Decoding complexity

If we really want to address the messiness of the real world and build better things, we need to engage with the idea of complexity

February 17, 2024 02:47 pm | Updated 02:47 pm IST

The next time you struggle with a new skill, remember to appreciate its complexity.

The next time you struggle with a new skill, remember to appreciate its complexity. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockPhoto

Eleven minutes. That is the attention span of an average student. To cope with this, instructional designers and content creators break down information into bite-sized pieces and quick answers, in the name of making learning easier. Learning to focus is not the only skill needed in an age of flashy videos and endless notifications. One of the most underrated skills is to appreciate the value of complexity.

In a world where everything is expected in neatly ordered packages, we shy away from complexity. It is natural to seek clear-cut answers and simplified narratives. But such an approach to learning ends up in a filtered reality. Convenience is favoured over meaningful learning. Most real-world scenarios are inherently unpredictable and complex.

Complex, complicated and simple

What does being complex mean? How it is different from being complicated? What is the role of simple and simplistic? Complexity is not about jargon and equations. Complexity is not chaos. There is an underlying order, even if it is tricky to see. It is understanding the interconnections that make the world move. It is a dance of parts as in ecosystems or a well-orchestrated symphony. In contrast, complicated suggests a tangled mess, like a knotty rope or a malfunctioning gadget that can be fixed with effort, where the result is predictable.

To make complex things simple and understandable is a difficult task that requires a lot of clarity. Paradoxically, those efforts begin from appreciating the complexity of the learning material. Ask an accomplished learner in any field, and they will likely recount sailing through complexity to reach their current clarity of thought.

Simplicity will remain the ultimate sophistication. On the other hand, being simplistic means you are falling for the danger of oversimplification, which leaves out the richness of the skill and strips away the depth of learning.

Many rate the severity of the climate crisis at 10 on a 10-point scale while the personal response remains below. We need large-scale actions that grasp the complexity of actors in such challenges to go deeper than a packaged curriculum, warns Manish Jain, co-founder of Complexity University, a platform addressing complex challenges faced by humanity. As every academic discipline is an adventure in complexity, the ability to appreciate complexity leads to meaningful learning experiences. How can we embed complexity into education without overwhelming students?

Possible tools

Could a butterfly flapping its wings vigorously in a remote part of India create a tornado in California? It may happen according to chaos theory, a concept in the study of complex systems. It is about how small changes or tiny actions can lead to unexpected results in complex systems. System thinking is a prominent way that learners can apply to understand complexity. The world is full of systems and everything around us — from the classroom to the cosmic — connects in complex yet fascinating ways.

Another way is abstraction: distilling the essence from the chaos. Abstraction helps students focus on the essentials of a concept and filter out irrelevant details. At first, the concept may appear messy but, with exploration, we understand the inter-connectedness holistically. Skills of abstraction make complexity manageable just like using a map as a guide to a new terrain. Like stories lure our attention towards meaningful knowledge, skills of abstract thinking allow us to grapple with complexity.

While many think trigonometry is difficult, the real problem is that we think of the topic as a dry collection of formulas devoid of any practical use. Or we fail to present the abstraction involved in the subject in concrete and useful ways. Once we are familiar with the abstractions used in trigonometry — how energy or shapes dance in Physics, build bridges and navigate stars — learning takes a different turn. Engaging with diverse learning material and narratives is another way to enhance cognitive flexibility and critical thinking and see the complexities of varied human experiences.

The sweet spot

If we do not learn to appreciate the complexity, history will always be learned like good people versus bad people, thereby ignoring the beauty that makes the subject interesting. It will also lead to simplistic learning, a case of shallow education. So, the next time you struggle with a new skill, remember to appreciate its complexity. Seek good abstractions, search for diverse perspectives, encourage questions over answers, and explore connections over isolated facts.

Where is the sweet spot of a balance between understanding complexity and making things simple? Complex enough to pique interest, abstract enough to keep focus, and deep enough to satisfy the curious mind.

(Views expressed are personal)

The writer is Deputy Secretary with University Grants Commission, New Delhi.

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