This is part two of our two part series on Jane Jacobs – The Death and Life of Great American Cities

In the final chapter of her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities Jane Jacobs draws from an essay on science and complexity written by Dr. Warren Weaver in 1958 to identify three kinds of problems: 1.) problems of simplicity 2.) problems of disorganized complexity and 3.) problems of organized complexity.

Jacobs argues that the way we think about problems dictates the strategies we use to solve them. But, if the way we think about a problem is based on a misunderstanding of the kind of problem it is, then the solutions we attempt will be ineffective.

Jacobs believes that cities are problems of organized complexity but we treat them like problems of simplicity, hence our inability to solve many urban problems. As we will see below, Jacobs’ argument can also be applied to education. But first a little background.

Problems of simplicity contain two factors that are directly related to each other in their behavior. Even three or four variable problems are relatively simple problems to solve because only a few, directly related variables are considered.

Problems of disorganized complexity, deal with a vast number of variables that interact in a random manner. Techniques of probability theory and statistical methods can be used to manage problems that contain such disorganization and randomness, like in dealing with the great problems of physics.

But the life sciences are neither problems of simplicity nor problems of disorganized complexity, but rather problems of organized complexity. This kind of problem involves “dealing simultaneously with a sizable number of factors which are interrelated into an organic whole” (p. 563).  Although the interactions of the many factors are complex, there is nothing accidental or irrational about the ways in which they affect one another. Problems of organized complexity are the most difficult kind of problems to address, she argues, because there are no simple solutions.

Like cities and communities, education fits this description because it is influenced by an expansive number of variables including: individual temperament, family history, community resources, cultural traditions, class structures, school attributes and more.

And like urban planners in 1961, educational policy makers, practitioners and researchers today often treat education as if it were a simple problem, with only a few key variables that need to be manipulated. Thus we get treatments that modify one aspect of the situation, like early childhood programs, or after school programs or new teacher training methods.  Modify those key variables and our problems will be solved, the thinking goes.

If we instead accept the fact that education is not a simple-variable problem, but a problem of organized complexity, we can attempt solutions that would be more appropriate. Thus the focus of this blog over the months regards the approaches that develop social capital, understand children’s education in the context of broad cultural traditions and numerous disciplines of thought, and approach education itself not as a school or building centered activity, but see it as a complex activity taking place in social settings, throughout the community and across the lifespan.

Jacobs, J. (1961/1993). The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Part II