Sometimes we can get caught up in trying to find ever more complex reasons for why something happens. We use bigger words; we divide concepts up into smaller and smaller fields, fracturing them beyond recognition. Are we missing the simplicity that can inform some of our most profound moments of learning?
Recently I have written a lot about the levels of higher education here in the UK. These levels talk about the types of skills and knowledge that is required of learners at a specific point in their higher education. The offer verbs that can be used by people writing HE programmes and by students being assessed in those programmes to describe the type of learning that may be occurring. There is an increasing complexity as we progress through a programme. For example at level 4 (first year undergraduate) you may simply know something, at level 6 you may need to apply and analyse something and when you reach level 7 (Masters level) you will need to be able to critically evaluate, share and apply that thing to new circumstances. One of the criticisms of these levels is that there is an assumption that the more complex the processes, the higher the level of learning that may be occurring.
But is higher level learning that can evolve from simpler tasks? Aside from the zen implications (!) the completion of what might appear simple or ‘easy’ tasks, or the learning of knowledge that others might think straightforward can lead to higher level learning. Identifying simplicity in something, finding the ideas, the theories and the practice that make it simple, and make it work can be a very critical and evaluative process.
Of course, being me, there is a music example. This year in a moment of sheer kitsch and fun I went to Eurovision in Dusseldorf, Germany. Now, Australian readers amongst you clearly understand why anyone would want to go to Eurovision, but it is not a universally acknowledged major tourist attraction. It is, however, one of the most watched TV events in Europe year. The songs themselves are usually criticised for their tacky lyrics and melodramatic euro-pop stylings. But the funny thing is they sell records, people vote, even people with more high-brow music tastes find joy in them. I have spent the last two days listening to Eurovision songs as background music for some difficult writing I had to do and found myself thinking critically about the way the song was written and produced. What makes them catchy and have that hook? Those of you seeking song-writing glory can rest assured that I don’t the answer, but what I did hear is simplicity; easy to sing lyrics, memorable chord changes and relatively sparse simple arrangements.
I am not going to argue that complexity is bad. There is much to be said for the ability to see new solutions to problems through complexity. Complexity also develops the ability to be flexible and responsive in the face of ever changing environments. Complexity supports multi-tasking, inter-discipline thinking and creativity. There is however something to be said for being able to see the simplicity in concepts, the beauty of a simple idea or the learning that can come from doing a simple thing very well and sharing it with others. In a world where knowledge is being constructed, reproduced and opinionated at an ever increasing pace, and where markets, practices and expertise are shattering into micro-fragments in order to find a competitive advantage or to differentiate oneself, being able to seek and find simplicity, and to be able to explain and contextualise that simplicity within your own practice, your learning and education or just to share it is something we should perhaps do more often.