How our Curriculum Design (from Simple to Complex) Insults the Intelligence of a Student

[Delivered as L2L Talk on 2011-03-20]

A child is naturally curious and interested in exploring about things that he does not know. Complex and unknown things are the ones that interest him (and us). We are interested in mysteries, conspiracy theories, adventure, drama, and are amused by the unexpected, stupendous, super-natural or sci-fi. We insult a child’s intelligence by thinking that he can not understand complex things. We think that the only way to teach him is to progress from simple to complex. First drill in him simple concepts. He will only understand complex concepts, once he has mastered the simple things.

This is an insult to the intelligence of a child because the child has proven through his mastery of his mother tongue that he learns from complex to simple. Parents start talking to him naturally, with full sentences much before when he could say a single word. They talk to him, sing to him using natural language. Any computer scientist will tell you that one of the most complex problems that computers have addressed is natural language processing. Within one to two years most children have started using the natural language. We also see the attempt of the kid to stand, walk, climb, balance and now even use mobile phones; which are extremely complex manoeuvres if you ask any robotics expert. In fact, a kid is extremely interested in all the complex things that he sees his elders doing, and wants to copy them irrespective of all the setbacks, injuries, falls and false starts. Study of how a child masters these skills reveal that the child is progressing from complex to simple and not the other way round. Because this is exciting and adventurous, the child is willing to suffer through all the setbacks without getting discouraged.

However, when our teaching content progresses tediously and painstakingly from simple to complex, when week after week and month after month it keeps on lingering on what the kids have already seen and experienced, they lose their interest, and hence their curiosity, wonder and their natural ability to learn. Then we are forced to employ unnatural and forceful ploys to engage their attention. Schools then have to resort to bribes, threats or humiliation, the three most effective ways to control children:

  1. Bribe through grades, happy-face, stars, awards, and presents, or 
  2. Threat through F-grades, failure, detention, loss of privileges, loss of access to recess/playground, or 
  3. Humiliation by throwing them out of the class, making them stand, made fun of, labeling, and scapegoating. 

We now equate good schooling with excess of these three elements. We can not envision a school environment which does not have these three things and still be considered good. We think that a student is not studying unless his tears are running down his cheeks, he is fearful, silent, and crying. The result is that we are producing “functional illiterates“.

All of these techniques are useless and are not necessary had we designed our content from complex to simple. Let the student move to the deeper and deeper level of the details. He would do this by himself if we can show him that the mystery that he unravels is going to be exciting and will prepare him to unravel and explore more mysteries. The duty of a teacher then becomes more of a facilitator when she guides the child in this unraveling of the mystery and pointing out the fundamental principles that the kid needs to remember. This would generate interest among the students and would make their learning effortless. The result would be students who love maths, science, literatue and history naturally. Currently you are surprised to find a student at the high school level who says that any of these subjects are his hobby or passion.

This is the essence of project based learning.

Credits: Inspired by Frank Smith‘s “Insult to Intelligence: Bureaucratic Invasion of Classrooms”.

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  1. Anonymous Avatar

    We as teachers, try to impose our will on the students and we train them to become our replica, where as we are supposed to inspire them to become, what they are.

    For them we are from the past and they are for the future, the future which is not exisiting in physical form, so we can not push them from behind we need to hold their hands to to the future by being ahead of them mentally through VISION for the future, which is not a physical entity, at the moment.

  2. Please see my post on Which field should my child choose that has scope ( This talks about enabling the child to realize his/her own potential and explore what contribution can he make to the society.

  3. I think there is a dire need for teachers to have a paradigm shift and come out of the syllabus-completed-on-time mentality. Teachers are often afraid of missing the syllabus completion deadlines. They should at least start any topic with a complex but real life problem and have discussion and let the students build the problem and dig down in to it.

  4. Mind Tapping Articles Dr Irfan. Truly your articles and your Institution have changed my thinking all together. Now I'm teaching with a totally new Perspective, new vision and new hope that I'm going to change the lives of my students for good and for better InshAllah.

  5. Frank Smith's book Insult to Intelligence not only changed my thinking upside down, but also compelled me to reanalyze all my theories. I have detailed this in another blog post: Testing/Grading vs Motivation: A Variation on Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle for Academics. Please read it too.

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