Making complex simple – the measure of a great teacher.

solve-the-equationRichard Feynman who featured in last months blog was known as the great explainer. This skill was possible because of two key qualities, the first, an intense curiosity and desire to understand the subject incredibly well and secondly, he could make what was complex seem simple. These are of course not mutually exclusive, deep understanding is the foundation on which simplicity is built.

There was a time when getting access to knowledge was a barrier to learning. After all, how could you learn if you didn’t have the books from which to do it? But we no longer have this problem, knowledge is abundant, it is literally at the end of your fingertips.

The world’s knowledge is just waiting for you to ask the right question. But how can you tell if what your reading is shallow and without thought or deep and profound?

Jardins principle
In 1997 I read an article in the Financial Times written by Rob Eastaway, an English author whose books on everyday maths include Why Do Buses Come in Threes? and The Hidden Maths of Sport. For some reason the concept he outlined always stayed with me, sufficient that I wanted to track it down, which I have managed to do.

Jardin’s Principle as explained by Rob Eastaway. If you are trying to understand any subject or system, your level of understanding will pass through three stages. To start with, the way that you see and describe a system (subject) will be simplistic i.e. over-simplified, then it will become complicated but ultimately it will become simple again. He goes on to add that there are three other words that fit in with this idea, Obvious, Sophisticated and Profound.

Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler – Albert Einstein

Simple – Complex – Profound
As with all ideas there is more to it, below are what Rob refers to as the 5 caveats. I have added in my own thoughts and observations to some of them.

1. It is hard to differentiate between what is ‘simple and profound’ and what is ‘simplistic and obvious’. This is one of the main problems with a process of reduction, for example if you ask, what is the meaning of life you might be given the answer 42. The problem is in knowing if this is just two numbers written down, snatched out of the air or the correct answer, the result of hundreds of thousands of calculations undertaken over 200 years by the most sophisticated computer in the world?

2. Those at the ‘sophisticated/complicated’ level believe that there is no higher level than theirs – in other words you have to be sophisticated to understand fully. This is a clever observation on human nature, it suggests that some people believe you cannot fully appreciate a concept or idea unless you look at it through the lens of complexity. They effectively give up looking for a simpler perspective, because they don’t know one even exists.

3. You are probably wrong about the level of Jardin that you are at. An example perhaps of fish not seeing water.

4. In order to reach the profound level of understanding you usually pass through the other two levels first. This is my favourite because it shows that the route to simplicity is not easy and requires time and effort. You have to revisit your understanding many times before your brain springs into action with the blindingly obvious.

5. Unless you have a profound understanding of a subject, you will either over-complicate or over-simplify it. Perfect…..

Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains. – Steve Jobs

Great teaching  – Taking something that is complicated and making it appear simple is in many ways the essence of great teaching. Breaking down a subject into easily understood bite sized chunks of information or capturing the whole concept in one single leap by use of a metaphor or simple story is genius. But the process of getting to these pearls of wisdom involves wading through the mire of complexity in some instances for many years before the obvious reveals itself.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Rob had actually made this theory up, he didn’t want to put his own name to it so chose the French word for garden in homage to the Peter Sellers film, Being There, about a simple gardener who becomes US President.

Rob you ask, will it ever stick, maybe you should call it Eastaways folly instead.