This is the fourth blogpost expanding on the TouchPaper Problems first discussed at #Researched2013 and due to be tackled at the first TouchPaper Problem Party.
Question #4 – What determines the complexity of a concept?
In my estimation, this is the hardest of all the problems, but it’s also really important.
As a teacher I was constantly trying to figure out “how difficult is this material?” and gauging whether I needed to edge it up or scale it down depending on the students I was teaching. But: how do we know if something is complex?
I remember working with a history revision class who were learning about the appeasement. I didn’t think appeasement would be a difficult concept. I mean, kids appease each other all the time in the playground when they, say, allow an older bullying set of kids to play football with them, even if they don’t really want to, in order to avoid a conflict. Problem is, appeasement actually turned out to be quite complex. “To appease” is easy to understand. “Appeasement”, however, is a strategy, a non-concrete object, and it’s quite difficult to talk about accurately without practice. My students kept saying things like “Britain wanted to appeasement Hitler” or “the appeasement happened in Munich” – and while both are in a ballpark I could understand, they were inaccurate enough that they couldn’t go uncorrected.
A second thing led me to create this problem. Earlier the year national curriculum levels were “abolished” and schools are now being encouraged to create their own. Many vocal opponents of levels complained that the stages did not adequately follow on from one another, with some actions described at Level 8 not necessarily seeming more difficult than those at Level 7. Others suggested that what we should have instead are lists of knowledge that students will have and that this should get progressively more difficult as we go forward.
But: how do we know which knowledge is the most difficult? To go back to the issue of appeasement, I’m fairly certain I could get a 7 year old to understand much of it. There also people who write their PhDs about it. So what is the essential difference between the types of concept the 7 year old and the PhD are using when discussing appeasement?
As with the other problems, I am certain there has been lots of study on this. Taxonomies of knowledge exist. Philosophers of knowledge have hierarchied such things on occasion. But what I want to know is how these tools can help a teacher know the complexity of a concept. Because if we can answer that question then we can start to construct assessments and curriculum on the basis of some collective understanding.
Getting to that point, however, seems like will be far from easy. Any suggestions?