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The Challenge and Promise of Complexity Theory for Teacher Education Research


by Marilyn Cochran-Smith, Fiona Ell, Larry Ludlow, Lexie Grudnoff & Graeme Aitken — 2014

Background/Context: In many countries, there are multiple studies intended to improve initial teacher education. These have generally focused on pieces of teacher education rather than wholes, and have used an underlying linear logic. It may be, however, that what is needed are new research questions and theoretical frameworks that account for wholes, not just parts, and take complex, rather than reductionist perspectives.

Purpose: This article examines the challenges and the promises of complexity theory as a framework for teacher education research. One purpose is to elaborate the basic tenets of complexity theory, summarize its previous uses, and identify key challenges. A second purpose is to propose a new research platform that combines complexity theory with critical realism (CT-CR) and prompts a new set of empirical questions and research methods.

Research Design: Drawing on scholarship from sociology and education, the underlying design—or logic—of this analytic essay is this: explanation of the basic tenets of complexity theory applied to teacher education, assessment of previous research informed by complexity theory, response to the major epistemological and methodological challenges involved in using complexity theory as a research framework, and proposal of a new set of questions and methods.

Findings/Results: Complexity theory is appealing to teacher education researchers who want to avoid simplistic and reductionist perspectives. However, most previous complexity research has not addressed the critiques: the proclivity of complexity theory for retrospective description; the assertion that, given its rejection of linear causality, complexity theory cannot provide causal explanations with implications for practice; and the charge that complexity-informed research cannot deal with the values and power inequalities inherent in the normative enterprise of education. Integrating complexity theory with critical realism provides a way to address these fundamental challenges. Building on this new platform, the essay proposes a new set of empirical questions about initial teacher education along with several innovative research methods to address those questions.

Conclusions/Recommendations: This essay concludes that the combination of complexity theory and critical realism offers a unique platform for teacher education research, which has theoretical consistency, methodological integrity, and practical significance. The essay recommends that its proposed new empirical questions and methods may have the capacity to show us where to look and what processes to trace as teacher candidates learn to enact practice that enhances the learning of all students, including those not well-served by the current system.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 116 Number 5, 2014, p. 1-38
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17415, Date Accessed: 3/26/2017 3:23:14 AM

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About the Author
  • Marilyn Cochran-Smith
    Boston College
    MARILYN COCHRAN-SMITH is the Cawthorne Professor of Teacher Education at the Lynch School of Education, Boston College. Her research interests include teacher education policy, practice, and research nationally and internationally. Recent publications include Cochran-Smith, M., Cannady, M., McEachern, K., Piazza, P., Power, C., & Ryan, A. (2012). "Teachers' education and outcomes: mapping the research terrain." Teachers College Record, 114(10), 1–49; and Cochran-Smith, M., McQuillan, Mitchell, K., Terrell, D., Barnatt, J., D’Souza, L., Jong, C., Shakman, K. Lam, K., & Gleeson, A. M. (2012). A longitudinal study of teaching practice and early career decisions: A cautionary tale. American Education Research Journal, 49(5), 844–880.
  • Fiona Ell
    University of Auckland
    E-mail Author
    FIONA ELL is a lecturer at the Faculty of Education in the University of Auckland. Her research interests include mathematics education, teacher education, and education policy. Recent publications include: Ell, F. (2012). “Teacher education in New Zealand.” Journal of Education for Teaching, 37 (4),: 443–-440; and Ell, F., & Grudnoff, L. (2013). The politics of responsibility: Teacher education and persistent underachievement in New Zealand. The Educational Forum,. 77(1), 73–-86.
  • Larry Ludlow
    Boston College
    E-mail Author
    LARRY LUDLOW is Professor and Chair of the Educational Research, Measurement and Evaluation Department at the Lynch School of Education, Boston College. His research interests include Rasch model instrument development applications, longitudinal models for faculty course evaluations, and higher education accountability indicators. Recent publications include: Ludlow, L. H., Rollison, J., Cronin, J., & Wallingford, T. (2012). “Development of the teaching economic literacy: Confidence and anxiety (TELCA) instrument.” International Journal of Educational and Psychological Assessment, 9(2), 82–-103. http://tijepa.books.officelive.com/main.aspx);, and Ludlow, L. H., Pedulla, J., Reagan, E. M., Enterline, S., Cannady, M., & Chappe, S. (2011). Design and implementation issues in longitudinal research. Educational Policy Analysis Archives. North America, 19, Apr. 2011. http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/802/906)
  • Lexie Grudnoff
    University of Auckland
    E-mail Author
    LEXIE GRUDNOFF is deputy dean teacher education at the Faculty of Education, The University of Auckland. Her research interests focus on initial teacher education and beginning teacher learning and development. She is current chair of the Teacher Education Forum Aotearoa New Zealand. Recent publications include: Grudnoff, L. (2012). All’s well? New Zealand beginning teachers’ experience of induction provision in their first six months in school. Professional Development in Education, 38(3), 471–-485;, and Ell, F., & Hill, M., & Grudnoff, L. (2012). “Finding out more about teacher candidates’ prior knowledge: Implications for teacher educators,” Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 40(1), 55–-65.
  • Graeme Aitken
    University of Auckland
    E-mail Author
    GRAEME AITKEN is the dean of education at The University of Auckland. His research is focused on teaching effectiveness and curriculum development and design. He aims through his research to offer insights into practice that help decision making by policymakers, schools, and teachers in the best interests of learners and learning. Recent publications include Sinnema, C., & Aitken, G. (2012). Effective pedagogy in social sciences (Educational Practices Series – 23) Geneva: International Bureau of Education; and Sinnema, C., & Aitken, G. (2013). Commonalities in national curricula. In M. Priestley & G. J. J. Biesta (Eds.), Reinventing the curriculum: New trends in curriculum policy and practice. London, UK: Bloomsbury.
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