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Earlier, I wrote about differentiation as the balance of student’s skill with complexity of their task.
An imbalance of skill and complexity leads to boredom or frustration. It’s easy to assume that frustration is the real problem, while boredom is a less pressing issue. It might be nice to fix, but isn’t really required.
Look, however, what happens when things aren’t complex enough…
Bored Famous People
If there isn’t enough complexity in a task, people will try to add in complexity to increase interest. I like to use three examples of famous experts to illustrate this.
1) Michael Jordan would get bored scoring on his opponents over and over. So (to add complexity) he would tell his defenders his next move… and still score.
We were running up the court side-by-side and he told me: “Listen man, I’m hitting everything, so I’m gonna tell you what I’m gonna do this time and see if you can stop it…” ~ Craig Ehlo
2) World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer moved away from regular chess and created a randomized version of chess called Chess 960. High level chess had become too boring for him!
3) Perhaps Picasso’s Blue Period can be seen as a way of adding complexity to make painting more interesting to the master. “What if I only used one color…”
Looks like bad behavior
In each case, others could easily interpret this addition of complexity as bad behavior.
- Jordan’s teammates and coach probably didn’t appreciate him giving away his next move.
- Fischer’s peers were disappointed in him abandoning “real chess” to pursue a novelty game.
- Picasso’s fans may have been confused by his sudden focus on one color.
In each case, our expert is adding complexity simply to increase their own personal enjoyment, not to advance in their careers or gain more fame.
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Do our students do this?
You can probably think of examples where students have added complexity into a boring task to make it interesting for them:
- Students write their math responses in mirrored-writing during practice.
- Shared from a workshop: a student used her weekly spelling sentences to write an ongoing story. She adapted each week’s words to fit her year-long tale!
- Students try to do as much as possible in their heads rather than writing it out.
- Kids take a simple assignment, and turn it into a stop motion film, 3D diorama, sci-fi narrative, etc.
- Finally, procrastination may be a way for some students to add complexity to a task. Can I do it all the morning that it’s due!?
Some of these are almost always categorized as “bad behavior.” Teachers since the dawn of time have been trying to cure #3 and #5.
And #2 and #4 are cute attempts at self-differentiation, but shouldn’t the teacher be supplying the engaging tasks, not the student?
The Right Complexity Reduces Problems
These issues, easily interpreted as defiance or obstinance, may really stem from a lack of complexity in the task.
Dialing in the complexity to its correct amount will settle your unchallenged learners down and give your class something meaningful to tackle.
And, of course, complexity can be dialed down for learners who are not ready for even grade-level challenges.
Differentiation means being aware of both a student’s skill and the complexity of a task. And it’s easier to adjust a task in the short term than to change a student’s skill.