I'll make it simple

August 30, 2002

Learning is too hard. If we don't make it easier, intellectual evolution may stop, argues Michael Wood.

I remember reading that, at some stage, only two people understood Einstein's theory of general relativity. I think there may now be more than two, but there certainly are not many. The theory is too difficult to be widely understood.

The same is true of other things we teach. The work turns out to be too difficult or time-consuming, and many students end up with a woefully inadequate grasp of their subject. Pass marks of 40 per cent implicitly acknowledge this. At all levels, the number of people who can make good use of academic knowledge is far fewer than it would be in an ideal world. In addition, we have far more knowledge to learn than previous generations, but there are evidently limits to the amount we can take in.

The obvious solution is to try to simplify academic knowledge, so that it is easier and quicker to learn and understand. Then students could get away with spending less time on their studies, and either tackle more challenging topics, or do something else.

A student's failure to master something should be viewed as a failure of the epistemological and educational system, not as a failure of the student. Blame the product, not the customer!

Imagine that Einstein's general relativity were simplified so that I could understand it. Imagine that the contents of an undergraduate degree programme were simplified so that it could be learnt by almost anyone in a few months. This is, perhaps, impossible. But I think that considerable simplification is possible in many areas. Word processors are easy to use - but when they were first invented they were complicated beasts requiring considerable effort and training to master. The education problem has been solved by making the task easier.

Going back a few years to Roman times, the lack of the modern notation system for numbers meant that simple arithmetic was far from simple. More recently, the advent of calculators and computers makes arithmetic trivial.

Instead of the complicated methods taught in schools, quadratic equations can be solved by trial and error with a spreadsheet "solver" - it's easy, transparent and works for many other equations too. There are similar opportunities in statistics. Much of mathematical statistics - t tests, chi square tests, analysis of variance - is probability theory: very complicated but, these days, easily replaced by far more transparent computer simulations.

There are many other possibilities. Some fields of learning are complex but useless: they can be simplified by the simple expedient of ignoring them.

We need to value simplicity. Otherwise we will not be able to cope and intellectual evolution will slow down or even stop. Perhaps not every failing student will then be able to become an Einstein, but it does seem likely that every Einstein will succeed only by taking every available opportunity to simplify knowledge.

There is, however, little tradition of valuing simplicity in academia. Research that emphasises its user-friendliness is not likely to be highly rated by the research assessment exercise. Simplicity is against the interests of researchers - who need to impress with their cleverness; educationalists - who need hard subjects to create a market for teaching and assessment; and professional bodies - which need barriers to entry.

As academics, we assume we must resist the decline in "standards". In the words of a recent Daily Telegraph leader column, "maths should be hard". But it is tempting to speculate on what the old guard would have said when the Arabs swept away the Roman numerals. "They won't appreciate the difference between big and small numbers," perhaps. Or simply: "It'll make life too easy."

I'm not advocating dumbing down. It is more like dumbing up. To achieve more, we've got to strive for simplicity - which is certainly not a simple goal.

At the moment, this is not even on the agenda. I suspect no university has a professor of simple learning. The trouble is, simplicity does not have a professorial ring about it. Perhaps it should?

Michael Wood is principal lecturer in accounting and management science at Portsmouth University. A fuller version of the argument in this article appears in Volume 34, Number 3 of the Higher Education Review .

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