More detail = More complex = Less clear

The question that I’m going to tip-toe around could be expressed thus:

“More detail does not clarity make. Discuss.”

37194627bI’m not going to write an essay but I am going to offer a few different perspectives on the question in the hope that you realise that there might be a problem hiding a little further down the path we’re all walking.  In doing so I’m going to scratch an itch that I’ve had for a while now.  I have entertained a rather ill-defined worry for some time and this post provides an opportunity to try pull my concerns into focus and articulate them as best I can.

One of the first things I remember reading that muddied the water for me was ‘Making Learning Whole’ by David Perkins (Perkins, 2009).  He argues that in education we have tended to break down something complex and teach it in parts with the expectation that having mastered the parts our students would have learned how to do the complex thing – playing baseball, in his example.  The problem is that baseball as a game is engaging but when broken down into little bits of theory and skill it becomes dull – a drudge.  So, do we teach science as the whole game of structured inquiry, or do we break it down into smaller chunks that are not always well connected (think lecture and practical)?  That was worry number one.

Let me broaden this out.  I see a direct link between the risks of breaking down a complex intellectual challenge into smaller activities that don’t appear to have intrinsic value and  ‘painting-by-numbers’ – as a process, it might create something that resembles art but the producer is not working as an artist.  If you indulge me a little, I’ll offer an example from education; learning outcomes.   In his 2012 article, The Unhappiness Principle’, in the UK’s Times Higher Education magazine, Frank Furedi argues that learning outcomes distort the education process in a number of ways.  He worries that learning outcomes provide a structure that learners would otherwise construct for themselves and the adopted construct is rarely as robust as a fully-owned one.  He also worries that learning outcomes by their nature attempt to reduce a complex system in a series of statements that are both simple and precise.  Their seeming simplicity of expression gives students no insight into the true nature of the problems to be tackled.  I don’t imagine that Socrates would have set out learning outcomes for his students.

I see similar issues in the specification of the assessment process; the detailed mark scheme.  Sue Bloxham and colleagues recently published the findings of a study of the use of marking scheme, entitling it ‘Let’s stop the pretence of consistent marking: exploring the multiple limitations of assessment criteria’.  The article is scholarly and it contains some uncomfortable truths for those who feel it should be possible to make the grading of assessments ‘transparent’.  In their recommendations they say, ‘The real challenge emerging from this paper is that, even with more effective community processes, assessment decisions are so complex, intuitive and tacit that variability is inevitable. Short of turning our assessment methods into standardised tests, we have to live with a large element of unreliability and a recognition that grading is judgement and not measurement [my emphasis] (Bloxham et al., 2016).

The idea that outcomes can be assured by instructions that are sufficiently detailed (complex) is flawed but it appears to have been adopted outside education as much as within.  The political historian, Niall Fergusson, makes this point well in one of his BBC Reith Lectures of 2012. In relation to the Dodd-Frank Act, he says, ‘Today, it seems to me, the balance of opinion favours complexity over simplicity; rules over discretion; codes of compliance over individual and corporate responsibility. I believe this approach is based on a flawed understanding of how financial markets work. It puts me in mind of the great Viennese satirist Karl Kraus’s famous quip about psychoanalysis, that it was “the disease of which it purported to be the cure” I believe excessively complex regulation is the disease of which it purports to be the cure.”  Niall Ferguson: The Darwinian Economy (BBC Reith lecture, 2012).

One of the problems is that detail looks so helpful.  It’s hard to imagine how too much detail could be bad.  There is are examples of where increasing detail led to adverse and unintended outcomes.  I have two examples, one from university management and another from education and training.  A colleague recently retold a story of a Dean who was shocked that, should a situation arise in an examination room, staff would themselves often decide on an effective course of action.  It turned out that the Dean had thought it more proper for the staff to be poring through university regulations.  He was also shocked to discover that the regulations did not contain solutions to all possible problems.  The example from education and training can be found in article by Barry Scwartz, published in 2011.   The article, called ‘Practical wisdom and organizations’, describes what happened when the training of wildland firefighters was augmented from just four ‘survival guidelines’ to a mental manual of very nearly 50 items.  He writes. ‘….teaching the firefighters these detailed lists was a factor in decreasing the survival rates. The original short list was a general guide. The firefighters could easily remember it, but they knew it needed to be interpreted, modified, and embellished based on circumstance. And they knew that experience would teach them how to do the modifying and embellishing. As a result, they were open to being taught by experience. The very shortness of the list gave the firefighters tacit permission—even encouragement—to improvise in the face of unexpected events. Weick found that the longer the checklists for the wildland firefighters became, the more improvisation was shut down.’  (Schwartz, 2011).  Detail in the wrong place or at the wrong level flatters to deceive.

By writing this piece I hoped to pull together my own thoughts and, speaking personally, it worked.  I now have a much clearer view of what concerns me about how we’ve been pushing education but that clarity has made my worries all the more acute.  Nevertheless, in order to round on a positive note I’ve tried to think of some positive movements.  I have always found John Dewey’s writing on education and reasoning to be full of promise (Findlay, 1910).  Active learning, authentic inquiry,  mastery learning and peer-learning seem to me to be close cousins and a sound approach for growing a real capacity to conceive of science as a way of looking to understand the unknown (Freeman et al., 2014) seem to me to have Dewey’s unspoken blessing.  I also think that Dewey would approve of Edgar Morin and his Seven complex lessons in education for the future (Morin, 2002). There is a video of Morin explaining some aspects of the seven complex lessons that I would recommend.

I’m off to share an hour with a glass of whisky in a dark room.


Bloxham S, den-Outer B, Hudson J & Price M. (2016). Let’s stop the pretence of consistent marking: exploring the multiple limitations of assessment criteria. Assess Eval High Edu 41, 466-481.

Findlay JJ, ed. (1910). Educational Essays By John Dewey. Blackie & Sons, London.

Freeman S, Eddy SL, McDonough M, Smith MK, Okoroafor N, Jordt H & Wenderoth MP. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111, 8410-8415.

Morin E. (2002). Seven complex lessons in education for the future. Unesco.

Perkins DN. (2009). Making learning whole : how seven principles of teaching can transform education. Jossey-Bass ; Chichester : John Wiley [distributor], San Francisco, CA.

Schwartz B. (2011). Practical wisdom and organizations. Research in Organizational Behavior 31, 3-23.







Phil Langton is a senior teaching fellow in the School of Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience, University of Bristol, UK.  A biologist turned physiologist, he worked with Kent Sanders in Reno (NV) and then with Nick Standen in Leicester (UK) before moving to Bristol in 1995.  Phil has been teaching GI physiology for vets, nerve and muscle physiology for medics and cardiovascular physiology for physiologists. He also runs a series of units in the second and third (final) years that are focused on the development of soft (but not easy) skills.  He has been interested for years in the development of new approaches to old problems in education and is currently chasing his tail around trying to work out how fewer staff can mentor and educate more students.


Leave a Reply