Course Overview

Unravelling Complexity challenges later year students from any part of the ANU the opportunity to explore the nature of complex issues, with a focus on drawing connections between disciplines and dimensions of complex problems. We will examine the behaviour of complexity and ANU experts will provide insights on contemporary complex problems (there have been a few to talk about these last years). The course also encourages students to build on their existing disciplinary perspectives to develop deep understandings of how to go about effective collaborative approaches to unravelling complex issues.

“Universities serve to make students think: to resolve problems by argument supported by evidence; not to be dismayed by complexity, but bold in unravelling it.” — What are universities for? (Boulton and Lucas, 2008)

Getting started#

There are two important documents that will supplement this Course Overview:

  • the Assessment Guide, which details all of the assessable tasks and assessment philosophy
  • the Course Schedule, which is a (slightly dynamic) list of class activities and guests

Class Overview#

There are two main learning activities in Unravelling Complexity:

  • Workshops, which tend to focus on planning, dialogue and synthesis of resources in a collaborative, peer-led mode
  • Seminars, which tend to focus on introduction of ideas, and sharing of knowledge

In reality, the timetabled labels for teaching activities may be used interchangeably, and we may move between modes or into new emergent modes in any session. I would suggest that anybody concerned with these labels should revert to calling the timetabled activities “Complexity Class” or just “Complexity” or perhaps a new name we can create, as it will more accurately described the situation.

Class Format & Participation#

Unless otherwise indicated, the class will have a face-to-face and online option. By default, class will be ‘face-to-face’ first, meaning that the facilitator will be in the physical room, and will do their best to ensure that the online room can participate. There may be an exception or two throughout semester, where the options will be reversed. In those weeks, students may use the physical classroom as a place to join the online session.

Keep in mind that participation is a two-way process: literally, the act of taking part. Face-to-face interaction engages the senses in ways that are sometimes limited in online interaction. For example, one can ‘read the room’ (in Japanese, this idiom can be translated as ‘taste the air’) by understanding the emergent behaviour of the room, which can be much harder in online environments. Alternatively, there are many advantages to interacting online, such as the ability to share links to resources, and to use the chat as a back-channel discussion mode, and I am sure that you are also aware of the benefits and disadvantages of online/hybrid classes from your experience. The online session will be recorded. For those who cannot participate synchronously, this might be a viable option to participate.

Ultimately, it will be left to each student to evaluate how they will best be able to ‘participate’ in the class. However, I would caution any student to be aware of limiting themselves in passive participation, as we only learn when we explicitly test our ideas, and have the opportunity to adapt them as the ideas are challenged or confirmed.

Assessment Overview#

At the end of this course, we are required to provide each student a mark out of 100. In my opinion, grades can often get in the way of learning: students and teachers often associate these numbers with other kinds of values (for example, students with higher grades are ‘better’ students), even though many of the paradigms in education conflate many aspects without interrogation (for example, students with higher grades may benefit from being good at examination-style assessment, rather than being better learners). The discussion about the role of assessment in learning is one that I would encourage us to have; however, the discussion above is enough to frame the following statement: assessment is something that we have in this class, and it should be viewed as a protocol to demonstrate and show your learning for your own purposes, rather than as a tool of judgement or —– worse – for the purpose of resulting in a grade.

With that said, there are three main assessment activities in Unravelling Complexity:

  • a Workshop Co-Facilitation on a topic from the Complexity Primer (30%) - a workshop, discussion and collaborative collection of ideas to solve complex problems that we can share with your peers
  • a Collaborative Challenge Project (20%) - a speedy group activity that helps your peers to navigate a ‘Grand Challenge’ problem
  • a Learning portfolio (50%) - an incremental, individual, critical or creative reflective research piece that explores a complex problem of your choosing in the context of the course themes

Please note here that different disciplines have different paradigms about assessment, and how grades work. These paradigms are often incompatible. For example, when I was a student in the Sciences, I had a mental model that I started with a ‘perfect’ score, and then lost marks (i.e. “where did I lose that mark?”). My own experience in Humanities subjects was more like trying to understand a black box (i.e. “why did I get that mark?”). In a class that is intentionally interdisciplinary and pluralistic, this incompatibility opens up even more dissonance about the nature traditional Western education.

To highlight an alternative way of ‘assessing’, Karl-Evik Svelby and Tex Skuthorpe talk about ‘levels’ of access to knowledge in Aboriginal knowledge systems in their book ‘Treading Lightly’. Under this paradigm, different people are allowed to access different knowledge systems at different levels according to cultural relationships and also whether or not a person is ‘ready’ for this knowledge. There is no test, other than the act of a contiguous understanding of how people fit into knowledge structures.

At ANU, we have a paradigm of marking students and, as outlined earlier, each student needs to end up with a mark and a corresponding grade. In this course, students will ‘earn’ their grade for each assessment item in structured, transparent consultation with the marker, and at times with peers, using the descriptors in Table 1 of the Student Assessment Policy.

I would expect that students in this class have a history of producing academic work at a ‘superior’ or ‘excellent’ standard within their discipline, but recognising that for many students this will be genuinely new area of inquiry, and may need to adjust perspectives. I am always happy to have a conversation of the practice and paradoxes in this area, especially proactively (rather than in response to a ‘bad’ grade).

Schedule Overview#

The program for the semester will be somewhat emergent, but will resemble this sort of pattern:

  • Weeks 1-4 - fundamentals of interdisciplinary collaboration on complex problems. Chris will facilitate some form of discussion, workshop activity or otherwise on topics covering: complexity and the nature of complex problems, the role of learning and research institutions, forming collaborative partnerships, interdisciplinary practices and thought, and integrative perspectives and approaches.
  • Weeks 5-8 - disciplinary perspectives and ways of knowing. We’ll transition to a more peer-facilitated learning environment - that is, students effectively running class. During these weeks, in small groups you will take turns curating the class. This will often involve working with one or more academic who might ‘prime’ the conversation in class during and then independently build-on, stretch or otherwise deform these insights through discussion and other learning devices.
  • Weeks 9-12 - navigating applied transdisciplinary problems. We’ll take what we’ve learnt so far in the course and work on an applied transdisciplinary problem with ANU Researchers.

Learning Outcomes#

The course learning outcomes are a high-level interpretation of skills that you should develop throughout Unravelling Complexity. These factors ground the learning and activities in the course:

  • Identify and generalise behaviours of complex problems
  • Analyse and construct arguments from multiple perspectives, supported by evidence and with intellectual independence
  • Reflect critically on concepts from the course by connecting personal experiences and real-world situations
  • Provide and situate disciplinary perspectives and methodologies in an interdisciplinary team
  • Design, research and defend a major work unravelling a complex problem

At the end of the course, you should be able to demonstrate these outcomes in some way.

Complexity is a fascinating area of study. Many students find that you start seeing complexity everywhere. There is no prescribed textbook for this course. You should be able to complete this course using the materials and selected readings made available through the Wattle.

  • Bammer, Gabriele and Michael Smithson, 2008, Uncertainty and risk: multidisciplinary perspectives, Earthscan Recommended: Chapters 2 and 26
  • Bar-Yam, Yaneer, 2004, Making things work: solving complex problems in a complex world, NECSI Knowledge Press Recommended: Overview, Chapter 1 and conclusion
  • Brown, Valerie A., John A. Harris, Jacqueline Y Russell, 2010, Tackling wicked problems through the transdisciplinary imagination, Earthscan Recommended: Chapters 1 and 2
  • Harris, Graham, 2007, Seeking sustainability in an age of complexity, Cambridge University Press Recommended: Preamble, chapters 1 and 2
  • Lineweaver, Charley, 2013, Complexity and the Arrow of Time. Recommended: Chapter 1
  • Mitchell, Melanie, 2009 Complexity a guided tour, Oxford University Press Recommended: Preface, chapter 1
  • Yunkaporta, Tyson, 2019, Sand Talk. Recommended: Chapter 1

Course Governance and Support#

Many of the course governance aspects are available through the Programs & Courses. This covers the formal policies on Assessment Requirements, Online Submission, Hard-copy Submission, Extensions & Penalties, Late Submission, Returning Assignments, Resubmission of Assignments, Educational Policies, Mark Moderation, Referencing Requirements, Distribution of Grades, Privacy Notices, Academic Integrity, and Feedback processes.

If you are in any doubt, please talk to the convenor, and whatever your concern is it will probably be OK.

Support for students#

The University offers students support through several different services. You may contact the services listed below directly or seek advice from your Course Convener, Student Administrators, or your College and Course representatives (if applicable).

Version Control


  • initial release
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