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Posts Tagged ‘nuance

Spoiler: One quick takeaway from this Build For Tomorrow podcast episode is that the simplest action you can take is to embrace complexity.

How did podcast host, Jason Feifer, arrive at that conclusion? 

He investigated “the complexity of simple things” by examining what seems like a simple hobby — knitting. In doing so, he uncovered that knitting:

  • likely originated in Africa in the 11th century
  • was a way for women to make a living
  • had guilds where only men could be master knitters
  • was feared by clergy because the sexes could mingle as they knit

What is the relevance of these factoids? They worked against the assumptions that knitting was: 

  • a white or Western thing
  • merely a simple hobby
  • mostly what women did
  • free from controversy

The narrative that linked these concepts was a black woman who became a champion for challenging the assumptions that fuelled sexism and racism. 

The same woman also fought against the idea that politics or other complexities should not be part of the conversations around knitting. Why? In the eyes of those simpletons, knitting was pure and simple.

The fact of the matter is that knitting — for that matter, just about anything else — is not simple.  Whether we are knitting or creating content, we bring our biases and perspectives with us. To ignore that is to wear blinders.

That is why Feifer suggested that the simplest thing we can do is to embrace complexity. It is a fact of life. To ignore that is to blind ourselves to reality.

Sadly, the job of the press is not to educate but to sell more newspapers. Often it does this by simplifying instead of embracing and explaining nuance.

Take this tweet and the linked article as an example.

ICU capacity is not just about increasing the number of beds. It is also about having enough qualified people to take care of those in the ICU. Capacity should also include the upskilling and/or recruitment of such people.

If increased ICU capacity is only about more beds, then more primary school places in Singapore is just about increasing the number of classrooms. Just like we need more nurses and other professionals to take care of more people in the ICU, we need enough qualified teachers to take nurture their students.

But wait, isn’t making that connection is common sense? No, common sense is a rare commodity. 

A non-nuanced view just looks at numbers or takes numbers for granted. A nuanced mind questions those numbers and seeks quality and narrative. For an example of critical narrative, consider this Vox video on nuclear power.

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The video illustrates how different sides emerge even after agreeing on the same numbers. The narratives they tell are based on values they hold. There is nuance behind the numbers.

The capacity for nuance does not come from reading superficial newspaper articles. It comes from questioning and discussing them. It comes from processing the information from experts and refusing to oversimplify. Are we building that capacity?

Today I continue with my notes on yesterday’s article.

The other half of the article started with a rather optimistic “shifts from old-fashioned binary thinking” of face-to-face vs online. IMHO, reality bites hard and people still operate by that binary, e.g., face-to-face is better.

Thankfully, it focused on more nuanced terms like emergency remote teaching (my reflection) as something that resulted from an urgent situation (COVID-19 lockdowns) and unprepared teachers (low digital literacy). This distinction is important — emergency remote teaching is not the same as online learning which had decades of practice and research to back it up.

The author then returned to redefining “online learning”. She used three previously described design elements — modality, pedagogy, and course access — as defining blocks of online learning.

Building on an example she cited, a more precise description of an “online” course might read:

  • Modality: A synchronous, video-enabled seminars…
  • Pedagogy: …based on existing lecture series…
  • Access: … available only by registration on XYZ learning management system.

The author warned of vague terms like online, blended, and hybrid. These should raise alarms in anyone reading these in course descriptions because these terms can immediately be followed with the question “What do you mean by…?” (I would add a few more equally vague but commonly used terms like interactive, engage, and lifelong.)

Before focusing on pedagogy, the author reminded the reader of the importance of shared meanings. If we use the same terms but mean different things, we risk creating misunderstandings professionally as researchers and practitioners.

I save the focus on pedagogy in my next reflection.

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I look forward to every podcast episode of Pessimists Archive, rare and irregular as it is. I wish the latest episode came out before my course finale.

The latest podcast started with a “heroic” dog and ended with the war between natural ice and artificial refrigeration. Yes, the episodes are weird but connected like that. But they all share a common theme.

Take this quote from the 23min 47sec mark:

When people face new technologies… they end up wanting… a simple heuristic to cut through complexity and allow them to make decisions that would otherwise be ambiguous or overwhelming.

Technology represents change and some people react with fear. To manage that change and fear, these people seek simple heuristics e.g., tell me what to do, what is a formula I can follow, how might I dumb it down and essentially do the same thing.

But such short-term thinking does us no good. Shortcuts avoid the critical and creative thinking that is necessary for problem-solving and embracing nuance. Given that my course was about new educational technologies, the quote and the thinking behind it would have made a timely and wise course conclusion.

Ah, well. This is something else to add to the 30-plus reminders I already have in my Notes app…

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The message from Hank Green was about nuanced thought. His comical examples illustrate how “common” sense or superficial thinking are antithetical to fact, logic, and nuance.

It does not take that much dive deeper to make meaningful sense of what is going on. When challenged to skip the effort, we might consider what George Couros reflected on:

What is life, if not the sum of a hundred thousand daily battles and tiny decisions to either gut it out or give it up?

The small things matter because they add up. No “butts” about it.


As I watched the video below, I thought about the importance of being precise and nuanced.

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Hank Green was upset that news pundits and headlines were blindly declaring that the Amazon rainforest was burning, i.e., natural wild fires. He made the point that many of the fires this year were started by people to clear the land — the forest was being burnt.

For me, this was a good example of precision and nuance. It was not about nit-picking the use of burning vs being burnt. Anyone dismissive would point out that both had fires in common and that the immediate end result was the same.

However, Green’s point was that wild fires are natural, cyclical, and balanced. Man-made fires for the purpose of clearing forest were not. The processes are different — one is natural and the other is forced. The long-term results are different — one sees a natural recovery or evolution while the other sees damage.
Life is not black and white; there is some grey nuance to it. -- Pilou Asbaek
I try to be precise and more nuanced about why I do not like to merely engage my learners and why I prefer to empower them. I do not restrict myself to flipping a classroom; I choose to flip the learning. I do not simply use technology for teaching; I integrate it for learning.

The precision and nuance lie in this principle: I focus on the learner and learning, not just the teacher and teaching. This is a lot more difficult to do consistently, but it is also more rewarding in the long run.

Anyone not living under a rock will know that the current cultural entertainment phenomena are Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones.

Any educator worth their salt could take advantage of them. Videos that analyze their content are not only seeds, hooks, and drivers of content, they might also be used to teach nuance and critical thinking.

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The video above is one such example. It provides a low entry barrier, a shared experience, and cognitive dissonance among the learners.

An educator might leverage on such a video by highlighting how it models nuanced and critical thinking. By facilitating discussion and reflection the same educator can teach her students to do the same.

The FBE YouTube channel released a video about the preponderance of “Florida man”.

For the uninitiated, “Florida man” is a frequent prefix that appears in ridiculous newspaper headline or news chyrons. The video below provides numerous examples.

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While entertaining, the video is also an example of exploring nuance.

When trying to answer the question “Why does Florida seem to have so many crazy people?” it might be tempting to assume that there is something in the air or water there that makes people crazy.

The crazy thing is that a tongue-firmly-in-cheek report actually reveals the root of Florida man. This is the segment that matters.

Video source

There is a law in the state of Florida in the USA that requires governing bodies (the police in this case) to provide access of records to the public (news agencies, for example.)

So there is something in Florida that makes Florida man so ”common” — it is the law that requires the sharing of information. There are not necessarily more crazy people there. There is more open reporting of crazy people.

This is a simple example of nuance. It is going beyond anecdotes and assumptions. It is about digging deeper and making connections.

I get it. Why do complex when you can go simple? I even created an image quote a while ago of someone else sharing the same sentiment.

Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity. -- Charles Mingus.

However, any “truth” of “principle“ is subject to context — what applies to one does not to another.

Simpler is not necessarily better. Simpler is likely not nuanced or one-size-fits-all. Case in point? Take how the linked article began:

Do straight-A students make good policymakers? … Some have leadership qualities and interpersonal skills and others are only good at studying and doing well in exams.

The simple approach is to boil a complex issue down to a false dichotomy. Dig just a bit deeper and you might rationalise that good EQ and good IQ are not mutually exclusive.

This is not a criticism of the article. It does good job in providing examples of oversimplifying problem-solving and overcomplicating policies.

My thoughts turn to Singapore schooling instead. Academic streaming is simpler than subject-based banding (SBB). Yet we are moving on to SBB despite how students, parents, and enrichment tuition centres might interfere with the policy implementation.

The adoption and implementation of SBB has downstream impact on what is now the O and N-level examinations. What combinations and levels of subjects students take as well as their examination results will determine where they go next. The polytechnics and junior colleges will likely have to adjust their admission criteria.

There is no simple approach when a problem is systemic. The pathways are not just winding, they are multiple and rhizomic. We can do our best to simplify, but we must embrace complexity and nuance if we are to move forward.


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