Photo by WWWorks
There is a negative connotation when we think of complexity. No one says “Those directions were a little complex” and means it as a compliment. But, complexity in a task is actually highly desirable if it is just the right amount.
Goldilocks and Sudoku
For example, take these three Sudoko puzzles:
I’ll bet that one is too simple, one too complex, and one just right for you. If the puzzle is just complex enough, it balances boredom and frustration.
But, also imagine if this was the first Sudoko puzzle you ever saw. The super simple version might have the perfect amount of complexity for you at your current skill level. And, if you were a Sudoku master, maybe the most complex example would be exactly what you’d need.
The right amount of complexity for a task varies from person to person, and it can change as that person gets better at the skill.
Pick A Game
In workshops, I often ask teachers to pick their favorite game: Tic Tac Toe, Checkers, or Chess.
There’s always a group that chooses each of the three game. I ask, “Why did you choose Tic Tac Toe?” People say usually say:
- and doesn’t require much planning
Then, when I ask people why they don’t like Tic Tac Toe. Guess what? They list those exact same traits. They say Tic Tac Toe is too simple, too quick, and doesn’t require enough planning.
And it’s the same with chess. People love and hate chess because it:
- has many different pieces
- requires long-term planning
- takes a long time to play
Different people, with different levels of skill, want different levels of complexity. As teachers, we seek to match the complexity of a task with the skill of our learners.
When we nail that balance, magic happens.
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Say your district requires you to teach Tic Tac Toe in your grade level. Some of your students are ready for it, but some are completely beyond it. They’re bored. They’re acting out. Parents are complaining. Luckily, you can adjust complexity to match the learner. We call this differentiation.
If Tic Tac Toe is too difficult, increase the complexity:
- make the board larger: 4×4, 5×5, and so on
- add a third player: X, O, and Z.
- add a third dimension
- or play Tic Tac Toe within Tic Tac Toe
Likewise, say you’re teaching chess and it’s just too hard for a third of your class. Differentiate! Reduce the complexity by:
- only teaching three pieces at a time
- making the board smaller: 6×6 or even 4×4
- or setting up simple situations to work through (No Stress Chess is great for this)
Of course, you might have outliers who think Chess is too easy! Make the game more complex:
- play in three dimensions
- or try four players at once!
- introduce chess variants or games related to chess
Suddenly, those bored kids are going to fired up to play chess again because you’ve matched the task’s complexity with their skill.
And note that everyone is still playing chess. You didn’t have to teach three completely different games. We’re just adjusting the complexity of the required task.
Find The Sweet Spot
This is what differentiation is all about!
You don’t necessarily have to accelerate to the next content area or move kids backwards. If you adjust the task’s complexity to the right level, you’re going to see kids more engaged, more excited, and more willing to take risks.