Coping with Complexity

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.

      An Introductory Update
      While writing this page in 2001, using ideas I had been thinking about since 1993, I was motivated to develop simpler methods for teaching design and science:
      A model focusing on three elements (goals, observations, predictions) is used in An Introduction to Design and A Brief Overview of Design.  Another model with three elements (observations, predictions, theory) is used in An Introduction to Science.  Relationships between these models are examined in a page that compares Design and Science to find their similarities and differences.  Even while using these simple models, however, strategies for "coping with complexity" will be useful.

      This page contains two sections: Strategies for Effective Teaching, and Essential Tension in Models.

      Strategies for Effective Teaching
      When a complex process (like design or science) is described in a model (like IDM or ISM) there is a tension between the conflicting criteria of simplicity and completeness.  When a model is more complete it allows a more accurate description, but the resulting complexity can make the model less useful for education if students feel overwhelmed and confused because too many concepts are presented too quickly.
      But this potential difficulty can be minimized — thus allowing a model to be used for teaching students of different ages and experience, abilities and interest — if the information content of the model is adjusted by simplification and enrichment.  For example, in two pages (Introduction to Design and Overview of Design) IDM is described in two ways, using visual diagrams (shown below) and verbal descriptions that vary in detail, beginning with simplicity and building toward completeness and complexity.

      Of course, these descriptions of design could be further enriched by including more details in a diagram or description.
      To help students cope with complexity while you are helping them develop an understanding that is deeper and more complete, a useful teaching tool is an isolation that makes it easier for students to focus their attention on one part of the IDM diagram.  This can be done by using a special diagram that has one part highlighted with a white background, as shown below, or by using a regular diagram and covering everything except the part that is the current focus of attention.

      Isolations (with students focusing on the "highlighted in white" part of the whole) can be used in a whole-part-whole teaching method that shifts back and forth between the whole diagram and isolations.  Used skillfully, this method will help students learn more about each part of IDM and its relationship to other parts and to the whole, as they learn to understand and appreciate the organized complexity of design.  A whole-part-whole approach is useful for gradually building complexity while avoiding an information overload.  It can also help students improve their ability to interpret visual symbolism and to understand the logical relationships within complex systems of concepts.  Just as important, they can gain confidence in their ability to cope with complexity.
      Another principle for effective teaching is to use IDM in the context of student actions and experiences.  Instead of lecturing about "design method" as an abstract concept that students have little reason to care about, IDM can be an integral part of students' personal experience.  After they have worked on a design project, a teacher can help them think about what they have done, why it worked, and how they can improve it for their projects in the future.  The ideas in IDM should be connected with what students recently have experienced, now are experiencing, or soon will experience.  When a designing activity is accompanied by a reflection activity that encourages introspective metacognition, the combination is more effective than either the designing or the reflection would be by itself.  Ideally, intrinsically interesting design activities and reflection activities will be coordinated into a wide spiral curriculum (as discussed in Part 2 of Problem Solving in Education) that integrates design with science.
      Strategies for effective teachingsuch as simplifying or enriching, building complexity in gradual steps, showing whole-part-whole relationships, and connecting action with reflectionare used daily by good teachers.  Effective instruction of any type requires wise "adjustment decisions" about selection and sequencing, with the goal of maintaining an appropriate pace (not too slow, not too fast) and level (not too easy, not too difficult) for the majority of students in a classroom.  The same sensitive awareness and improvising skill that allows effective teaching in other areas will also make it possible to teach effectively using IDM and ISM.

      Essential Tension in Models
      When we try to represent a complex process with a simple model, tensions are unavoidable.
      In the early days of developing ISM, when I showed people the ISM-diagram a common criticism was that "It's too complicated, and students will feel overwhelmed."  My response to this valid concern, which has influenced the subsequent development of ISM and then IDM, is based on three principles:
      First, the process of science is complex, so an accurate model of science must be complex.
      Second, a model is a simplified representation of reality, and each model contains many factors that can be adjusted in an attempt to achieve various goals, as explained in Describing Science using a Flexible Framework.
      Third, in order to achieve common educational goals we need effective teaching strategies for coping with complexity, as discussed above.

      This subsection examines the second principle, the goal-directed construction of models.  Let's imagine that, in a series of case studies, we are analyzing fifty examples of problem solving across a wide range of design and science.  We will find that some core actions occur in all cases, while some auxiliary actions vary from one case to another.  If we want to construct a general model that is always applicable, we include only the core actions.  But for a model that allows a complete description of specific cases, we also need auxiliary actions.  Thus, our judgments about whether we have constructed an optimally useful model will depend on how we have defined our goals.
      In a model, should we aim for maximum generality, maximum specificity, or an optimal balance?  And how should we define optimality?  When constructing models, it is often difficult to achieve a balance between conflicting goals and the associated conflicting criteria.  And a desirable balance varies with context.  A good balance between simplicity and completeness will be different for education in elementary school, high school, and college.  And it will differ for basic education and for scholarly research. ...

      a note for the reader:  This subsection, which is being temporarily abandoned, will eventually include the following topics:
      • why I began with ISM and then constructed IDM;
      • why IDM is simpler than ISM even though design is not simpler than science;
      • relationships between generalizing, core actions and simplicity, and between specificity, auxiliary actions, completeness and complexity, and between all of these and the flexible improvising (like a hockey skater, not a figure skater) discussed in Methods for Problem Solving.
      • viewing IDM (or ISM) as a "family of models" differing in level of detail;
      • defining "importance" in two ways, for problem solving and for education;
      • how generality and specificity are related to transfer of skills.

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