The Complexity Barrier

Be forewarned, I’m going to speak bluntly in this post.  I’m not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings; I just want to make a point.

There’s an interesting phenomenon I’ve encountered the last few times I’ve taught a certain course.  I’ve given the students a poorly-defined problem with minimal guidance on what I’m looking for and then have asked them to build an organization and a process to solve the problem and then bring me a solution.

Do you know what I get?

I get a project management structure – because, I believe, that’s the only way they know how to organize themselves.

I get requests for more information, even though I’m the one asking them for more information.

And I get unhappy students.

Do you know what I wanted to get?

I wanted to see them self-organize into, essentially, an R&D structure.  I wanted to see discipline, confidence, critical thinking, logical analysis, exploration of the unknown, trial and error, testing, discovery.

What happened?  I think there’s a barrier, what I’ll call a complexity barrier, at which our students falter.  They expect to be given sufficient information to solve the problem and they assume that what they need to do is work together as a team to apply the information to solve that problem.  I also think they perceive the purpose of a team to be an opportunity to learn to work in teams.  But I want explorers… teams of explorers.  Not explorers who are learning to work in teams.

Results count.  Teamwork does not count unless the teamwork produces results.  Teamwork is not a goal, it’s a method.

But, back to the complexity barrier, I think many of them don’t know what to do when confronted with a problem that appears too complex because of the quantity of unknowns.  They balk at that.  They fear failure (i.e., not getting an “A”).  They give up.  They shouldn’t, but they do, because we’re not teaching the right mindset.  We teach them to do simple things and we teach them to do complicated things, but when we push them to do truly complex things – things with many unknowns and not easily discernible rules and no clear definition of success – they don’t see a way forward, they begin to contemplate failure, and they either stop or they just go through the motions.

So how can we fix this?