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Is “Complicated” To “Complex” As “Puzzle” Is To “Mystery”?


I’ve posted previously applying Malcolm Gladwell’s frame of “puzzles versus mysteries” to present-day school reform (See Is Figuring Out How To Make Schools Better A Puzzle Or A Mystery?).

Today, Larry Cuban, I think, used a similar perspective talking about school reform. He, however, framed it as “complicated versus complex.”

I’d strongly encourage you to read his entire post (The Difference between “Complicated” and “Complex” Matters), but here are some excerpts:

A complicated system assumes expert and rational leaders, top-down planning, smooth implementation of policies, and a clock-like organization that runs smoothly. Work is specified and delegated to particular units.

Certainty about outcomes is in the air the organization breathes. Complicated systems use the most sophisticated math, technical, and engineering expertise in mapping out flow charts to solve problems….

Complex systems like criminal justice, health care, and schools, however, are filled with hundreds of moving parts, scores of players of varied expertise and independence yet missing a “mission control” that runs all these different parts within an ever-changing political, economic, and societal environment. The result: constant adaptations in design and action….

The problem for those who inhabit complex systems like schools is that change, conflict, and unplanned changes occur all the time. So do adaptations because of the web-like independent and interdependent relationships that make up the system. What happens when smart people try to graft procedures from complicated organizations onto complex systems?

If you get a chance, read his post and my previous post and share in the comments what you think…

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. This all reminds me of a similar distinction proposed by E.M. Forster in A Passage to India. If memory serves (and it’s been years since I read it), the Forster compares the mystery to the muddle. Mysteries always bear the possibility of resolution and revelation. Muddles are little more than chaos and cacophony.

    Sometimes, I feel like the discourse on school reform swings from mystery to muddle and back. Those who believe it’s a mystery believe in a divine, transcendent solution, one sketched out, perhaps, in a few reform strategies. Theirs is an evangelistic rhetoric. Those who believe it’s a muddle deplore the chaos and see no solutions. They give up.

    The media, too seem to give us either mystery or muddle. Sometimes the begin with the muddle and end with the mystery.

    Cuban’s terms, it seems to me, are more productive–as long as we don’t allow complexity to descend to nothing more than a muddle.

  2. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on puzzles vs. mysteries. I also read the Gladwell essay recently and posted something about it ( His description of the distinction between the two concepts really captured my attention and influenced my thinking about schools, teaching and learning. I also plan on exploring the concepts of complicated and complex a little more. After reading Cuban’s blog post, I see a lot of similarities between his analysis and Treverton’s metaphor.

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