Complicated teaching practices in a complex world

A few weeks ago I wrote about Malcolm Gladwell’s distinction between “puzzles” and “mysteries,” and the implications of this difference for teaching and learning. I didn’t know until recently that someone else, Larry Ferlazzo, blogged about the very same concept, though with a slightly different application. He recently referenced this post in a newer post, where he discusses the difference between “complicated” and “complex,” which was based on an article by Larry Cuban. In a nutshell, he describes the difference in the following way:

A complicated system assumes expert and rational leaders, top-down planning, smooth implementation of policies, and a clock-like organization that runs smoothly. Work is specified and delegated to particular units.


Complex systems like criminal justice, health care, and schools, however, are filled with hundreds of moving parts, scores of players of varied expertise and independence yet missing a “mission control” that runs all these different parts within an ever-changing political, economic, and societal environment.

Cuban’s description of complicated and complex environments really resonated with me, and I have done some thinking on the matter. What really struck a chord with me is the relevance of this comparison to educational technology, specifically coursework and professional development on how to use technology in the classroom.

My observation about many of the teaching practices in schools these days is that they are not very complicated. In fact, after a full semester of observing several student teachers concurrently last year, I would say that much of what goes in classrooms is fairly routine (which, according to Merriam-Webster, is: habitual or mechanical performance of an established procedure).  This statement applies to the cooperating instructors as much as it does to the teacher candidates. Why is this? Are teachers lazy? Do they have priorities other than teaching? Are they burned out? Actually, no. The overwhelming majority of teachers I have met and worked with love their students, love their school, love their co-workers and are passionate about the profession.  Yet many of them show up everyday and do the same tick-tock of learning activities with their students, week in and week out.

I think one explanation for why teachers approach their instruction this way is that schools, and classrooms in particular, are complex environments. Teachers have to be sensitive to and balance differences in student ability, behavior, background and home influences, and motivation/engagement. Add to this a very top-down system of curriculum, mandates, expectations and accountability, and it’s not too hard to understand why young teachers choose to take a different career path after a few years. Classrooms are complex, with many moving parts, each of which influence each other. I think many teachers choose to simplify their teaching because it’s one thing they can do to maintain their sanity and have a life outside of work. Sure, there are those who have made work their life. This was definitely the case for me as an early career teacher with no wife or children and, honestly, not much else to do.

One mantra you will hear from technology apologists like myself is that if you ever decide to use technology in your instruction, make sure you have a Plan B. I rarely had a Plan B, and thankfully I had very few experiences when the technology failed me. But this is what gets taught. If you want to teach with technology, have a backup plan. So, does this mean teachers should plan two lessons? I guess it could, which means you have already lost half of your teachers because they barely have time to plan one lesson. If a teacher really knows the lesson inside-out, he or she should be able to make something out of it should the technology fail completely (laptops aren’t charged, Wi-F isn’t working, servers crash, etc.). But many teachers are turned off by the mere possibility that something could go wrong, leaving them stranded in front of the class with absolutely no clue for how to resolve the issue. When you think about it, whether you are a geek or a total luddite, teaching with technology is complicated. Technology is complicated for most people. It involves steps and protocols, knowledge of different interfaces and nuances that vary between programs, and to some people they feel as if they are learning a new language. It’s complicated … and intimidating … and something they are very reluctant to try. Human nature leads us toward a desire for mastery, so why would someone introduce a complicated factor into an already complex environment and risk feeling stupid?

I don’t have an answer to that question. I do, however, think that it’s important to give inservice and preservice teachers the opportunity to plan, implement and evaluate complicated technology-rich lessons in a complex environment. Most of the projects I have had my preservice teachers do over the years have been done in a pretty sterile environment. The focus has been more on getting the project done on time rather than designing something that students will ultimately learn from. Tech-based internships or field experiences are a way to address this problem, but I know from experience how time and labor intensive they can be. And we are at a time when some teacher education programs are looking to reduce course loads, not add to them. Everyone already thinks their secret ingredient should be added to the special sauce of field experiences, and at some point they may cease to be useful to the preservice teachers get too distracted from the practice of planning and delivering instruction, and assessing student learning.

This post, for me, has generated a lot of questions that I hope to grapple with and address in the coming weeks. Thoughts? I would love to hear what you have to say.

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