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.