Towards socio-material approaches in simulation-based education: lessons from complexity theory

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Abstract

CONTEXT

Review studies of simulation-based education (SBE) consistently point out that theory-driven research is lacking. The literature to date is dominated by discourses of fidelity and authenticity – creating the ‘real’ – with a strong focus on the developing of clinical procedural skills. Little of this writing incorporates the theory and research proliferating in professional studies more broadly, which show how professional learning is embodied, relational and situated in social – material relations. A key concern for medical educators concerns how to better prepare students for the unpredictable and dynamic ambiguity of professional practice; this has stimulated the movement towards socio-material theories in education that address precisely this question.

OBJECTIVES AND METHODS

Among the various socio-material theories that are informing new developments in professional education, complexity theory has been of particular importance for medical educators interested in updating current practices. This paper outlines key elements of complexity theory, illustrated with examples from empirical study, to argue its particular relevance for improving SBE.

RESULTS

Complexity theory can make visible important material dynamics, and their problematic consequences, that are not often noticed in simulated experiences in medical training. It also offers conceptual tools that can be put to practical use. This paper focuses on concepts of emergence, attunement, disturbance and experimentation. These suggest useful new approaches for designing simulated settings and scenarios, and for effective pedagogies before, during and following simulation sessions.

CONCLUSIONS

Socio-material approaches such as complexity theory are spreading through research and practice in many aspects of professional education across disciplines. Here, we argue for the transformative potential of complexity theory in medical education using simulation as our focus. Complexity tools open questions about the socio-material contradictions inherent in SBE, draw attention to important material dynamics of emergence, and suggest practical educative ways to expand and deepen student learning.

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