Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Complex vs. Complicated Classrooms

When integrating a new system like technology into your classroom, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. It is fascinating how something that is being marketed as a tool that can simplify your process can, in fact, seem as if it is complicating the goals and objectives you have for students. Once again inspired by excellent Ted Talks, I wanted to take the chance to explore what is really going on in classrooms. Looking for that simple solution in the midst of a complicated system, I began to look at what makes things complicated. This is what I am discovering.

So is your classroom Complex or Complicated?

The first step is to evaluate if your classroom is complex or complicated. A complex system is composed of many parts that can be broken down into simpler systems. They all work together for the greater good. A complicated system is composed of complicated parts. These parts are not simple on their own and often they are difficult and problematic. From this oversimplified definition, I come up with the following conclusion for your classroom.

If your classroom is complex, it might have many different parts working together for the same goal. It might be really easy to run while being successful. If you have a complicated classroom, it would be made of many difficult parts, and there would be constant obstacles to overcome. Each difficult part, when subtracted from the whole, might present specific challenges that are difficult to overcome.

Ways to move your classroom from complicated to a more complex system.

When looking to change your classroom dynamic, you should look to evaluate your processes and look for ways to make them less complicated. For example, how do your students turn in their work? If you have a situation where many of your students are not getting their work turned in, you have a chance to evaluate the system that is in place for them to do so. Is it complex, or complicated? If it is complex, the process to turn in the work will be made from many smaller simple steps and rules that in themselves are easy to perform. If however the steps involved in turning in work contain sub-steps and unidentified pre-requisite knowledge, the system turns complicated quickly. As Eric Berlow puts it in his Ted Talk below, "the more you stand back and embrace complexity, the more chance you have of seeing simple answers."

Technology in education has a significant hurdle that can turn your processes into complicated messes. When you take a complex system like turning in work, the complexity hurdles begin to form due to the pre-requisite skills needed to make the individual parts of the system simple. The once simple process of putting a completed paper into the basket has now turned into convert the document into the proper file type, then upload to the website and share the link with the teacher. Within that process are hundreds of smaller steps that involve specific technology skills and even vocabulary that may not have been a part of the teacher and students previous sphere of knowledge. The secret to a successful technology integration is to not take those steps for granted, step back and see them for what they are, and find simple solutions to make the system less complicated.

On a side note, think about this one fact when evaluating your classroom routines and procedures. Students starting in pre-school are being given the pre-requisite skills in the pen and paper world to be able to properly function in all of their advancing studies. These skills are being leveraged each day by teachers and built into classroom procedures. In pre-school, no teacher says "put a heading on your paper and turn it in." Students at that level have no idea what a heading is. In later grades, however, students are asked all of the time to "put a heading on their paper and turn it in." Students that have mastered this skill have a very little problem operating in this complex system. Students that have a difficult time with this skill would find this classroom procedure to be very complicated.

Imagine now the situation that the educational technology community works in. We typically give students technology in later grades, although I hope to see this change. They have been given very little or no pre-requisite skills in technology instruction and are being asked to "turn in their work to the server." This yields frustration on the part of the teacher and the student. It is important to step back and look at the complexity of this procedure to make it successful. I joke around that each person I meet has had at least 30 minutes of classroom training on how to fill out a bubble sheet test form. You are taught to fill in the bubble, not stray outside the lines, not to write on the side of the page, and to always use a number two pencil. Often our students are not given any time to learn the technology that they are expected to utilize to turn in a well-crafted paper.

-Jason Cross-

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