Complexity as a Response To Uncertainty

Lol_question_mark“There’s a man in our backyard. He’s carrying a leash and playing with our dog.” We felt unnerved. Our younger son was home alone, and now a stranger was in the backyard. We had been robbed before, and our parental instincts kicked in. Was the guy casing our house? Stealing the dog?

As the man left the house, we soon calmed down, and our minds ran through possible explanations. None seemed to fit. If the man was coming to case the house, why did he carry a leash? If he came with a leash, why didn’t he leave with the dog? Was he a pet lover? Isn’t it a little forward to enter a backyard? Why didn’t he ring the doorbell? The issue felt unresolved, and that felt uncomfortable. We wanted at least a reasonable theory, yet none of the possible explanations we came up with seemed to fit.

We arrived home, and everything seemed calm: happy kid, happy dog, lingering questions. We took the dog for a walk, and that’s when the neighbor across the street solved the mystery. “Did you son leave the gate open? Your dog came across the street to play with us, so I walked him back to your house. Your cars were gone, and it didn’t appear that anyone was home. The dog kept following me when I tried to walk out, so I played with the dog until she got tired!” Our son hadn’t recognized the neighbor from his view at the upstairs window and had kept quiet out of concern.

Why didn’t we think of this as a possible explanation? Too many factors were involved: the open gate, the wandering dog, the friendly neighbor, the empty driveway, the view from above. We had not considered this possibility, because too many different factors were involved. The situation was too complex for us to come up with this possible scenario, particularly when we were mindful of the safety of our child.

Being human, we seek to make meaning of the world around us. Since the world is very complex and our senses relatively limited, we tend toward simple explanations. Countless factors shape real-world phenomena such as climate change, crime, wars, immigration, health, and economics. Yet, oversimplification abounds. Politicians cast blame on single factors in search of votes. Companies appeal to simple explanations to sell products. Friends and colleagues cast regional issues as linear problems with single-variable causes. Social media speaks in sound bites.

Education is particularly prone to oversimplification. The “success” of Singapore and Finland. The “failure” of our educational system. “Good” and “bad” schools. In education, concrete evidence is scarce and armchair theories abound. Common sense and a good gut instinct are essential within an environment where scientific analysis produces far more questions than answers. Education’s research-practice divide exists in part because research explores far more variables than an educator could possibly incorporate into a class period with a roomful of students.

I often find myself playing the role of “complexifier.” When I hear an explanation framed in simple terms, I note the other factors potentially involved. We walk a delicate balance between action and inquiry. On the one hand, the events of each school day demand action. On the other hand, we must continue to ask questions and identify contributing factors.

Our neighbor’s good deed reminds us that responsible practice requires us to continue to function within uncertainty. While sometimes uncomfortable, we should neither oversimplify nor become paralyzed when we cannot explain what we observe. If we stay curious, use our senses, and speak with others, we may build a deeper understanding over time and improve our practice.

Image by WOLF LΔMBERT (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

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