Teaching and learning are infinitely complex enterprises, particularly in classrooms where adolescent English learners strive for academic success. This article offers ethnographic accounts in two settings in the United States, both of which involved similar instructional experiences and resources to support literacy learning among high school English learners. We apply principles from complexity science to the analysis of these two ethnographic accounts, each grounded in multiple data sources. The accounts highlight predominant patterns emerging from each setting. The subsequent analysis explores underlying conditions for self-organizing dynamics in these settings: shared identity; shared focus; relevant distinctions or differences; and shared practices). These underlying dynamics varied dramatically in the two settings, generating patterns we label as “playing school” and “authentic engagement.” Each setting manifested behaviors consistent with a short set of “simple rules” for behavior. Implications for future research suggest that a deep understanding of complex adaptive systems, emergent patterns, and implied simple rules can inform the work of teacher action researchers in complex school environments.
Informed by complexity research and models for analyzing conditions in complex adaptive systems such as schools, I describe findings from a descriptive case study of influences on teacher decision-making about writing instruction in a high-stakes writing assessment grade. I highlight how the use of complexity as a theoretical framework for research provides a unique look at education systems, particularly looking at one teachers decisions across a school semester. I focus specifically on two conceptual models from the field of human systems dynamics (HSD), one used as a conceptual framework for complex adaptive systems, and the other used as a retrospective analysis tool in describing and explaining underlying conditions at work at a particular time for a particular decision.