Exploring Complexity:

Investigating the interactions between the various parts and people associated with objects and systems, including the range of values, motivations, and priorities held by the individuals who engage with particular objects and systems.

Building off of their initial observations of objects or systems, students may return to their earlier findings from using the Parts, Purposes, Complexities thinking routine and focus now on what complexities they may want to explore in more depth.

If students are working with an object they may want to consider situating that object into a system. For example, a lunch box can be examined through the system of manufacturing (how are lunchboxes made, who makes them, where do the materials come from); through the system of consumerism (where are lunchboxes sold, how do they get there, how much do they cost); or, through the system of school (how are they packed, how are they transported, etc).

Another way to explore the complexity of objects is to take them apart! Some teachers have used the Parts, Purposes, Complexities routine before and after taking objects apart to document how students’ thinking changed once they deconstructed an object.

Educator Renee Miller reflects on how her students did some “just-in-time” research to confirm the safety of taking apart a light bulb. “Once the light bulbs were open, the students immediately noticed that the insides of the bulbs were coated in a white powder. Simultaneously frightened and fascinated, we decided that we needed to pause for Google and goggles!”

Things Come Apart, by Todd McLellan provided some inspiration for educators from Park Day School to explore the complexities of everyday objects with their second grade learners.

In this picture of practice essay educator Jeanine Harmon shares the project.

Students can shift their inquiry from objects to relationships by using the thinking routine Parts, People, Interactions to observe and analyze systems. The routine prompts investigation about context by building off of the components in a systems and including who is involved and what types of interactions occur. Students may “map” their systems on paper or create storyboards to illustrate the hierarchies and networks involved. As they begin to build theories about the system they are studying they may test their assumptions by running scenarios that change certain factors in their system.

Middle school learners from Claremont Middle School come to new questions after mapping the complexities of community in their ethnic studies course with educator Kurt Kaaekuahiwi.

Taking time to consider the viewpoints of others is another way to explore complexity. The thinking routine Think, Feel, Care invites learners to step inside a system and realize the wide-ranging perspectives of stakeholders who are connected to that system. Role-playing, interviews and research should be thoughtfully employed to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the diverse perspectives involved and to design more informed lines of inquiry.


Educators from Oakland International High School role-playing during a professional development session.



Of course, each new layer of complexity invites an opportunity to return to the practice of looking closely.

Looking Closely Exploring Complexity Finding Opportunity