Setting the stage

It is common to simplify knowledge to make it more accessible to novices. To be able to do it well and correctly, however, a deep understanding of that knowledge is required. For example, picking a fitting metaphor to introduce students to a complicated issue or a new concept will require that the teacher is intimately familiar with the material. As Woody Guthrie put it more eloquently: “any fool can make something complicated; it takes a genius to make it simple.”

Simplification increases the accessibility to new knowledge and can kickstart a learning process that digs in deeper to acquire a more fundamental understanding of it. Having acquired such an understanding, students will then be able to explain it in simple terms to others. Hence, there is a cycle at work where simplification kickstarts learning, that learning then leads to a deeper understanding, and that understanding in turn enables a simplified explanation of what was learned.

For the cycle to complete itself, however, learning beyond the simplified explanation has to occur. If not, the simplified explanation itself might become the knowledge. For example, students might recall the metaphor but not be able to explain why it is fitting. Furthermore, they might acquire a false sense of comfort in the belief that the new knowledge itself is simple. Clearly, confidence in a shallow understanding is problematic and is not what any teacher sets out to achieve.

Simplification and the start of the learning process

When we first hear about the theory of relativity in physics, it is typically not from reading Einstein’s original work. Delving into those papers would likely turn most of us off to the wonders of physics and the genius of Einstein. The reason for that is very simple: the original, work is difficult to follow and understand. Just the terminology and math concepts used would scare most of us away.

We typically learn about Einstein’s theory from sources that simplified his insights and as such made them more accessible to us, novices in the field. In fact, this is what teaching is all about: teachers simplify knowledge to make it more accessible and, hopefully, the curious students labor on to get to the bottom of it and develop a more fundamental understanding of what the theory is all about.

In terms of the theory of relativity, I never got there. I know the basic idea but I have no deep understanding of it. If my 7-years old daughter cornered me on the subject, she (and myself) would realize very quickly that I was standing on very thin ice. That is one of the reasons why it is often suggested that the best way to learn something is to teach it. It really is not but teaching a subject will very quickly confirm at what depth you can safely dive into it. This is the Richard Feynman test of understanding.

Understanding enables simplification

The great physicist and Noble laureate, Richard Feynman, used to argue that if you want to check whether you actually understand something, try to explain it in simple terms to a novice. If you do not succeed, you don’t really understand the material yet and you need to go back to the drawing board and work some more on it; i.e., your learning is not complete yet.

Understanding enables simplification which in turn can trigger a search for a deeper understanding. This cycle is at the core of the learning process. Inquisitive minds will go beyond the simplified explanation and dig deeper to acquire a more comprehensive understanding. Hence, the impact simplification has will depend on the presence or absence of inquisitive minds. Inquisitive minds will unleash their curiosity to arrive at a deeper understanding of the knowledge. Those without inquisitive minds will be content with knowing the simple explanation. In the end, those who do not learn will not know what they know, while those who do learn will know what they don’t know.

Teaching and simplification

Teaching effectively is not easy. With some nerve, many of us can walk in front of a class and read off teaching notes and/or slides. That is clearly not teaching. Effective teaching requires much more than nerves. It also requires an ability to pitch the knowledge at the level of the students. If the material is new and complex, it will have to be simplified to make it accessible to them.

Consider, for example, explaining what a black hole is to curious little kids (a point they all seem to reach by the age of 7 despite having no knowledge of the universe beyond poor Pluto having been demoted as a planet in our solar system). You will have to explain what these mysterious holes are in very simple terms. You can’t wing it because the kids – and, more generally, students at all ages – can tell whether a parent/teacher knows what she/he is talking about. If you do not really understand black holes, you won’t be able to effectively plant the seed of wonder into their little minds.

The approaches we use to convey knowledge in simple ways are the tools of the teaching trade. The use of metaphors is one such a tool. Another is to use simple but illustrative examples that students can relate to. Other approaches are to substitute the exact scientific language with much simpler terminology and/or leave pieces out that do not have any direct bearing on the core insight and might only confuse a novice. For example, many discoveries are made under tightly-controlled experimental conditions; those conditions can be left out when the insight obtained is explained in simple terms. The same with assumptions that are made. For example, the field of economics is almost entirely based on assumptions but those are rarely referred to when a theory is relied on to explain a phenomenon or suggest a course of action. Hence, another way to simplify knowledge is to just strip it to the bare bone and remove alł the scientific scaffolding that was used to establish it.

The challenge teachers (and students) face is that an understanding of the simplification does not imply an understanding of the knowledge. Simplification can stimulate student learning and lead to understanding, but there is no guarantee this always occurs. Simplification can actually short-circuit some students’ learning. Indeed, simplification is a double-edged sword and its impact will depend on what the students are made of.

Consider how simplification might impact some students. First, it might give them a false sense of security in that they believe they understand where they really don’t. This can be the result of a lack of curiosity to dig deeper and the acceptance of the simplification as fact. Second, the simplification might obscure the real questions or make it look like there are none. As a trained scientist, I know all too well from my own research that there are always lingering questions. Just take any scientific paper and you will see that the list of disclaimers is often as long as the new insight provided! Reality is messy and complex, and a sanitized and simplified version of it provides a ready escape for those lacking a learning mindset.

Simplification and learning

Simplification doesn’t necessarily lead to learning and, hence, understanding. For those with a curious and learning mindset, a simple explanation is an invitation to a world of wonder and discovery. For those without such a mindset, the simple explanation is all they will ever know. Without them realizing it, they have become the embodiment of “a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.”