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This newsletter is the first in a series on complexity. Our informal
and formal educational systems, and our everyday life experiences, help
us learn to deal with the complexities of complexity.
Understanding and Mastering Complexity:
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
Any sufficiently advanced technology is
indistinguishable from magic.
(Arthur C. Clarke; British science fiction author, inventor, and
There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat,
plausible, and wrong. (H. L. Mencken; American journalist, essayist,
The intact human brain is naturally curious and creative, with the
ability to effectively solve complex problems and accomplish
complex tasks that initially seem beyond resolution. This Information Age Education
Newsletter begins a new series on the concept of dealing with
complex problems, tasks, and questions. It will focus on the roles
of informal and formal education, the tools that enhance our physical
and cognitive capabilities, and current cognitive
neuroscience research that's applicable to the study
Complexity and Problem Solving
This first newsletter in the series focuses on how humans learn
to deal with complex problems and problem situations.
You have heard the assertion, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
Here is a somewhat parallel statement. Complexity
is in the brain/mind/body of the problem solver. What is a
complex problem for one person may be a simple exercise for another,
and vice versa.
I use the term problem solving
to include dealing with:
Question situations: recognizing, posing, clarifying, and
Problem situations: recognizing, posing, clarifying, and solving
Task situations: recognizing, posing, clarifying, and
Decision situations: recognizing, posing, clarifying, and making
In summary, getting better at problem solving means learning to make
effective use of tools, and using higher-order critical, creative,
wise, and foresightful thinking to do all of the bulleted items.
Early humans were prisoners of their sensory-motor limitations.
They had an increasingly capable brain, but couldn't yet get beyond its
solitary limitations. One solution was to blame evil spirits. Another
was the beginning of the long intellectual trek towards “science-based”
solutions to problems they faced—to try to understand underlying
reasons and theory, and then try to figure out solutions.
The concepts of germs and germ theory provide an interesting
historical example of such complexity. Before germs were discovered,
people blamed various diseases on evil spirits and tried to develop
techniques to avoid or placate these evil spirits. Eventually
researchers developed tools and knowledge that were a more useful
explanation than that of evil spirits. Quoting from http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/
[Using a microscope] Anton Van Leeuwenhoek was the
first to see and
describe bacteria (1674), yeast plants, the teeming life in a drop of
water, and the circulation of blood corpuscles in capillaries.
Leeuwenhoek’s careful research combined with the use of a relatively
new scientific instrument helped to dispel the magic and pave the way
to major changes in our understanding of medicine. Now, soap and water,
handkerchiefs, hospital cleanliness, and antibiotics help address the
continuing complex problem of bacterial infection. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germ_theory_of_disease.
Mind and Body Tools
Over the millennia, humans have become increasingly good at
creating and using mind and body tools to help solve complex problems.
The 3 R’s are examples of brain/mind tools. Here is a very brief
history of the development of the three R’s.
Agriculture was developed a little more than ten thousand years ago.
This made it possible for nomadic hunters to gather in villages
(farming communities). The expansion of agriculture, population
density, and commerce led to the need for reading, writing, and
computational arithmetic based on using reading and writing. These were
developed a little more than five thousand years ago.
The early agricultural practices could be learned through a combination
of imitation, informal education, and on-the-job training. However,
reading, writing, and arithmetic provided a different type of
complexity and educational challenge.
I find it quite interesting to see children using a “black box” that we
call a smart phone. Fifty years ago, before the invention of the first
cell phone, many people would have thought of today’s cell phone as
magic. Today’s children have relatively little trouble learning to use
a smart phone—they learn from each other and by experimentation what it
can do and how to “do it.” However, they usually have very little
insight into what is inside the box and how it works. In many
problem-solving situations, people now “call on” their smart phone
rather than on the deities for help. For more discussion of this topic,
see Moursund (2010).
We Are A Social Species
We're a social species, so not everyone has to start from
scratch and figure out how to solve each particular problem or concern.
A few inspired problem solvers are enough, because the explanation and
solution can then spread through informal and formal educational
processes and technologies.
Central to all of this is:
Using our increasingly educated higher-order, critical, creative,
and foresightful thought processes.
Developing tools that aid our brains and physical bodies.
Broadly disseminating the results of innovation via
demonstration, informal and formal education, and product development
Smart phone and tablet computers provide an excellent example.
Typically they combine telephone, cameras, data collection, Internet
connectivity, and computers. The combination of such tools is of
considerable value to users. The social value is seen in the very high
usage level of these tools in messaging and social networking, and in
other types of communication and sharing in their daily lives.
Ownership is a key issue in problem solving. I might have a
particular problem that does not interest or concern you. The ways in
which I deal with my personal problems may be quite different from the
ways in which you deal with your personal problems.
Many of the problems faced by an individual are different from problems
faced by a family or neighborhood or community. Those problems
often differ from those faced by a corporation, city, state,
nation, or the earth.
For example, the U.S. federal government is challenged by many
interacting and overlapping national issues, exacerbated by diverse
perspectives within the congressional, executive, and judicial branches
of the government. Consider just a few: debts and income, international
competition, worldwide sustainability, malnutrition, disease,
terrorism, education, aging, and rapid changes emerging out of science
and technology. The levels of complexity are overwhelming.
Thus, in total, clearly identifying problems and tasks important to
various people, groups, organizations, and entities, and making
progress toward their solution, is a very challenging and complex
It is unreasonable to expect that a person will gain a high level of
expertise in solving all of the different types of problems the person
encounters in life. Instead, our educational system and employment
practices facilitate the development of people with a high level of
expertise in one or a few areas, and we have come to make use of such
expertise. For example, individually, we hire experts to deal with
complex medical, investment, housing, and education problems. Of
course, this approach to dealing with complex problems creates the
problem of earning enough to pay for such goods and services.
The well-known phrase, "It takes a whole village to raise a child"
identifies child rearing as a complex problem. We're a social species
who have learned to live and work together in dealing with child
rearing and many other problems related to our species survival. Think
about how parenting, schools, and informal education provide the basic
skills that children need to understand and solve more complex problems.
Benjamin Bloom captures the essence and promise of education.
After 40 years of intensive research on school
learning in the United
States as well as abroad, my major conclusion is: What any person in
the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with the
appropriate prior and current conditions of learning. (Benjamin S.
Bloom; American educational psychologist; 1913–1999.)
The Internet, Web, and Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCS) are all
modern aids to help people gain the knowledge and skills they need to
help solve problems and accomplish tasks that interest them.
Telling the Stories
This sequence of IAE Newsletters
will relay stories about how individuals and groups come to understand
and master complexity, and how using these examples can improve school
instruction. The next newsletter in the series will describe how a
parental football fan helped his interested eight-year old son
understand the complexity of football. Some combination of a father and
son bonding, individual parental tutoring, and intrinsic child
motivation led to relatively quick and deep learning. Intrinsic
motivation and individual tutoring can and do enhance learning.
The young can also teach their elders. A subsequent article describes
how an adult learned a computer game through the help and
encouragement of two daughters and a granddaughter. This very
moving experience reinforced my belief that one is never too old to
learn, and that each person is a teacher. This story also gives new
insights into informal ways of teaching and learning.
A subsequent article describes how the education profession moved from
a Behaviorist perspective of teaching to our modern one, which
incorporates discoveries being made by cognitive neuroscientists.
During the past 50 years, educators have moved from being relatively
naive about the neurobiology of the brain that defined their profession
to becoming quite knowledgeable. They could not have accomplished this
without the assistance of cognitive neuroscientists.
The complex problems of long-distance communication and transportation,
along with a need for storage and retrieval of written materials,
graphical materials, sound, and video have led to the development of
the printing press, steam locomotive, telegraph, photography,
telephone, audio recording and playback, radio, cars, airplanes,
television, computers, and space ships. The early abacus helped us to
perform arithmetic, and we now routinely use calculators and computers
in this task. Many of the complexities of disease are now understood at
a level that has allowed the development of medical practices and aids
that are helping us effectively deal with many of these complexities.
Many of the tools we have developed to aid our physical and mental
capabilities are so complex that it takes years to master effective and
appropriate use of the tools. Our efforts to deal with complexity often
lead to the development of still more complexity.
It isn't enough just to learn—one must learn how to learn, how to learn
without classrooms, without teachers, without textbooks. Learn, in
short, how to think and analyze and decide and discover and create.
(Michael Bassis; American educator and author; 1946–.)
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