Friday, September 22, 2017

Tying it all Together: Simplicity, Complexity, and Mastery

Tying it all Together: Simplicity, Complexity, and Mastery


"I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, But I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity."


-- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.


Mastery in any area is a combination of high skill, specialized knowledge - and a disposition towards actually doing it. Mastery must be demonstrated before it is accorded - it is why “masterpieces” were created - and is a concept we need to understand to get mastery in education.  Masters make it look simple.


Mastery, in its most basic form, is undertaking a complex task and repeatedly performing it as though it were simple, with high fluency. This only comes after mastering each of the component tasks.


Simple means that something is composed of a single element. Simplicity is the condition of being simplex, which means being composed of exactly one single component, or element.  


Simplex is an archaic term, but one that I think ought to come back into common use because it is a perfectly symmetrical antonym for complex. I’ll use it, anyway, we should advocate for specific words to be brought back into educational usage.


Complex means that something composed of multiple and differing parts.


Complexity is the condition of being complex. A complicated thing, therefore, has many component parts. It can be taken apart and examined by looking at those component parts. It can be described by what those parts do as well as what they are, or it can be described by the nature of the thing as a whole.


School is about teaching to mastery with constant forward motion in acquiring skill built upon fluency.  


So what does it mean to be in the “simplicity this side of complexity”?


For our students it represents the current level of authentic mastery.  It is the highest point at which they have a meaningful degree of fluency with a skill or with knowledge. It is a task they can do or a problem they can solve. It is simple. For some, attempting to do or know anything beyond that level is avoided because it is complicated. Having a fixed or permanent skill level is simple, it is that one unchanging thing. It makes things simple on a big scale if there is one set of things you know and can do, and there is the set of all of the things that you do not know and cannot do. The suffix -plex refers to creating something by weaving or by braiding, ergo simplex being a thread, complex being a cloth. Complex: with plaits, or entwined. It implies that all component things are connected, woven together, and they are.


Simplicity in Mr. Holmes quote is divided into two parts: simplicity on this side of complexity, and simplicity on the other side of complexity. In this cycle, complexity resides once, between. This is a brilliant observation.


Simple things are those things, that when asked if you can do them you say, “Oh, no problem, that’s simple.”


For most people, there is nothing wrong with this. But in our business we need to realize that  learning, in and of  itself, is a change agent, and that the entire point of learning is to change the complex into simple. We must do this for multiple individual learners at multiple levels of mastery - and all at the same time, too. Complex must become simple for our students, over and over and over again. This is teaching.


Scaffolding for Future Learning and Connecting to Prior Learning


But for that to happen we must push our students pretty hard, and make them run right into a thick barrier of complexity. New ideas, knowledge, words, understanding and theory that  - at first - might tempt them back into simple mode, which may seem much safer. Learning is crowded with complexity.  There is a lot of friction is in a learning space, and it can heat up. It is easy to stop and turn around and keep it simple. To work around this friction we must scaffold instruction to lift our students beyond the friction and build those structures that support their efforts to move above their current state, and at the same time constantly connect current instruction to prior learning so that they can rise on their own.  


Back to Endurance


But many do endure on their path to understand the complex, and let’s be honest, some things are going to be complex, and some things are going to be VERY complex, it’s not easy. You are immersed into the risk of failing to master it. But if you can build endurance in students at an early age, they can stick with it -  then the patterns and structures which underlie complexity become visible, and interrelated, and meaningful. And at that point where the many parts all come together into one thing, then the whole thing again becomes simple. It becomes simple because you mastered it. It becomes one thing, again.


Mastery is a Measure of Having High Fluency with Complex Things


This is the simplicity on the other side of complexity. This is exactly what mastery is - when the collection of age-appropriate skill and  knowledge and a disposition to action makes a student a master of something according to what he or she was taught to do. A thing they know or can do with fluency.   And yet... you now also know that you also find that student - again - in the simplicity on this side of the next complexity. Ask the essential question: What side are the students on?


Leonardo Da Vinci said that “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication


If you think about it, “sophistication” is also frequently used as a synonym for complex things - rather than simple - I do that myself.


I believe, though, that it may be backwards: In real life it is simplicity which is often an indication of sophistication, of professionalism, of using intelligence to reduce, simplify, standardize, and clarify. And most complexity - the addition of more unneeded parts - actually makes things less effective, take longer, and more likely to add additional failure points. Smart people work to avoid these things.  Da Vinci is right.


In my experience the need to complicate things is almost always the signature of an unskilled or uneducated person. The smartest people usually conquer complexity with systems and methods that are models of high-order sorting - which makes things simple. Organization reduces complexity. So does method. So does patience.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Response to School Efficiency article by Dr. Hicks, Courier-Times, 9-8-2017

(Response to School Efficiency article by Dr. Hicks, Courier-Times, 9-8-2017)

The Courier-Times ran an editorial by Ball State’s Dr. Michael Hicks on September 1st. Dr. Hicks is well-known for his studies that small schools are inefficient and should consolidate with other schools, but in his column there are some points that are presented incorrectly. I’ve worked in the largest school in east-central Indiana and now work in one of the smallest schools, so I would like to add some of my own observations and explanations.

First of all, Dr. Hicks states that small schools have higher overhead costs per pupil compared to larger schools, which keeps funds from being spent on instruction. This is false. Funds used for non-instructional areas, like maintaining school facilities, are funds raised by taxes and can only be used for those areas. A school’s general fund is used to pay for instructional costs. And I can’t spend those funds otherwise. It’s actually the law. In fact, Ball State University , Dr. Hicks’ employer, spends a full 25% of their budget on other “operating costs.”  You just kind of have to do that to operate a school.

He spends a lot of time on AP courses and tests, too, specifically naming a school, Barr-Reeve, as having an AP test pass rate “well below state average”. But Dr. Hicks only used AP rates in algebra and biology, and  that’s not really a  true measure, since Indiana’s overall AP pass rate for all tests is about 41%, and Bare-Reeve’s is closer to 50%. And even if they were lower, being slightly below average in one narrow area is not the same thing as having “shockingly poor outcomes”.

He states the only reason for smaller schools having lower AP pass rates is “attributable solely to the overhead costs of running a small corporation.”  How is this odd, singular outcome of AP pass rates related to a very specific cause such as overhead costs in any way? You have to pay overhead costs to run any school, but there is no explicit connection between operating costs and AP pass rates in biology and algebra. Why would AP pass rates go up if a school spend less money in operating costs? Is this the one thing that schools would work on harder if they had more instructional money and less operating money?

In the end we arrive at the actual reason that most small schools are not actively looking to consolidate. Dr. Hicks states that consolidation of two or more schools is “quick and painless” when it clearly is not. Operating small schools is tough for a lot of reasons, and running urban schools is tough for a lot of reasons. I’ve done both, and a few years ago I worked in a larger school that only consolidated internal school buildings. No other school corporation was involved at all. It was long and painful.  And many of our families had real and genuine reasons for opposing these changes. They weren’t simply “defending wasteful government and less effective instruction. “ They were real families who had made major life decisions based upon school circumstances that were suddenly changing.

Dr. Hicks’ proposal would merge all of our small schools into corporations between the  size of Blackford County Schools and the low side and  New Palestine Schools at the high side.  20% of all Indiana students are currently in small schools with less than 2000 students and they are distributed across the state in areas which are not highly populated.

On the other hand, another 20% of all Indiana students are enrolled in just the largest 10 school districts, and the smallest of those 10 large schools, Lawrence Township, has about 15,000 students in it.  This does not automatically make it the 10th most efficient school in Indiana. It doesn’t make it 20 times more efficient than smaller schools.  And Lawrence Central and Lawrence North’s  AP pass rates in English are lower than the state average.

I could list many reasons why small schools are good and effective and even efficient when you consider their location and geography. And finally, considering that schools spend all of their money in order to educate all of Indiana’s 1 million students, I prefer to think of it as being “invested” rather than wasted. And it’s an investment I expect a return on. Because I believe in our local small Hoosier schools.

I will leave with a quote from a 26-year-old paper by Jim Cooze, a Canadian educator who arrived at a different conclusion about this very same efficiency metric: “... it might be argued that this approach is really an investigation of resource allocation rather than efficiency.”

Yep. It is that simple. Small schools and large schools are different in size and spend resources differently.

Fluency and the Learning Brain

Fluency and the Learning Brain

Fluency is defined as the ability to speak or read with speed, accuracy, and proper expression.

It comes from the same etymological source as “flowing” - such as with a river’s movement: steady and even, and the same source of the word, affluent, flowing with great quantity -  or having a great quantity.  Of having fluidity - a smoothness or gracefulness.

Explicit in fluency is that ability to communicate with fluidity - without breaks or halts - both in speaking or silently reading. In reading fluency specifically, the ability to comprehend the meaning of the text is a requirement of fluency, not just the ability to pronounce the words as they are written. And reading should be quick, accurately understood, and confidently accomplished.  A student should be able to repeat what is heard or read by paraphrasing or using metaphorical (or cultural) language as a shortcut to repeating it verbatim.  And although all of our students should be reading as much as possible, fluency is one area where teachers must hear students reading. And this is appropriate in every single class and content area. Arts, P.E., the humanities, math and sciences. Every one.

Fluency is the major part of reading proficiency, but the concept of fluency is not limited to language. It is logical to use the term universally as a mastery term that refers to high performance levels in any skill. The ability to do something with fluidity.

Dr. S. Jay Samuels, a researcher in fluency, studies automaticity theory. He looks at the science of how people learn through repetition and practice until they master it and it becomes automatic.

Like Zipf, he posits that people have a limited amount of mental energy, and that amount is different from person to person and that mental energy is - in and of itself -  an intellectual function that correlates with achievement. Therefore, if you want to become “fluent” at a complex task you have to work at the subordinate simple tasks, often one-by-one, over and over again, until you are fluent in each of them, and then mix those simple tasks into complex tasks. And he literally means “work” - which literally means the student is putting in the purposeful effort and spending time practicing with a highly effective teacher/coach who is selecting materials, coaching, correcting, and monitoring practice and progress towards higher outcomes. For many people, however, intellectual functions tax their mental energy. This leads to fatigue and fatigue becomes a barrier to growth, which becomes a barrier to fluidity.

But fatigue (low mental energy) is not a function of intelligence but rather it is a function of endurance -  and everyone can increase their endurance.  To do that, however, requires that we repeatedly train students to be able to continue with more challenging work over longer periods of time.

This process, though, is often a task that the teacher or the school interrupts - either due to time restrictions (obviously the school schedule is the most common reason we interrupt instruction in our profession!) or to a perception of student fatigue being higher than it really is - before enough practice has occurred. This is an area where teachers need to study great athletic coaches or master drill sergeants. People who know that the key phrase always is, “Very good. Let me show you how to do this part better. Now - do it again.” Remember that students are supposed to be doing most of the work in school. And I never met a bored drill sergeant - and I’ve even met  a few high school coaches who were their equal in rigorous training and coaching.  For many 21st Century people (aka, all of our students...) endurance is their weakness in a lot of areas.

Dr. Samuels writes, “...a reader who must focus his or her attention on decoding words may not have enough mental energy left over to think about the meaning of the text. However, a fluent reader who can automatically decode the words can instead give full attention to comprehending the text. To become proficient readers, our students need to become automatic with text so they can pay attention to the meaning.”  

The exact same philosophy works with almost all areas of learning - master the automaticity to pay attention to the purpose of the learning.

This takes authentic student work, high quality first-time core instruction, and repetitive reinforcement from the teacher to build up mental endurance. All of which, especially in the grades before 9th grade, must be done in a literacy context with even higher expectations after every success.