change can occur at the individual, societal, and ecological levels. Many years of environmental psychology research suggests that time, space, scale, and relationships affect the ongoing influencers of thought (Ackerson, 2000). Panarchy describes this understanding through its five interrelated components: holarchical, scalar, temporal, cyclical, and cross-scalar dependency (Gunderson & Holling, 2002). Although the description of these components warrants much more space for the purposes of this course, we give a succinct description of them in Table 8.1.

A concept to keep in mind when reading this section is that panarchy helps you (and your students) understand ecological processes occurring around you. At the same time, panarchy can also describe the very nature of your classroom (both at individual levels and as a group).

Of particular interest to teachers who take a TI approach is the role of the adaptive cycle. Typically, student growth is measured in a linear fashion, for example we might say they have climbed a ladder to success. The adaptive cycle gives a more holistic and dynamic model for growth. That is, all students’ expressions within the classroom can be described using the four non-linear stages of the cycle. Interactive 8.1 and Interactive 8.2 show four stages of adaptation within the cycle: conservation, release, reorganization, and growth (Gunderson & Holling, 2002). These stages exist within the three dimensional space constructed by the interaction among x-axis: connectedness, y-axis: eco-socio-spiritual capacity, and z-axis: resilience. As a student learns and moves clockwise through this model from growth to conservation, he or she makes more connections (increasing complexity of their knowledge). Approaching conservation, however, the resilience of this student’s knowledge in whatever has been learned is decreased; that is, he or she is more susceptible to change and adaptation through the attempted maintenance of one view. Moving from release to re-organization (after a paradigm shift, an aha! moment), the student decreases connectedness and capacity amongst his or her understandings and resilience and adaptability increase again, suggesting new potential and possibility for adaptation. Despite the language of ‘stages’ these do not necessarily occur in linear format. Panarchy theory suggests that the only required linearity seems to occur between release and re-organization. Otherwise, all systems could be considered to jump among and between the phases of the adaptive cycle. For instance, a student desperately trying to hold on to status-quo might stay in conservation through denying or ignoring releases as they occur.

Interactive 8.1 Click to interact with the Adaptive Cycle: Three dimensional panarchy model showing the relationship among potential, connectedness, and resilience within an adaptive cycle (Holling, 2001). You need to have WebGL turned on to see this.

Beyond the Loop

A system that acknowledges the complexity of holarchy, scale, time, and cross-scalar dependency then continues to cycle, with potential to spin into other loops ‘above’ and ‘below’ this one through events called remembering and revolt. See interactive 8.3.

Revolt occurs when a series of rapid stochastic (random) events lead to the escalation of the adaptive cycle to a much larger and slower cycle. This typically occurs during the release phase but can also occur during re-organization and growth, where many change events adapts the system into a much larger and more complex system:

An ecological version of this situation occurs when conditions in a forest allow a local ignition to create a small ground fire that spreads first to the crown of a tree, then to a patch in the forest, and then to a whole stand of trees. Each step in that cascade moves the transformation to a larger and slower level. (Holling, 2001: 398)

Similarly, remembering is triggered by a cross-scalar event (or multiple scales and systems interacting), pertaining to the use of legacy items such as seed banks after a stand-replacing forest fire in an ecological system.

In terms of teaching and learning, an example of revolt would be a series of events that help develop a new paradigm. When a classroom moves quickly from basic mathematics to complex concepts of math that are grounded in problem-solving. Remembering might be the major re-organization of thought based on previous learning methods like using a circle for shared group reflection.
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Interactive 8.2a Adaptive Cycle illustration

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Interactive 8.2b Adaptive Cycle illustration with revolt and remember

The conundrum of the conservation stage

We have noticed that despite the rule that “release always leads to some re-organization,” many people seem to return a form of conservation that pre-existed the release. We believe that this is a process of mimicking the pre-release conservation stage as a way to provide comfort. However, in a true release event (ex. an epiphany, breakdown, or insight), re-organization will always occur, and will likely lead the person to another state of growth and conservation unlike the original. A previous Transformative Inquiry student helps provide insight into this phenomenon:

I think one thing that the [ibook] does not touch on is the idea of choice. We can choose to be receptive to these stochastic events, or to remain closed off to any new information that might cause us to rearrange our mentalities. I think that the ‘break through’ I had this term came when I chose to let go, or release, my convictions and just stay open to whatever came my way. The result was far more influential than I could have guessed. I am now in the reorganization stage where I am trying to put words to ideas that have come up. In fact, one of my main points in my inquiry is the concept of developing a neutral vocabulary that educators can use to discuss difficult issues. This is the first step, and I am counting on my colleagues help during my GIC to aid me in this goal.

A note on Time

As the adaptive cycle is traversed within the context of TI, time becomes an important factor. As one past student wrote towards the end of the course, “I feel there is still so much to explore, so many questions to answer, but... [TI] was a chance to have time – to reflect, to breathe, to get lost in thought.” Time and space helps inquirers find their own way around the adaptive cycle. As one student said, it “allowed me to learn how I needed to learn, gain personal insight, …and work at my own pace.”
The TI process requires a different perspective on time than what students typically encounter in university classrooms, where students share that they often have a feeling of being forced to sit and learn or write when they were not ready or in the proper mindset.

TI requires a different perspective on time than what students typically encounter in the university classroom. “Once I had let go of the worry of producing a result... I was able to take the time to let thoughts roll around in my head for a couple of days... this allowed the process of my inquiry to be much more honest” (past TI student). Many referred to the experience in other classes of feeling ‘forced’ to sit and write when they were not ready or in the proper mindset.

Time and space to traverse the cycle based in endogenous impulses opens up honesty and possibility. “Once I had let go of the worry of producing a result... I was able to take the time to let thoughts roll around in my head for a couple of days... this allowed the process of my inquiry to be much more honest” (past TI student). Our data show that it is when students enter into these spaces of honest contemplation that important and sustainable transformation occurs.

This perceived transformation of time itself within TI was welcomed with a sigh of relief: “the TI stance allowed me to learn how I needed to learn, gain personal insight, …and work at my own pace. I loved doing this project...” (past TI student).

Consider the Vignettes

To clarify these concepts, lets revisit the vignettes from Chapter 2. Note the details on the adaptive cycle that explain our interpretation of their movement through the phases of adaptation (Interactive 8.3):
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Interactive 8.3 Vignette examples plotted on the adaptive cycle

Panarchy and Winter Counts

We have written about panarchy and its role in understanding transformation in education in a paper entitled: Winter Counts as Transformative Inquiry: The Role of Creative Imagery as an Expression of Adaptive Change (Stanger, Tanaka, Tse & Starr, 2013). Check out the paper here.

In this paper we identify three types of students through the language of panarchy and understanding transformation through winter counts, a Plains First Nation tradition of recording events from a given time-period. These image-based expressions demonstrate the emotional, mental, spiritual and physical movement students have made within their inquiry:

The interpretations of winter counts have shown three distinct expressions of transformation: (in)form, (re)form, and (trans)form. With form as the root of these descriptions, we are playing with the prefixes in, re, and trans as an acknowledgement that our view of these individuals are limited, and that each of these expressions are not fixed in time, but are part of the systems of change. That is, each of the three prefixes nest within each other such that the student’s experience is likely much more complex than we can interpret from only four winter counts. This might mean that their forming is occurring through other events in their life. (Stanger et. al. 2013, p.32)