We are constantly surrounded by complex concepts and are often left to learn and understand them on our own. But the question still stands, what exactly constitutes a ‘complex concept’ and how on Earth can we teach them?
The most effective way to teach a complex concept is by identifying something that is complex, taking the time to understand it, before communicating it to learners incredibly simply. There is no need for long words or complicated definitions. Instead, just an easy explanation of the components that make up the complex concept.
Concepts inevitably vary in their degree of complexity meaning that different approaches must be taken to grapple with different challenges. However, one thing doesn’t change and that’s the ability of teachers to maintain their well-explained concepts, despite how complex it may be.
The Big Short Film
Dawid Naude in his Medium article utilises the example of a the Jenga scene in the The Big Short (2015) where a complex financial instrument was explained using Jenga. This particular problem was hardly understood on Wall Street, exemplifying exactly what a complex concept is.
The Feynman Technique
Naude also touches on the work of physicist, Richard Feynman, known as “The Great Explainer”. The Noble Prize winner’s achievements spanned great lengths, however, he was particularly proud of his ability to communicate the most complex of topics in the most comprehendible way, that is simple in nature, as possible.
Farnam Street produced a helpful and simple diagram (suitable, right?) to understand Feynman’s practice.
The four steps Feynman took were driving tools for his success, despite how simple they may seem.
1. Identify the topic and conduct research.
Gather as much information as you can find on your particular topic and write down what you aim to discover.
2. Dissect the information to understand and explain it simply.
Link parts of information with other parts to find connections and reasoning. How do the concepts link?
3. Find gaps in learning and the areas you need to review to build on knowledge.
Clear up the mess of information, neatly sorting it into respective components. Identify gaps in certain areas of knowledge and continue to research them for a holistic understanding.
4. Time to simplify! Design the information as if it were to be explained to a six year old, using examples and analogies.
Imagine you’re teaching Quantum Physics, like Feynman did, or the first 100 digits of Pi to a six year old. Yes, a six year old. In order to do this, it is essential to systematically break down the information into parts that are almost too easy to explain and understand. This will simultaneously benefit your ability to understand it, as well as teach it.
And voila, Quantum Physics becomes as easy as pie. Not Pi unless the Feynman technique is involved.
What Comes After The Simplification?
Here’s when you pull out the big guns. How to communicate the teaching to learners in the most effective and productive way. Microlearning!
Microlearning is the breakdown of information into digestible, bite-sized pieces for the simplification of information for learners’ maximum absorption and retention of complex information. Sound familiar? Microlearning is accessible through 3-5 minute short modules within which the course content is released in small bursts at particular intervals, known as spaced repetition. Gamification is also utilised in the execution of microlearning to engage learners and boost productivity, further simplifying complex concepts into a comprehensive form.
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Header image and video clip courtesy of Youtube: ‘The Big Short – “Jenga” Clip (2015) – Paramount Pictures’. Paramount Pictures Corporation (PPC).
Farnam Street: ‘Feynman Technique’
Medium: Dawid’s Blog