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To Help them Understand Coronavirus, Teach Students about Complexity

Learning how complex systems operate will give older students a way to comprehend the rippling consequences of COVID-19
Interconnected people from above

For many students, the consistency of their typical day has been upended — abruptly and seemingly without a clear end date. In order to help older students understand why medical professionals are advising precautions like school and college closures and social distancing, one strategy is to teach them to think about complexity.

Our tendency in schools is often to simplify and break concepts apart to help students access challenging content. However, complexity typically involves systems components that cannot be simplified in this way. Breaking a system apart can distort our understanding of the interconnections that govern the system's behavior. 

Research on learning makes it clear that we need to equip students to handle complexity. We can start by teaching students to understand its features or characteristics.

Here are four characteristics of complexity — accompanied by real world analogies — that can help older students understand the COVID-19 pandemic and the world’s response to it.

Distributed causes: While centralized control structures such as governments can help us to address COVID-19, the success of the effort ultimately depends upon the decisions of many actors distributed across the planet.

  • Most kids have watched a teacher try to quiet an entire auditorium of students. That effort is only successful with the cooperation of the individual actors — and so it goes with COVID-19.

Exponential growth: The math of contagion is not additive. If we interact with others, it leads to exponential growth.  

  • Kids today use the words “gone viral” to think about this analogically. If you share a funny video, three of your friends might each share it with three of their friends, then those nine people with three of their friends, and so on.  

Think about a branching structure. When one person contracts the virus, they interact with a number of other people who interact with a number of others leading to big changes in short periods of time.  

Synergistic outcomes: In some forms of growth, it is not enough to think of a branching structure. Our collective actions interact to create new actions/outcomes. This is referred to as emergence.

  • If two kids are talking in the cafeteria and the kids next to them must talk louder to be heard over the first two, then those two talk louder, and so on, as the sound escalates out of control. And no one really believes that the volume in the room was their fault.

So, when people see others stocking up on groceries, they begin worrying and stocking up, and so on, and it quickly escalates into empty shelves.

Dynamic steady states and processes: Most of the systems in our lives work because they are in a dynamic steady state. They can handle a certain amount of flux and still stay balanced.

  • When kids try to balance on one foot, they often find out that they can’t stand perfectly still and need to shift back and forth in order to stay upright.  

The systems in our lives — including hospitals and healthcare, food sources, and yes, even demands for toilet paper — also need to shift to stay balanced, but they can only tip so far without crashing. We tend to focus on crashes or big events, such as COVID-19, instead of steady states. Events grab our attention and galvanize us to act. Understanding complexity includes learning to act in response to subtler changes in systems dynamics, such as those of the world’s climate, for instance.

These are just a few of the features of complexity that are part of our everyday lives. By helping students understand these interconnecting dynamics, and to see all the parts of the complex system that govern our world, we'll help them mature into future citizen-leaders and into the kind of discerning problem solvers we need them to become.

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