Simplexity

I heard about ‘simplexity’ for the first time exactly one month ago at an education conference. A Google search for the term will provide you with this Wikipedia page, which begins with:

Simplexity is an emerging theory that proposes a possible complementary relationship between complexity and simplicity. The term draws from General Systems Theory, Dialectics (philosophy) and Design. Jeffrey Kluger wrote a book about this phenomenon that describes how house plants can be more complicated than industrial plants, how a truck driver’s job can be as difficult as a CEO’s and why 90% of the money donated to help cure diseases are given only to the research of 10% of them (and vice versa).

I like the word, even though Wikipedia doesn’t explain it precisely the way I think it can relate to education.

Teachers work in a seemingly straightforward environment: standards, curriculum, technology, students. On their face, these items appear pretty simple; bureaucratically, they are usually dealt with interchangeably. We say one size doesn’t fit all, but we rarely mind it, and this is because there’s not enough time and training.

It’s a pity, because even though such things as standards, curriculum, technology, and students are dealt with millions of times a day, their simplicity masks an almost impenetrable complexity. To better illustrate this, think of an iPhone: The device is extremely easy to use–so easy, in fact, my three-year-old son can navigate its interface to select apps (PBS Kids is his favorite), movies, and home videos. However, the complexity underneath the touchscreen is astounding, and it’s too much for my son (and me) to comprehend.

The same can be said for the items I mentioned above. Common Core standards are clearly published online and in districts’ pacing guides, but the various ways to teach them is confounding. Curriculum, which must be accessed to teach Common Core, is in the same boat. Technology is used every day by teachers, but how to use it is up for debate. (Should students take notes on devices? How many words should be on a PowerPoint slide?* How does one provide digital infrastructure in a classroom?)

Students, of course, are the most seemingly simple but undoubtedly complex factors in every classroom across the country. Language, background, disabilities, gaps in knowledge, missing school days, years of ineffective schooling, attitude, parent support, peer groups, nutrition, health, and subject area interest are some of the many variables students bring to school. Teachers must view each student under a lens of simplexity. When figuring out how to best teach (usually with the aid of formative assessments, experience, and time getting to know the students), teachers can determine what kids need to know. This, in turn, can better guide teachers on how to approach standards, curriculum, and technology. By no means is this easy. I mean, we’ve sent a rover to Mars but haven’t been able to bring most of our nation’s students to proficiency. That says something.

Because of the proliferation of information and rapid speed of technological development, change is ever-present. I tell this to teachers all the time during professional development sessions. The only way to be comfortable in 2015 is to embrace uncertainty and find a complementary relationship between complexity and simplicity.


*As few as possible

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One thought on “Simplexity

  1. Pingback: Complexity is what makes it a good job | Rise and Converge

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