Chaos Theory

“A mathematic theory that deals with complex systems whose behavior is highly sensitive to slight changes in conditions, so that small alterations can give rise to strikingly great consequences.”

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This is also called the ‘butterfly effect’ where if you can imagine a puff of air from a butterfly’s wings causing a hurricane on the other side of the world.

What I love about this theory is that is starts off as a small, almost unnoticeable shift and ends up being astronomical. It’s not throwing everything up in the air and starting from scratch. But it gets there, eventually.

Innovation doesn’t work in schools because as a rule they are extremely risk averse and break out in hives when you even mention the word chaos. Not with my kids you don’t! Take the cafeteria, for instance. (I know, I’m on duty every day). It’s the one place where things are allowed (sort of) to be chaotic. And the adults cannot handle it. They cringe at the noise, the kids cutting line, the ones who don’t clean up after themselves, and the hats. The hats, the hats the hats.

It’s chaos. I have a theory.

I have a theory that a child has an idea in the chaos of the cafeteria. He puts his sandwich down and stares into space, reaching underneath the table to text a friend (because cell phones are not allowed) to meet him in the library.

The friend meets him in the library, wondering what’s going on. There’s still some time for lunch but it’s going to spill into the next period. “I gotta go,” the friend says, wondering what it’s all about. “I’ve got math.”
“Not yet,” the boy says. “Math can wait.”

“You remember that thing we were reading about Singapore having to import most of its water? I have an idea about what to do.”
“Really?” the friend asked. “Is that really what you called me up here for?”
“Sort of. I was at the design expo at Nanyang School of Art this weekend and they were talking about sustainability. I thought it was really cool and it gave me some ideas about the water thing.”

“Right,” the friend says. “Well, I gotta go before I’m late.”
The boy watches his friend walk away.

A teacher (on his prep period) comes by and observes the boy in the library, by himself. Rather than ask where he should be, he looks over his shoulder, noticing several tabs open on water sustainability projects, environment, and three universities.

“What are you working on?” the teacher asked. “Oh, sorry,” the boy says, shutting his laptop case. “No, it’s okay,” the teacher answers. “I’m not going to get you in trouble. You’re a sixth grader, right? My diploma class is doing some things on the environment and maybe you could join the conversation. We’re supposed to Skype with this scientist from Alaska who’s working on some water sustainability theories. You might find it interesting.”

The boy goes to the class and misses math, then English, then Spanish. He makes his way to art at the end of the day because it’s the one place where he liked to rejuvinate his brain when it got overloaded. Something about working with pottery.

Even though the time zones didn’t line up exactly, he managed to find a few water projects in Kuwait and Texas that shared his ideas about what to do in Singapore, and he found a way to connect with them. He also texts his older sister in the 10th grade to see if any of her classes are talking about anything to do with water and the environment. “Dunno,” she replies. “Leave me alone, I’m in the middle of a test.”

At the end of the day, he finds himself back in the science teacher’s class. “Oh, there you are,” the teacher says. “Look, I’m sorry I didn’t tell anyone, but the office has been looking for you all afternoon. I think you’re in trouble. Do you want me to write them a note? Did you miss classes the rest of the day?”

“Yeah, I’m sorry, the boy says. But can I show you what I was doing?” When the boy is finished, the teacher looks at his watch and takes out his cell phone.

“What are you doing?” the boy asks. “I’m calling Alaska,” the teacher says. “They need to talk to you.”

Chaos. But it’s just a theory.

About Stephen Dexter, Jr.

Stephen is an international educator and administrator. A native of the United States, he lives with his wife Stephanie and children Zoe and Ian in the Singapore. With a career that spans over twenty years in public, private and international schools, he writes when he can and is on a quest to discover if "text walking" is changing the human brain.
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One Response to Chaos Theory

  1. Chris says:

    always a refreshing perspective

    should have see my students “creating” obstacle courses in elementary this week
    #whosaysyoucannotlearninchaos

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