Seeking complexity

Recently while attending a Corwin webinar on The Distance Learning Playbook, author Doug Fisher said something that really highlights the importance of providing students with depth and complexity over recall. During that webinar, Doug said, “If a question can be answered by Alexa or Siri, it is no longer complex.”  


Let that sink in for a moment – students now have access to information in ways that we never even considered just 10 years ago. With each passing year, the need for having students memorize low-level facts and information is becoming more and more obsolete and outdated.  It is simply no longer necessary for us to have students memorize items such as the periodic symbol for potassium and iron, or quoting Newton’s laws of motion, or memorize the parts of a plant.  These are all questions we could easily ask:  “Siri, what is the symbol for potassium?” “Alexa, what does Newton’s third law of motion say?” 


How often do you, in your adult life, need to know the answers to those questions?  How often do you need to recall some basic information and you simply google it?   We have unlimited access to information today and this removes the need for rote memorization of information.  This does not mean that students won’t learn and commit things to memory, however.  For example, as students discover how plants use their parts to grow, survive, and meet their needs, they will naturally learn the parts of the plant.  They don’t need to memorize, instead, they will learn and commit it to memory through their investigations and conversations when they are connecting the part of the plant to the function it serves.  


When assessing student understanding, consider how much deeper that understanding can be demonstrated when students are using the proper term for plant structures in describing for how they help a plant survive than simply labeling parts on a diagram. A New Vision for Science Education highlights the importance of moving away from rote memorization and that “Facts and terminology learned as needed while developing explanations and designing solutions supported by evidence-based arguments and reasoning.”   Appendix A of the NGSS shares the conceptual shifts and reminds us that our focus should be on the core ideas and not on facts and details. 

The NGSS Focus on Deeper Understanding of Content as well as Application of Content. The Framework identified a smaller set of Disciplinary Core Ideas that students should know by the time they graduate from high school, and the NGSS are written to focus on the same. It is important that teachers and curriculum/assessment developers understand that the focus is on the core ideas—not necessarily the facts that are associated with them. The facts and details are important evidence, but not the sole focus of instruction. The Framework states: “The core ideas also can provide an organizational structure for the acquisition of new knowledge. Understanding the core ideas and engaging in the scientific and engineering practices helps to prepare students for broader understanding, and deeper levels of scientific and engineering investigation, later on—in high school, college, and beyond. One rationale for organizing content around core ideas comes from studies comparing experts and novices in any field. Experts understand the core principles and theoretical constructs of their field, and they use them to make sense of new information or tackle novel problems. Novices, in contrast, tend to hold disconnected and even contradictory bits of knowledge as isolated facts and struggle to find a way to organize and integrate them [24]. The assumption, then, is that helping students learn the core ideas through engaging in scientific and engineering practices will enable them to become less like novices and more like experts.”

As you look at your assessments – whether formative or summative, consider what depth and complexity you asking the students to demonstrate. Consider the changes you might want to make to those assessments.  Are you having them answer questions that Siri or Alexa could answer?  Or are your questions asking them to demonstrate a deeper understanding and complexity?


Reach out to the author – Mandie Sanderman is a consultant for science and gifted/talented education and can be reached at