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Complexity as a virtue

September 25, 2012

Twenty-Four, Forty-two, and I Love You: Keeping it Complex is an essay by Eleanor Duckworth about embracing the complexity of your subject matter. This essay talks about some of Duckworth’s own experiences in professional development workshops (great discussion about ‘what is east?’) as well as some of her experiences as a teacher.

She talks about having students share things they notice about a poem they’ve just read. Asking students ‘what does this poem mean?’ is intimidating, but everyone can notice something in a poem. The more a student hears about what other people notice, the more she can appreciate the complexity of the poem and the complexity of what the author is trying to say.

“Why doesn’t Shakespeare just say what he means? Of course that’s what he is doing: what he means is complex. The words he chooses are the best he can choose to say what he wants to say.”

Duckworth shares the following quote from Lisa Schneier about the virtues of complexity:

“We organize subject matter into a neat series of steps which assumes a profound uniformity among students. We sand away at the interesting edges of subject matter until it is so free from its natural complexities, so neat, that there is not a crevice left as an opening. All that is left is to hand it to them, scrubbed and smooth, so that they can view it as outsiders.”

In acknowledging and embracing the complexities of science (or any topic) you allow the learner multiple routes into that subject. It is through the complexities that students will make their own personal connections and understand the topic in their own personally meaningful way. Further, it is these personal connections that will allow the student to retrieve and utilize this information in novel ways in the future. Forcing a topic into a neat little box removes all of the fascinating and messy dangling threads that don’t make sense easily. These dangling threads are what (we hope will) encourage the student to further engage with the material. Attempting to understand the dangling threads is one of the primary ways that a student connects the new topic to other ideas.

  1. I was actually just wandering the library today looking for some good books on teaching philosophy and I didn’t find too much. I also didn’t have much time to look though, so I’ll have to go back and see if I can find anything like this. Perhaps the author has written a book as well 🙂

  2. This essay comes from a book by Duckworth called The Having of Wonderful Ideas.

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