Complexity is something that we don’t talk about often enough. Teaching itself is a complex process, as teachers must communicate with children with a range of interests, motivations, fears and understandings. Yet while we accept that different children might require different support, we haven’t really changed the way in which we approach the subjects that children learn. Complexity engenders excitement but it also makes the brain use different thought processes including problem solving and creativity.
Children between five and eight have been proven to be able to comprehend scientific theories like natural selection (in Deborah Kelemen’s work), which are not only complex but help us understand why the world is the way it is. Children often ask how what they learn will matter in their futures, whether they’re talking about maths, geography or history – we need to show them how every part of their education matters for their ability to face the future.
Teaching complex ideas, the interconnections between different disciplines and the interactions between topics can educate children about human values while providing a tool set enabling them to engage with complex ideas and situations as they grow. This helps to build resilience, which may be key to surviving 21st century challenges, and enables the application of knowledge to ‘wicked problems’ which means, using Rittel and Webber’s theory, problems that are difficult to define and maybe even unsolvable. That doesn’t mean we stop trying though
At Learn2Think we are using Tolerance Day 2021 as a focal point to explore how the way we think affects climate justice, and the kind of world in which we want to live. We need to embed questioning and critical thinking at the heart of learning, combined with empathy and creativity so that we can not only imagine ourselves in another’s shoes, but also imagine new ways of solving someone else’s problems
It’s no longer enough to educate in isolation, in silos, as that approach is responsible for so many of the ‘wicked problems’ the world faces today. Whether it’s climate change, racial injustice or covid vaccinations, we need to teach a new way to approach problems. In terms of vaccinations for example, the phrase “no one is safe until everyone is safe” seems wholly self-evident. And yet 60% of the world’s population hasn’t even had its first vaccination: supplies are not reaching the poorest. This is not only a moral failing but a system one, which provides more opportunity for new variants to arise and bring the pandemic storming back.
It’s the same in education – how do you solve a complex problem? We know that improving literacy is linked to improved educational attainment but how best do we achieve those positive outcomes? Is improving literacy child by child the best approach, or should we deal with the impacts of poverty, racial inequality, budgeting issues or other wider social issues?
So many of today’s biggest challenges are system wide and ‘wicked’. To tackle them effectively, our children must learn differently in order to think differently. We have talked about radical empathy and its importance in developing children’s thinking in ways that make them adaptive and resilient, able to respond to an increasingly changing environment – technologically, socially and environmentally. And the first step is to recognize that children understand complexity. If we encourage them to think about complex issues from an early age, we may be giving them the resilience and power to change their own futures.
This article first appeared in the May 2021 edition of Education Today www.education-today.co.uk