World History

Embracing Complexity

The retention of information is a simple thing: see a fact, commit it to memory, move on. While not everyone does it equally well, every living human being has the ability to commit information to memory. Modern education is based on this idea–how many facts can you remember for tomorrow’s test? In fact, this country bases the evaluation of its entire public education system on how well young people can do this simple task. Modern education is terrified of complexity.

How essential is information retention to the modern world? How often are adult human beings judged on their ability to retain facts? Aside from game shows, how often are people rewarded for the ability to retain basic bits of information? Why is this simple task prioritized in our education system? We live in a society that faces complex problems, yet teaches students to prioritize simple facts.

Life is complex. Every day, in both personal and public life, people solve problems using skills that enable them to grasp the complexities of a situation. However, there are so many leaders in our country who want to convince us that there are simple answers to the complex issues that we face everyday. “The economy is terrible? Must be Bush/Obama’s fault!” This is a simple answer to a complex problem, and our political leaders want us to embrace those simple answers. Simple answers make good soundbites. Simple answers get votes.

However, if schools are to help this country move beyond soundbites (if this is even possible), they must begin to embrace complexity. Simple answers (i.e. those that can be incorporated into a multiple choice test) do not solve problems. A person must be willing to wade in the uncomfortable muck of complexity, asking questions and developing theories, until an approach to a problem can be developed. Of course, even after all that, an answer may not solve the problem. So one must be able to try again, knowing that even after several attempts, the answer may not come.

21st Century Education must instill in students several principles:

1. The Embrace of Complexity
2. Perseverance in the face of setbacks
3. Willingness to Live without definite answers

I hope to make the 2011-2012 school year the “Year Without Answers.” Instead of focusing on the facts that student can or cannot retain, it is my hope that students will develop a sense of which questions to ask and how to wade into the complexity of real problems so they might get a better sense of the world in which they enter. If students can evaluate, question, and engage with complex issues, they will have developed a skill that goes far beyond the content of the subject I teach. While it may be much less comfortable, both for me and the students, it is only through this process that students will become those with the capacity to address those problems that we have not yet encountered.

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