OCCAM’S RAZOR

In order to have true focus within an organization, we need clarity of strategy. One practical way to attain this is by understanding Occam’s Razor.

William of Occam once said, “It is vain to do with more what can be done with less.” There’s a lot that can be said about Occam’s Razor, but the theory basically boils down to this: whenever you’re faced with two decisions, pick the simpler choice.

That’s it. We don’t need to come up with intricate responses to issues. We don’t need to construct monoliths when simple frameworks can get the job done. Just because we have the ability to sound intelligent by providing a complicated response to a problem doesn’t mean we’ve discovered an effective panacea.

Wouldn’t it be great if we always picked the simpler of two choices? Whether dealing with a Problem of Practice regarding student learning or an organizational issue during a staff meeting, surveying the options and making a habit of choosing the simplest one can reap huge rewards. Over time, these simple choices will result in a less cluttered and fragile organization–especially when compared to organizations that are trying to do too much.

Here are some simple options you may be able to incorporate within your organization:

  • Maybe it’s easier to only use EAA as your PLC protocol
  • Maybe you can just use the publisher’s scope & sequence and pacing guide
  • Maybe you don’t need to give an assessment that won’t guide your teaching
  • Maybe an email message is all that’s needed–not a full-blown meeting
  • Maybe focusing more on core instruction and less on intervention will make for a more manageable and effective learning day
  • Maybe you can film the lesson once and then show that video over and over for instructional purposes
  • Maybe you don’t need to pay for that program anymore
  • Maybe you don’t need as many grades in the grade book
  • Maybe you just need to say no

Incorporating Occam’s Razor into your thought process can save valuable time and resources while lifting morale and maintaining a strong focus on goals that impact.

Complexity is what makes it a good job

The other day I wrote:

“… 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.”

No one would argue that sending a rover to Mars isn’t difficult. Keeping the spacecraft on trajectory, performing health checks, and communication all involve a daunting level of complexity. Once the rover lands on Mars’s surface, then the real work begins, such as determining whether life ever arose on Mars, combating dust storms, characterizing the climate and geology, and preparing for human exploration. The number of variables for NASA to keep in mind is staggering, and only a high level of monitoring and problem solving can lead to a successful mission.

It might sound surprising, but this is a wonderful example with which we can compare education. Every day, teachers are faced with innumerable variables: curriculum, changing lesson plans on the fly to better suit students, classroom management, checking for understanding, reteaching, motivating, carving out time to create lesson plans, grade student work, collaborate, and engage in professional development. None of these examples include a student’s experience before and after school, which as we all know can contain events that potentially make learning difficult for a child. I don’t need to list the unfortunate home life variables–teachers know what they are.

With all this in mind, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. The best course of action then is to read from NASA’s playbook. In order to complete a mission, NASA scientists use all the resources they have at hand and then problem solve. Do you remember this scene from the film Apollo 13?

NASA had to solve a problem with a limited number of resources in order to bring the astronauts home. Failing this objective was not an option because the stakes were too high. They did everything they could to fix a seemingly insurmountable problem. It wasn’t easy, but through hard work they figured it out.

Here’s the above paragraph written just a little differently:

As educators, we’re dealing with limited resources in order to teach students. Failing is not possible because the stakes are too high. We’ll do everything we can to fix a seemingly insurmountable problem. It’s not easy, but through hard work we’ll figure it out. 

Of course teaching is hard, but that’s to be expected. No one joins NASA and thinks, “Great! The rest of my career will be a walk in the park!” On the contrary, once a person is finally accepted by NASA, that’s when the difficulty is really cranked up. The same goes with being an educator. Teaching students is not easy; as I stated before, it’s downright complex–but that’s good.

Dylan Wiliam, in his book Embedded Formative Assessments, writes:

That fact that teaching is so complex is what makes it such a great job. At one time, Andre Previn was the highest-paid film-score composer in Hollywood, and yet one day, he walked into his office and quit. People asked him why he had given up this amazing job, and he replied, ‘I wasn’t scared anymore.’ Every day, he was going in to his office knowing that his job held no challenges for him. This is not something that any teacher is ever going to have to worry about.

People need challenges, and there’s no greater challenge than teaching students. We’re facing a lot of complexity (or, simplexity, if you’d like) and it’ll take a lot of hard work to accomplish our goals–but we can do it.

So let’s get started.

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