Complexity — What Does It Mean and How to Teach It

I am spending a lot of time this year working on the difference between simple and complex.

Over the years, my students’ initial responses have been simple. Gatsby longs for Daisy. To Kill a Mockingbird is about race. Shylock is an unmerciful character. Sonnets are about unrequited love.

And when they write, they provide the evidence to support the assertion. One body paragraph on this, another on that, and — poof! — a five-paragraph essay is produced.

Complexity goes beyond the initial, though. It stretches past the simple. It requires layers of meaning. But are our students capable of it?

The Common Core expects it. A quick search of the ELA standards reveals that complex (or complexity) appears 105 times. With a frequency of that magnitude, you quickly realize that students success hinges on their ability to understand complexity in all its beautiful forms — in what they read, what they write, and how they think.

Yet the standards are of little help because they never offer a definition of what complexity is, they only assert that students should be, “reading and understanding increasingly complex texts on their own” and they should understand “how themes interact and build on one another to produce a complex account.”

What is Complexity

Merriam Webster:

complexity — to have complicated or interrelated parts; not simple


Complexity is generally used to characterize something with many parts where those parts interact with each other in multiple ways. The study of these complex linkages at various scales is the main goal of complex systems theory.

Harvard Business Review:

Complex systems are imbued with features that may operate in patterned ways but whose interactions are continually changing. Three properties determine the complexity of an environment. The first, multiplicity, refers to the number of potentially interacting elements. The second, interdependence, relates to how connected those elements are. The third, diversity, has to do with the degree of their heterogeneity. The greater the multiplicity, interdependence, and diversity, the greater the complexity. An organic growth program, for example, is highly complex—it contains a large number of interactive, interdependent, diverse elements.

While it is easy to see that the Harvard Business Review definition is the most complex, it does not make it the best. It is useful because it displays the layers of meaning necessary to understand complexity, but if we point our students there initially, they will be lost.

The dictionary definition of “not simple” is a perfect starting point for teaching complexity. Only after they understand the nature of a “simple” thought can they advance to understand the multiplicity, interdependence, and diversity of a complex thought.

How to Teach It

1.  Start with a simple thought.

Let’s use Gatsby as an example. Perhaps a student has been asked to do a character analysis. A simple thesis statement may read:

In the novel The Great Gatsby the main character Jay Gatsby longs for Daisy.

There is nothing wrong with this statement. It can be justified by the text. It displays some insight. But is just isn’t complex.

2.  Ask questions; add layers.

As teachers, we need to tease out complexity. Our students are capable of it, they just have not been conditioned to think past a simple response. Good questioning is the way to achieve it.

Ask your students why Gatsby longs for a woman who is already married with a family of her own? Why would he want to divorce her from a life she has established with Tom Buchanan? What are the interacting elements that make him want to disrupt her life? List them.

  • He wants to recreate a past that is no longer attainable.
  • He believes that Tom is absorbed by his arrogance and self-righteousness, making him oblivious to Daisy’s needs.
  •  He is empty without her.
  • He is ashamed of his poor past and assumes that wealth is what she needs/values most.

3.  Find the thread. Rewrite the thesis.

What is the connecting thread within all these layers? Gatsby does long for Daisy, but it is more than that. He exists in the present but clings to the past, making him a hollow character. Sure, he wishes to rescue Daisy from a reckless marriage, but ultimately he is trying to rescue himself from his own emptiness. A complex thesis statement may now read:

In the novel The Great Gatsby, Jay is a hollow character lost in his past and incapable of living in the present emptiness of his wealth and his failures.

This thesis creates a complex system for understanding the novel. It views the plot through the complex lens of Gatsby’s hollowness, connecting his past with his present. It identifies that neither his wealth nor his attempts to win back Daisy succeed in restoring the sense of purpose and fulfillment his once had.

The Result

A complex thesis statement does not necessarily make for a complex essay, but it is a huge step in the right direction. The complex sentence above allows for so many more layers to an essay than the previous statement. All it took was three simple steps.

  1. Start with a simple idea
  2. Ask questions; add layers
  3. Find the thread

While I used high-school level texts, this three-step process can be applied to middle-school or elementary-level texts. I like the three-step process because it takes a simple approach to a complex outcome. How could you apply this technique in your classroom? I encourage you to share your ideas in the comments section below.

For more ways to teach complexity, check out The Best Lesson Series: Literature.

2 thoughts on “Complexity — What Does It Mean and How to Teach It

  1. Brian…you’re approaches resonates with me because you accept the initial simple thoughts that students may have. Often, students may become discouraged when teachers consider these initial thoughts as wrong or not good enough; however, you take these simple ideas and use them as a starting point. It’s the mark of a great teacher to take students from where they are and build up, not just set an unachievable standard and expect students to jump there.

    This process might work well with the steps outline in Falling in Love with Close Reading, especially the second step in the book of noticing patterns in the evidence. That seems to correspond with your process of asking questions and adding layers.

  2. Brian–The weight of “teacher guilt” that I carry around because I worry so much that my students are not experiencing the complexity of the texts we study is sometimes overwhelming. This simple procedure will surely help assuage some of that guilt. What I’d love to see is the students making up their own questions in part two, rather than relying on those of the teacher.

Comments are closed.