Complex, Not Complicated


by Hugh McLeod

by Hugh McLeod

Hugh McLeod created the piece of art on the left –  “Strive for Complex, Not for Complicated.” It is a simple idea that is powerfully crystallizing. I was excited by it because I realized it gave me a simple way to articulate how and why I think what I think about the need for common structures, common language, common processes in schools.

One of the great things about inquiry-driven, project-based learning is that it lends itself to incredible complexity. Whether it is a full-sized catapult or a documentary film or a bio-wall or any number of projects that are phenomenally complex. True inquiry-driven, project-based learning asks students to take their own ideas, marry them to the skills and content of a class, collaborate with colleagues and create profound artifacts of their own learning.

The good news is that kind of work is inspiring, challenging and profound. The problem is that complex work is hard. It requires kids to problem-solve, to collaborate, to bring multiple skills to bear on solving a problem. As such, we have to make sure that the structure of school does not create complications that get in the way of complexity.

This is why it is so important that schools that have a focus on the complex work of inquiry set up common school structures so that students can avoid as many complications as possible. If the adults are willing to have the internal discipline to ensure that words mean the same thing from classroom to classroom, that goals build on one another year to year, that there is a common language of assessment so that students have a transparent sense of what is valued, then we can make our schools less complicated.

At SLA, the work we have done around building a deep understanding of the way we use our core values, the work we have done in the way we use Understanding by Design, the work we have done around creating a common language of assessment with our school-wide rubric and our standards-based grading has all been in service of creating that common language of learning so that we lower the bar of understanding the adults so that we can raise the bar of understanding the work — and understanding ourselves. The idea that we can come together around a vision of education and then do the hard work of creating a pathway to enabling that vision means that we can cut down on the amount of time kids get lost in the space between the adults. That has been one of the keys to our success. And it is a never-ending process of deepening our understanding of our processes and evolving our language to become more and more transparent to students. That commitment is what allows us to continue to grow together as educators and therefore help our students grow as well.

Everything we do in our schools and our classrooms that makes a student’s life more complicated is time we steal from them to learn how to deal with the complexity of the problems they can tackle. As teachers, we need to examine our own practices to ensure that we do not get in the way of the powerful learning of our students.

2 thoughts on “Complex, Not Complicated

  1. Chris,

    I completely agree with you on the need for common expectations and consistent language among teachers. This allows kids to feel safe and secure, knowing that their individuality and effort will be respected. A kid at SLA need not fear that a teacher will “ding” them for taking a new approach when completing a piece of work.

    I suspect that the best work at SLA has little to do with teacher rubrics and more to do with trust or respect. Rubrics are just a form of grading and can have deleterious effects by lowering expectations, making the “project” more prescriptive, and reducing the chance of serendipitous learning. Alfie Kohn’s research and resulting article, The Trouble with Rubrics (, does a fine job of discussing how educators often use rubrics in a fashion indistinguishable from grading and the demotivating effects of rubric use.

    You know all of this and recognize the perils of grading. I know that you’re doing all you can to keep things together for the SLA kids in a world that doesn’t much care about them. Compromises are a necessity. I also appreciate the fact that we know each other well enough to have these sorts of discussions in order to elevate public education, rather than resort to “If you walked a mile in my shoes.”

    Where we disagree is in your continual use and endorsement of “Understanding by Design.” I taught with the book in the late 90s in a graduate school context because the idea seemed so simple, and perhaps even revolutionary. However, I quickly determined that it was just a coercive trick to give kids the illusion of freedom, choice and agency while marching them to the same end point. That is NOT what I believe you do at SLA.

    Your most creative interpretation of “Understanding by Design” is likely to confuse those who look to your example from schools without the quality of your leadership or fertile mind. Your interpretation of “UBD” is quite generous, subtle and expansive – three qualities absent from the work itself. Every reading of the “UBD” literature and attendance at one of the workshops led by its authors or disciples ends a unit of school work with the creation of a travel brochure or a menu. The projects created at SLA are quite different.

    Understanding by Design is the hugely popular ghastly megachurch created by ASCD. Its authors have said really terrible things about the ability of teachers in recent years. Your embrace of their brand seems a bit like a new denomination with practices 180 degrees removed from the holy book itself. UBD isn’t about learning, it’s about assessment. Keeping that distinction clear is critical.

    While I recognize your need for common language, even a text to reference across your staff, I implore you to move beyond “Understanding by Design.” You’re too good for it and your example gives shelter to educators elsewhere who will force another generation of children to work on meaningless projects while congratulating themselves for being radical.

    PS: For your fans about to flame me, I suggest David Perkins’ “Learning by Design” as a substitute text for UBD –

  2. I’m no expert in UBD, but from what I understand, if you use UBD to define the processes you wish students to utilize by the end (defining, researching, constructing, evaluating, rinse-repeat) and not a end product, then UBD can be a valuable tool. If you are using UDB to define an actual end product, not so useful …

    Though and end product is not something to completely discount, especially when it is based on authentic student interests, it appears, from what I have heard, the process is just as important, if not more important at SLA.

    So much of what we do is grounded in vocabulary, and as was mentioned earlier today, words matter. All the more reason why Mr. Lehmann’s post is key with staff, parents, board members, students. We all will define and interpret based on our understandings…as I’ve done above in my reply about UBD 😉

    Timely posts, thanks!