The Value of Simplicity in the Classroom

One of the most flattering compliments I’ve ever received, in reference to my teaching, came in December of 2006. I was a member of a lovely cohort, finishing up our third and final semester of our Master’s of Education degree. During our last meetings together, one of the professors who instructed us along the way, began summarizing our time together as a cohort.

The professor’s name is Dr. Terry Roberson.  I cannot speak highly enough of Dr. Roberson.  I would describe him as a master teacher, a guru, a father figure to the cohort, and a great guy.  When you left his class, you felt much more knowledgeable, and at the same time, like you still had so much more to learn.  Every second was accounted for and had a purpose;  every movement and transition thought out and intentional.  Dr. Roberson was a very firm instructor, but also very fair.  He wasn’t an ‘everybody gets a trophy’ kind of teacher, though, so the praises he began doling out in that last meeting were quite impactful.

If my memory serves me correctly, he only called out a few students…maybe five.  He discussed others’ organizational skills, their demeanor in class, and their ability to assess.  When he called my name, I was extremely surprised.  I truly counted myself as the average student in the cohort and didn’t think I performed exceptionally well in any aspect of teaching.  He said something like this:

Blake is really good at keeping things simple.  He doesn’t overcomplicate material and presents it in a way that is very easily understood.  

Two sentences…that’s it..but it felt amazing.  At the time, I didn’t really understand how great of a compliment it was.  I can present material in a simple manner?  Ok.  That’s great…I think.  As I’ve aged and grown as an educator these past eleven years, I haven’t forgotten Dr. Roberson’s words and they’ve become more special to me.  In the world of education, simple has come to mean old, outdated, and not ‘best practice’.  Simple has come under fire because it isn’t flashy enough and cannot be packaged and marketed for profit.  Simple won’t prepare 65% (or whatever nice round number you’ve seen) of my students for the job they’re going to have that doesn’t yet exist.  Unfortunately, I believe we’re getting away from simple and replacing it with methods that clutter the mind and ultimately lead to a decrease in retention of knowledge.  

Novice learners learn differently than experts.  Where experts are able to use the knowledge they’ve accrued to expand a thought/idea/skill/ and be creative/problem solve, novices simply do not have that ability because they lack the base level of knowledge on a particular topic.  (Greg Ashman does a great job of further explaining this idea here and combines it with a fantastic explanation of what direct instruction really is and when it’s needed.)  By getting away from simple in our classroom and requiring more complicated methods of learning, we’re really impairing our novice learners.  While our classroom may appear to be highly engaging with a level of controlled chaos , they are probably not highly effective.  Cognitive Load Theory tell me our working memory can only hold a small amount of information (For more on CLT, check out this great catalog of sources provided by Dr. Niki Kaiser here).  If our working memory is bombarded with a classroom activity that requires a game with rules or a complicated strategy with a number of steps to remember, our brain’s working memory cannot accrue the actual knowledge the activity set out to bestow upon the learner.  

Again, we’ve gotten away from simple.  Because of that, we’ve gotten away from our main purpose in education.  The saying ‘knowledge is power’ is, to a certain degree, correct.  By presenting our novice learners material in an easily digestible/simple manner, we are making them much more knowledgeable.  They can then incorporate that material with their prior knowledge and be on their way to becoming the more creative and analytical expert learner.  

Dr. Roberson’s two sentence complement means more to me today than it did over a decade ago.  And in the world of education today, it indicates a pressing need in our classrooms.  Simplicity is becoming a lost value in the classroom and our students suffer.  Sure, they’re louder and may have a more fun time, but are they gaining the knowledge to move from novice to expert?  I’m not so sure, and if our main goal isn’t to create expert learners, what are we doing here?  

Keep it simple.  

13 thoughts on “The Value of Simplicity in the Classroom

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  1. Blake,
    It’s not a “belief that novices learn differently than experts”, it’s a fact that we know since A.D. De Groot in 1946 and all researchers since. Is has been proven time and time again. Please don’t talk of beliefs, which are unproven and often unprovable personal premises. In Dutch we say ‘Believing is what you do in church’. Science is not about belief!

    For the rest, nice blog.

  2. I very much enjoy your ‘simple’ style. The complex and important ideas you present in this blog are succintly written in easily digestible chunks, making meaning clear. Thankyou!

  3. Enjoyed this, thanks. I used to work for a head who divided the staff into ‘simplifiers’ and ‘complicators’, and I was proud to be in the former camp.

    Not sure whether you’ve seen this short animation about ‘The Art of Subtraction’ (I tweet it fairly regularly!) – @jasonramasami

  4. This is exactly what I was looking for. I’ve been thinking a lot about what my educational beliefs are, because I’m in the process of getting my master’s degree in elementary education. I’ve been teaching a long time. I keep seeing busy, cluttered classrooms and methods and having a very negative reaction to them. It all is too much: too much stimulation, too much information, and too much clutter. Maybe I’m just ADD or stuffy and old-fashioned, but I can’t imagine how some students can learn with so much competing for their attention. I really would like to see a move towards simplicity in education.

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