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Anyone who has studied leadership theory has likely heard of chaos and complexity theories. While these are prevalent in the literature, how do they apply specifically to educational leadership?

While our jobs as educational leaders often seem both chaotic and complex, these theories not only apply to, but can actually enhance initiatives in our schools.

Complexity Theory

Complexity theory requires a hierarchy of systems that interact in some manner. Within the complex system are smaller subunits, which are related in some way (Rickles, Hawe, & Shiell, 2007).

The continual interactions among these systems produce results relevant to the individual levels of the system. Because these systems are non-linear and interactive, changes or interventions at multiple levels produce changes rapidly at one or more levels (Mason, 2008).

In addition, the results of these interventions may not have been what the change agent initially predicted. A level of complexity is cited as the stage in which learning took place for an organization, as opposed to a state of stability (Warren, Franklin, & Streeter, 1998).

Applications for Schools

This is often true of technology initiatives in schools. Often times, a purchase of hardware for student use is deemed an asset to effective instruction. However, those schools that had simply purchased hardware (one change at one level) did not experience the same magnitude of results as those who had redesigned curriculum, trained teachers, and implemented interactive digital lessons for students (changes at multiple levels).

Intervention at these multiple levels of instruction interacts to produce higher levels of student engagement, improved test scores, and reduced discipline referrals. As is representative of complexity theory, individual results may not have been foreseeable.

This has been observable during the quick implementation of e-learning during school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools that had not made the changes at multiple levels may have had more difficulty implementing e-learning than those who had already had changes in place at multiple levels. Will those who had prepared e-learning at multiple levels of complexity see greater results than those who did not? Time will tell!

Chaos Theory

Chaotic systems are more likely to contain only a few interacting subunits that produce a major change (Rickles, Hawe, & Shiell, 2007). In this scenario, even a small change in input could produce a great impact over time.

Meteorologist Edward Lorenz (1963) termed this the butterfly effect; stating that a butterfly’s flutter of wings in the Amazon could ultimately change the course of a tornado in Texas (Lorenz, 1963, as cited in Warren, Franklin, & Streeter, 1998, p. 363).

Applications for Schools

In applying the chaos theory to school leadership, it is implied that since a small change can make a large impact, one administrator in a school district willing to take a stand to defend an issue or program could make a huge difference to the school district as a whole (Galbraith, 2004). Further I am reminded of the policy enacted by state departments of education in turnaround models.

In this model, the principal of a failing school was replaced if student performance did not improve over an allotted period of time. While this may have seemed punitive in nature or an enforcement of an accountability measure, it could also have been argued within the chaos theory that the replacement of a school leader (small change) may lead to improved performance of students (large result).

Again, with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic, who would have ever guessed that a virus could cause such an effect on schools, and our society as a whole? Due to what was first considered a minor illness, school leaders were quickly forced to change the way we instruct, test, and feed students, as well as how we communicate with and evaluate teachers. What will be the long-term changes of this “small” virus over time? Again, it’s anyone’s guess!

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Galbraith, P. (2004). Organisational Leadership and Chaos Theory: Let’s be Careful. Journal of Educational Administration, 42(1), 9-28. Retrieved from

Mason, M. (2008). What Is Complexity Theory and What Are Its Implications for Educational Change?. Educational Philosophy & Theory, 40(1), 35-49.

Rickles, D., Hawe, P., & Shiell, A. (2007). A Simple Guide to Chaos and Complexity. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 61(11), 933–937.

Warren, K., Franklin, C., & Streeter, C. L. (1998). New Directions in Systems Theory: Chaos and Complexity. Social Work, 43(4), 357-372.

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