Complex Learning Theory

In an attempt to circumnavigate the tension between Piaget’s individual constructivism and Vygotsky’s social constructivism, Davis and Sumara (2003) proposed the concept of CLT. It has not attracted much attention in sport coaching or physical education but is worth looking at as a simplified constructivist approach for explaining and enhancing learning through Game Sense. CLT is also influenced by complexity theory that is useful for describing the ways in which a range of phenomena or systems, that can range from large-scale economies to school organizations and the human brain, comprise a collective of interrelated, dynamic systems that cannot be reduced to discrete parts (Davis and Sumara, 2001). It focusses on the object of study, such as team sport game, as a complex system and, although it has been applied to education (see Davis and Sumara, 2008) and physical education (see Ovens, Hopper and Butler, 2013), it is not a theory of learning.

From a CLT perspective, the execution of a skill comprises the engagement of the athlete’s mind, body, sensations and emotions and the context s/he is working in. As Dewey (1934, p. 246) argues, the environment (physical and sociocultural) cannot be separated from experience and learning because ‘experience is a matter of interaction of organism with its environment’. Quay and Stolz (2014) argue that the organism does not sit inside the environment like an object in a box. It is inseparable from the environment. Even learning in an individual sport involves more than just reproducing a pre-determined, ideal technique and can be seen to be a process of interpretation and adaptation undertaken by the athlete with no two athletes’ having precisely the same technique in action (Light, 2017; Light and Wallian, 2008).

CLT takes learning to be (1) a social process, (2) a process of interpretation and a process of adaptation.

Social Process

The attention paid to social interaction in CLT reflects the influence of social constructivism to reject the idea of cognition as an intra-personal and to see it as a process in which various thinking agents are inseparably intertwined. This means that personal knowledge and activity are enfolded in, and unfold from, social interaction, collective knowledge, knowing and activity. Learners bring different sets of experiences, inclinations and knowledge with them through which they interpret the learning experiences that learning unfolds from. This emphasizes the notion of learning being a social process. It suggests how it is deeply tied into social experience, not only at the site of the specific learning experience, but also in the individual’s participation in the social and cultural practices of larger social and cultural settings.


CLT sees learning as involving change resulting from interpretation and making sense of learning experiences. It rejects conceptions of knowledge as a representation of an external reality, learning as its internalization and the assumption of a pre-given external reality. Instead, it sees learners as constructing meaning and knowledge through interpreting learning experiences as a process that is deeply dependent upon perception. Even the act of perception is far more complex that merely being a biological function.

Merleau-Ponty’s (see 1962) work on perception has influenced the development of contemporary learning theories such as social constructivism. He suggests that perception involves far more than merely inputting information as information processing theory suggests. The connections between human biology and our lived experiences (see Husserl, 1962) of the world make perception more complex than the passive reception of information fed into the brain. For Merleau-Ponty, perception is an interpretative act that involves the active projection of the individual’s experience. This means that what we perceive varies according to our accumulated experiences. Instead of the world existing as an objective reality that is completely separate to us, it exists as we perceive it.


Reflecting the influence of Piaget, CLT sees learning as an ongoing process of adaptation and a complex, multi-faceted and continuous process of change but with adaptation involving more than just a cognitive adaptation to a perturbation. In CLT learning involves the whole person as a complex process within which the learner is inseparable from his/her environment (physical and social-cultural). This notion of adaptation in CLT draws significantly on Piaget and is influenced by complexity theory.

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