Urban School Leadership and Adaptive Change: The “Rabbit Hole” of Continuous Emergence

  • Patrick McQuillan
  • Brad Kershner
Conference paper
Part of the Springer Proceedings in Complexity book series (SPCOM)


In the current educational context deliberate and continuous emergence seems eminently logical. Schools comprise so many interacting dimensions—moving parts of people, ideas, contexts, and resources—change truly is the norm. School systems therefore need to adjust to both the challenges and opportunities they regularly encounter. In doing so, the principal represents a critical leverage point. Believing that “Leadership is no longer the activity of gatekeeping and directing but of enabling and empowering” (Morrison 2002, p. 19), wrote that administrative leaders should “enhance the skills and knowledge of people in the organization [and] create a common culture of expectations around the use of those skills and knowledge” (p. 15). One strategy for addressing this challenge and enacting these ideals is to generate a complex adaptive system in which power and authority are decentralized and all school personnel—students, teachers, administrators, and parents—embrace a common vision committed to shared beliefs, values, policies, and practices. Accordingly, we conceptualize systems emergence as an adaptive process in which a school “system” adjusts to its context, drawing upon the analytic heuristic known as continuous emergence to reveal the ongoing and intertwining challenges that arise for urban school leadership when this occurs. In terms of the emergence process, we engage the experience of disequilibrium, intensification, emergent order, and stabilizing feedback not as linear phenomena leading to a single outcome but as an ongoing process in which these features of emergence interact in ways that are largely non-linear and unpredictable yet still reveal promising strategies for adapting to the varied sources of disequilibrium that arise in the system.


Complexity theory Complex adaptive systems Emergence 


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Boston CollegeChestnut HillUSA
  2. 2.Carolina Friends SchoolCharlotteUSA

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