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Mediocrities invoke complexity. Geniuses invoke simplicity.

If you feel the need to bolster your idea by claiming how nuanced and subtle it is and by stating that, even after many years of patient study, you still don’t fully understand it yourself, then your idea stinks.

The human mind can only cope with manipulating a few new interacting items at any one time. And so the goal of communicating any philosophy, and in that I include the scientific method, is to construct simplified models of the world that can be grasped in their entirety, or that build on elements that have previously been grasped separately and may be brought together in their entirety in the mind of an individual.

True, communication might be just one of the things that can happen to an idea, but an idea that cannot be communicated will go to the grave imprinted in the brain of a single human corpse. It will not flourish or be valued by society. Communication is important.

We stand on the shoulders of giants in order to see clearly. If we want a forest of legs to look at then we should sit on the ground.

Let’s examine the mathematical rules that govern the motion of projectiles. They can be derived beautifully from a few simple precepts. It is trivially true that air resistance messes up the predictions of this model. If you want to use it to do practical things then you will have to introduce fiddle factors. But if you want to understand projectile motion and work out important consequences of this motion then the model is valuable, particularly as a starting point for deriving more accurate versions of itself that apply to specific contexts.

Similarly, Newton’s first law of motion is not obvious in the motion of everyday objects due to the action of friction. Nevertheless, an understanding of the first law can help make predictions for a wide range of events and can help explain, among other things, the motion of a football in flight.

No physicist would claim that we abandon either principle on the basis that the real world is more complex or nuanced. Even though it is. To do so would be to misunderstand the role of models in physics, particularly their role in explicating their own limitations.

Yet in education, we see this all the time. In education, I can make a model and, from this model, make a probabilistic claim. I may, for instance, predict that more students will learn about Topic A by studying X rather than Y. This claim is not falsified if, for a minority of students, I find the reverse effect, although this might be worth exploring. And it is certainly not falsified by general appeals to complexity and nuance. All models are incomplete by their very nature. That’s what makes them useful. They reduce the cognitive power required to comprehend the entirety of reality by simplifying it for a specific range of circumstances. That’s useful.

Those who are most concerned about complexity in education should be the same group of people as the ones who call for rigorously controlled experiments because it is only by this method that we can hope to filter out the noise. And yet, advocates of complexification use their position to argue for more subjective forms of research, the kind that is affected by bias.

So I am going to repeat myself because I think this is so important.

If you feel the need to bolster your idea by claiming how nuanced and subtle it is and by stating that, even after many years of patient study, you still don’t fully understand it yourself, then your idea stinks.

Mediocrities invoke complexity. Geniuses invoke simplicity.


16 thoughts on “Complexificationism

  1. Chester Draws says:

    effected by bias = affected by bias?

    It’s nice to see this argument advanced so cogently.

    It’s allied to the “many ways to teach something” argument. I have met many teachers who are quite proud that they have lots of different ways to teach something.

    Sure there’s many ways to teach. But only one or two of them are good ways. Find out which is the best way and stick to that! Having lots of stupid ways to do something in your “toolbox” (they love that phrase!) is like having lots of broken tools in an actual toolbox.

  2. Mitch says:

    One of my pet hates is when someone says “…[inquiry, PBL, gamification, flipping, etc] by itself won’t improve things but when combined with great teaching it has an enormous effect”. How exactly have you quantified that??

    To risk complexifying things I will add the possibility that perhaps a combination could be greater than the sum of it parts. For example, variety may mean that you utilise a ‘sub-optimum’ technique to teach a concept but as long as it doesn’t take too long etc. could have other benefits by breaking monotony, saving the hard work where it will have the greatest effect.
    Just a thought.

    • That sounds a reasonable plan and it’s one I’ve suggested myself in the past. It doesn’t seem particularly complex. Essentially, the model is that variety leads to more progress overall because it is more motivating. In principle, it is testable.

      • chrismwparsons says:

        I suspect also though that the appeal to variety is based on seeing the purpose of education as going beyond what we can handily capture with exam results. I know that that still raises the question of ‘how do they know that their technique will have these transformative effects into adulthood?’, but the alternative is to say that in education we should only ever value that which we can measure.

  3. I agree with much of this post, but would caution that bias also exists in those that create the models and filter the complexity. I think as long as we are critically aware of that then using models is the best way to move from doubt to doubt and deepen learning and engagement, but if we fail to acknowledge the bias that is inherent in this process then I think the range of a single story trumps the benefit of any one model. We play around with the notions of simplexity in much of our own work in education and that has many similar points to those in this post but includes perhaps a more explicit recognition of the producer?

  4. chrismwparsons says:

    I know you follow me on Twitter Greg, so I wasn’t sure whether my own recent blogs on Science and Education were part of the root of this post. I think in fact that some of my personal response to what you’re (valuably) saying would be contained in my last one of those posts anyway, so I’ll place it here, and people can either see it as a precursor or a response!

  5. Stan says:

    You can also look at areas where everyone agrees the topic is complex relative to human mental capacity – weather predictions and quantum physics. It’s models + statistically significant experimental results all the way down.

  6. Dylan Smith says:

    An enjoyable post, thank you, Greg. It’s admirable that you write about these things.

    My own view offers some contrast to yours. The history of the natural sciences teaches us that wrestling with complexity is the inescapable precursor to finding practicable simplicity. The exercise is typically a long and lonely one, undertaken by a genius such as Newton who can comfortably wade and revel in the muck in order to draw simplicity from it. In my opinion, we educators must also wrestle with complexity to be our best, and because we strive towards improved professional practice versus coherent, systematic knowledge, having colleagues to wade through the muck with you is highly recommended, if not necessary.

    • I agree with Dylan’s comment, with its implication that “simplicity good, complexity bad” is a little simplistic. I think we need to understand the place of each.

      I agree that the appeal to complexity and infinite variety amounts to a sort of mystification. It reminds me of Dylan Wiliam’s line at ResearchEd14, advising the audience that a good answer to almost any assertion about education is “I think you’ll find its a bit more complicated than that”. This is surely the point when the appeal to complexity itself becomes simplistic.

      As a general rule, I would agree that in the realm of principle (e.g. in the case of educational theory), simplicity is the goal. But simple principles become complex to apply in the real, messy world. I make this point in my “Managing the complexity of the classroom” at

      As Dylan Smith comments above, because theory is developed by the study of real world environments, you have to wade through this complexity to reach the simple insights of the theoretical genius. This circular relationship is encapsulated in the “science and technology” diagram in my post debunking Dylan William’s theory of phronesis at theory needs to be applied to the mundane world (technology), which in turn needs to be studied in order to infer theory (science).

      As technology (the application of simple theory to complex reality) necessarily involves complexity, another type of relationship between complexity and simplicity that technology is very good at doing is to create the appearance of simplicity by hiding the complexity. The modern smartphone, which most people would regard as a work of genius, is very simple *to use*, very complex “under the hood”. Yet it is a fallacy of the *users* of technology to overlook the complexity that is deliberately hidden from them and think that modern technology is all about simplicity.

      Those who assert that at a theoretical level, education is much too complex to be the subject of systematic approaches to pedagogy, generally conclude that it must therefore be left to the unsupported intuition of front-line teachers to deliver. In this case, a perception of theoretical complexity leads to a ultra-simplistic models of application.

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