Friday, August 14, 2015


"Complexity arises whenever a system--technical, social, or natural--has multiple, interdependent parts." 
"Meeting complexity with complexity can create more confusion that it resolves."
          --from Simple Rules by Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt

          I don't think many people would argue that in most ways our world has become more complex, mainly through the intersection of a greater number of moving parts. As the authors point out, examples can range from the increasingly global economy to home entertainment systems (versus an old-fashioned tv) with tangles of wires and multiple remotes. They also point out how complex US tax codes have become--a situation which has led to more and more people being in violation simply through ignorance rather than defiance. Even tax experts ended up finishing with vastly different returns for the same family because of the complexity. The lesson is simple, perhaps even obvious. The greater the complexity, the greater the chances for problems of any sort.
          Schools are naturally complex systems. Anytime you bring together a large number of people and attempt to unite them towards a common purpose, even in the best of situations--complexity arises. After all, each person is a complex organism. But I wonder if we've made school/education more complex than it needs to be. I've hinted at this notion before, particularly in a post titled "Biggest Change in the Last 30 Years of Independent Education?" My answer: "how much more schools are expected to do." You can add to the mix how much more we know about brain development and cries for innovation new models for curricula and numerous other points. It's all great stuff, but it certainly adds to the complexity. Sometimes it seems as if respond by drafting more and more arcane tax codes of our own. So I've been thinking about this idea for quite a while, and this book brought it back to the surface from deeper in the juices of my mind. How might we, I've been wondering, simplify the complexities of school? And is this how we zero in on the true priorities? How we help students have deeper, richer learning experiences?
          The authors explain how we can manage complexity by creating simple rules: "shortcut strategies that...focus our attention and simplify the way we process information." They say these must be very particular, tailored to a given situation, while also providing clear guidance without being overly prescriptive. Simple rules are not a once-size-fits-all solution for cutting through complexity. Yet they work when well articulated. One great example the authors give is triage on battlefields and how that has cut the mortality rate.
         I'm sure this could help in schools. In some ways, I'm reminded of a key element of design thinking, in that the simple rules could provide a degree of restraint. It's an approach I plan to use on some projects this year. Grant Lichtman, from whom I learned about the book, has posted about some very concrete ways that schools could benefit from using simple rules.
          Since I seem to be doing nothing but stealing from others in this post, I'll close with what I hope are a couple of other compelling bits of my own. Recently I was listening to a pro football player being interviewed. At higher levels, sports become incredibly complex. Pro athletes always talk about just doing their job, focusing on their role, doing the simple things right...add your own cliche. Usually we don't think twice about it. For some reason, during this recent interview, I found myself thinking there is real wisdom in that. And it's a perspective that helped these people reach the top level.
          Then there is this passage from a letter by Henry David Thoreau:
"I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit. When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of all incumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Complexity goes hand in hand with choice. The common understanding that more choice is better (TVs, Salad Dressings, Schools) leads to.....well, complexity!

If you have not, you might read the Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. He also as a TED talk video.