Using complexity theory to understand the classroom

Dr Lindsay Hetherington, Senior Lecturer in Science Education, PGCE Secondary Programme Director

Lindsay Hetherington is a Senior Lecturer in Science Education at the Graduate School of Education and is a member of the STEM Education Research Group and the Critical Studies Research Hub. She lead the Secondary PGCE Programme and the Secondary Science PGCE courses, teaches across a range of Masters' level modules on the MA Education, and supervises EdD and PhD students

"I did a BA and MSc in Natural Sciences (Earth Sciences) at Cambridge and developed a passion for educating young people about science, so naturally decided I wanted to be a teacher. Whilst teaching science at a secondary school near Bristol, I developed an interest in educational research to inform teaching and learning, and in teacher education.

"My PhD focused on how complexity theory can help understand classroom and curriculum change, and how teachers negotiate the tensions between creating structure and enabling student choices. I became interested in complexity theory as, being from a science background, I began by thinking I’d be able to do experimental research on what worked well in the classroom to gain evidence about the impact of interventions. Of course it doesn’t really work like that as there are so many variables within a real classroom compared with a laboratory! So I had to find a way of combining the sciences and the messy, real world stuff, and complexity theory gave me that.

"Complexity theory is hard to explain. It’s a way of theorising uncertainties; looking at things as complex systems that don’t follow fixed rules but rather evolve. In science it’s used to look at systems ranging from the brain to the atmosphere. In social sciences education, to me it means thinking of learners, classrooms and schools as complex systems. It was interesting to me as it doesn’t discount the messiness, unpredictability and complexity of a real-world classroom. Practically speaking, my research is focused on using complexity to help teachers work with the balance between structure and freedom within the classroom.

"The area I’m interested in next is researching how, within constraints, lessons can become more free and unpredictable, and showing teachers that this is important. I’m also looking at enquiry-based science education and using complexity to think about how teachers and students can work with uncertainty – exploring kids’ own questions, or what happens if you just give them open questions and see where it takes you?

"I co-chaired the junior researcher section of the EARLI Conference which Exeter hosted, and was asked to be on the programme committee for the most recent conference in Munich, which is wonderful to be involved in. I have recently become involved in a number of fascinating research projects at the Graduate School, working with partners across Europe to explore Inquiry Based Science Education (INSTEM), primary school engagement with Enquiry (Young Enquiring Minds), and Teacher education and Retention (RETAIN) The Empowering Partnerships, Engaging Public project is exciting:The idea is to get the research done here at Exeter University into schools, widening participation. I still think of myself as a teacher, so I love knowing I have an impact on other teachers.  It’s a thrill to see my research come to life in a classroom."

View Dr Lindsay Hetherington's staff profile page.