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Med Educ. 2019 Jan;53(1):95-104. doi: 10.1111/medu.13651. Epub 2018 Oct 10.

What is the state of complexity science in medical education research?

Author information

1
Centre for Education Research and Innovation, Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada.
2
Department of Surgery, Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada.
3
Faculty of Education, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada.
4
Department of Women's Studies and Feminist Research, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada.
5
Department of Medicine, Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada.

Abstract

CONTEXT:

'Complexity' is fast becoming a 'god term' in medical education, but little is known about how scholars in the field apply complexity science to the exploration of education phenomena. Complexity science presents both opportunities and challenges to those wishing to adopt its approaches in their research, and debates about its application in the field have emerged. However, these debates have tended towards a reductive characterisation of complexity versus simplicity. We argue that a more productive discussion centres on the multiplicity of complexity orientations, with their diverse disciplinary roots, concepts and terminologies. We discuss this multiplicity and use it to explore how medical education researchers have taken up complexity science in prominent journals in the field.

METHODS:

We synthesised the health sciences and medical education literature based on 46 papers published in the last 18 years (2000-2017) to describe the patterns of use of complexity science in medical education and to consider the consequences of those patterns for our ability to advance scholarly conversations about 'complex' phenomena in our field.

RESULTS:

We identified four patterns in the use of complexity science in medical education research. Firstly, complexity science is described in a variety of ways. Secondly, multiple approaches to complexity are used in combination in single papers. Thirdly, the type of complexity science used tends to be left implicit. Fourthly, the complexity orientation used is much more commonly located using secondary source citation rather than primary source citation.

CONCLUSIONS:

The presence of these four patterns begs the question: Do medical education scholars understand that there are multiple legitimate orientations to complexity science, deriving from distinct disciplinary origins, drawing on different metaphors and serving distinct purposes? If we do not understand this, a cascade of potential consequences awaits. We may assume that complexity science is singular in that there is only one way to do it. This assumption may cause us to perceive our way as the 'right' way and to disregard other approaches as illegitimate. However, this perception of illegitimacy may limit our ability to enter into productive dialogue about our complexity science-inspired research.

PMID:
30302787
DOI:
10.1111/medu.13651
[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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