We are consistently encouraged to make things easy. Every day the media and the web insist—in myriad ways—that easier is somehow better.
Take language for example… When writing this post I am encouraged to use sentences with fewer than twenty words. Heaven forbid I allow greater than 300 words appear on the page before inserting a subheading. If I want to avoid the awful red mark against my post I’d better ‘chunk it up’!
Fewer words. More sub-headings. Less complex sentences. Shorter snippets.
The idea being: by ‘making things easy’ we breed understanding.
There are times when making things easy is a good option: customer service, navigating technology, statistical analysis, law, to name a few. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t make ideas comprehensible, reachable, available, attainable. Please do! There’s no denying, simplicity and familiarity help us get through a day filled with distractions. Our ability to process so much so fast speaks to an impressive ability to select and process stimuli. When we see something we’ve already been exposed to, our brains go to their happy place. Recognition. Yay!
Unfortunately too often, different is equated with difficulty. We have a tendency to shy away from difficult. We want easy.
Or do we?
Are we slowly eroding our ability to process complex ideas inch by inch as a result of our obsession with ‘making things easier’?
Getting back to our language example… What happens to our ability to process complex ideas if we cannot comprehend a sentence of more than 20 words? What happens to our ability to concentrate if we are never encouraged to follow an argument because more than 300 words appear on the page before a break?
Will our critical reasoning skills, that is, our ability to interpret, reason, and verify, degrade over time if we don’t comprehend the difference between accessible and simplistic?
To famously quote:
Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.
~ Albert Einstein
I mention this because the President just reminded us that complexity isn’t a vice.
~ ‘Game On’ Written by Aaron Sorkin & Paul Redford.
We know challenges breed growth and resilience. According to William Hughes and Jonathan Lavery (2014), critical thinking helps us to persuade, assess, and dislodge the irrational believed rational. More importantly, it helps us discern, judge meaning, and in my experience stimulates creativity.
Peter A. Facione has this to say about the need for critical thinking and why it counts:
Becoming educated and practicing good judgement does not absolutely guarantee a life of happiness, virtue, or economic success, but it surely offers a better chance at those things. And it is clearly better than enduring the consequences of making bad decisions and better than burdening friends, family, and all the rest of us with the unwanted and avoidable consequences of those poor choices.
He goes on to ask us to think about potential failures if we fail to engage critical thinking skills. And the potential for ourselves and our communities is unpleasant to contemplate—totalitarianism, corruption, indoctrination, societal collapse. These might feel farfetched, but by the same token, it doesn’t take too many steps to go from success to homelessness either. Think back to your last life choice. Did you think deeply? If not, what happened? What were the consequences? How long did it take you to set things right again? Were apologies necessary? How much re-thinking did you find yourself doing?
When we fail to think deeply, to analyse, evaluate, double-check ourselves and our understanding (self-regulate), we make poor decisions and end up in a mess.
Of course, we aren’t always rational beings. We’re emotional. Being so doesn’t make us bad. Our emotions are useful antennae—if we develop self-awareness. As Brene’ Brown maintains, ’emotions drive our thinking and behaviour’. (My experience has led me to wonder if affect and intuition are linked, and if so, how closely). The challenge is becoming curious about what we’re feeling and why, which is perhaps the first step in thinking critically about the information in front of us, which in turn can lead us towards realisation, creativity and innovation.
This concern around loss of our ability to work through complex concepts isn’t new. Besides those quotes noted above and my own posts, similar concerns are raised by authors such as Alex Soojung-Kin Pang* and Nicholas Carr ** (though the impetus for their interest is different). But put simply… use it or lose it sister.
Accessibility is the key. Accessibility opens the door to understanding. But ‘easy’ and accessible aren’t the same thing.
Iwarsson and StahL (2003) suggest accessibility requires the integration of the personal and the environmental. They’re focusing on disability, but what I gained from the article was the differences between access and usage; our approach to design tools; considerations of flexibility, tolerance, and connectedness. And after all, when we consider accessibility, we are talking about more than websites.
How then do we draw the line between accessible and simplistic? Here are a few of my thoughts:
|Dumbing things down||Let's start by giving other people some credit.|
|Making assumptions about people need/want||Avoid ambiguity, and remember, the 'over simplified' (simplistic) is usually misleading.|
|Assume people don't want to take the time to understand||Develop a real awareness of what accessibility really means for the members of our target audience, including age, gender, stature, race/ethnicity, culture, native language; any disabilities and learning preferences.|
|Assume people won't ask questions||Encourage our target audience to ask questions when needed, and offer reasoned, useful feedback when our ideas aren't proving accessible. In my experience, shared understanding usually requires dialogue.|
|Leave things a mess||Review your layout for overall coherency. Consider efficiency, usability, and the satisfaction gained by ourselves and our audience when we generate and create.|
|Playing on the side of Might||Think about whether your text is catering to hierarchy and established power structures without considering others. How can you change your material to be inclusive?|
|Apply the same rule of thumb to ideas that we do to sport... Consider: our abilities improve when we play against a better team with more developed skills. It's one of the reasons we seek out coaches and mentors.|
|Consider: does the presentation of your ideas help people transition from simple ideas to more complex ones? How are you positioning complex ideas? Is your presentation scalable for complexity?|
|Consider the questions that arise for the future.|
|Take time to process and reflect on what you've seen and heard. If we don't, time and creativity are surely wasted.|
Let’s ensure our ideas are accessible, not simplistic.
Watch out for my upcoming post series designed to help you focus your attention. Join me as we deep dive into this critical skill over the coming weeks.
Thanks for spending time with me today.
Facione, P, Critical Thinking: What it is and Why it Counts. Retrieved, June 9 (1998): 2004.
Hughes, William & Lavery, Jonathan. Critical Thinking: An Introduction to the Basic Skills – Canadian Seventh Edition. (2014) Broadview Press.
Iwarsson, S and Stahl, A. Accessibility, usability and universal design—positioning and definition of concepts describing person-environment relationships. Disability and Rehabilitation. Taylor & Francis 1/1 (2003) Pages 57-66.
*The Distraction Addiction (2013)
** The Shallows (2011)