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Yearning for Simplicity in a (Pedagogical) Complex World

Bret Mulligan

Haverford College

This paper explores the challenge of balancing student-centered design and the power of simplicity. My recognition of a brewing crisis in my pedagogy was prompted by (of all things) two tweets. The first included a familiar chart: CAST’s Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Guidelines; the second was a forgotten mimeograph: Hannah Arendt’s 1974 syllabus for her 200-level course, “Thinking”, at the New School for Social Research. CAST’s document sports a three-by-three multi-colored grid, whose bullet-points attempt to schematize “a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn” ( Arendt’s document contained no information about assessment or policies (or even the name of the professor), but a spare yet inconceivably ambitious, alphabetical list of texts from Aristotle to Wittgenstein, of which Arendt confessed, “It would be sheer madness to expect anyone to read all these books during one term.”

This paper will diagnose the risks that pedagogical complexity poses to successful intellectual experiences. Several case studies will illuminate how technological capacity intersects with heightened awareness of learner variability and ever-more-attuned modes of assessment to produce increasing complexity in course design and implementation. Maeda has characterized powerful simplicity as that which “subtracts the obvious, and adds the meaningful.” I explore whether such insights about simplicity can be harmonized with those from pedagogical initiatives like UDL, which seeks to add meaning by fore-fronting the obvious, bringing to light the hidden expectations, and creating variety that will allow all learners access to the learning experience.

My own syllabi have expanded relentlessly, motivated by the theories encapsulated in CAST’s complex graphic. They have become massive things — the plural is intentional, with a multi-page course description augmented by on-line assignment descriptions that, if printed, would run into the many dozens of pages. They are full of elaborate detail on every aspect of the course, and its multiple and multimodal activities that seek to promote maximum engagement, empower representation, and elucidate action and expression so that “all learners can access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities.” But I have my doubts: Arendt’s syllabus offers daunting mass and uncertainty — but also adventure and wonder. I worry my syllabi, comely and accessible and intricate though they may be, are cousins to a tax form: the mysteries of the human condition categorized into carefully circumscribed readings (with voluminous supporting resources) and four core activities keyed to clearly articulated goals, each with a clearly-articulated series of nested, reinforcing activities… to check off (and forget).

My own embrace of pedagogical complexity can be traced to a professional development course a decade ago that produced a sea change in the intentionality of my course design (Mulligan 2011). A near simultaneous embrace of on-line syllabi allowed for greater flexibility, the proffer of copious supplemental resources, and multiple, lower-stakes assessments — and now, I fear, deadening, bewildering complexity. Had my efforts replicated within my courses the very bane of superficial complexity that I believed education ought to smash?

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