Narrative Complexity

In June, 2014, 45 of our 50 states appeared ready to unite to introduce a shared program to govern K-12 education in those states. For the first time in our history, instead of the more than 13,000 independent school districts shaping instruction across the country, we were to have a set of national norms determining educational practice in the areas of language arts and mathematics. This revolutionary change in American education came about with little discussion in the K-12 community, and even less in the colleges and universities who would be accepting future products of this new system. Nevertheless, the train was assumed to have left the station, and students, teachers—and very soon, professors—were going to experience the effects of this revolution.

Today, in 2016, the unified front we thought we would be facing in 2014 has grown a lot less unified. Even so, the challenge confronting us remains that of working to improve the system as it exists. For those of us in MLA, a useful way to accomplish this is to get our professional organization to make recommendations that—were we to make them individually—might go unheard.

The one concern of the Core planners and administrators where we might have the most suasion is in the area of text selection for the Language Arts Common Core. While there is an argument to be made about the Core planners’ emphasis on informational as opposed to fictional works, more fundamental is the value placed in both on the key worth of ‘complexity’.

The Core Initiative at every stage stresses a student’s ability to master complexity as a goal. Complexity, of course, is hard to define. The Core Standards are compelled to simplify what is meant by complexity, since a key assumption they make is that all goals should be quantifiable. Appendix A of the standards document for English struggles mightily with this issue, complete with three colored triangular diagrams. Most obviously, differences have been necessarily elided between the various kinds of complexity represented by different genres, from newspaper editorials to legal briefs. Literary works present special problems for anyone seeking to quantify complexity. How do you quantify the different shades of complexity in a Kafka parable as opposed to the complexity of a late Henry James novel?

I note with sadness, but only in passing, the complete neglect of foreign languages and translation in the Core curricula. This is another front, and a critical one, but let us concentrate our forces for the moment on narrative.

So—complexity. What might be a way we could capture the complexity of the term itself, so that it could be used to guide reading practices in K-12 schoolrooms? For openers, of the various ways in which a text can be complex, I’d suggest that narrative complexity is the royal road to other ways in which a text engages our interest and reflection. Specific suggestions for prose readings might be a progression from fairy tales (comparing Disney versions with those of the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen), through detective stories, Chekhov (early humorous sketches to The Steppe), to von Kleist, leading up to Kafka and Virginia Woolf. Each of us could imagine a reading list oriented around surprising plots. The point would be to initiate a lifelong dialog with a world that is full of surprising twists and turns, requiring analysis of the unexpected. Exploding narrative expectations is an ancient and proven way cultures have taught their young to think about what’s happening to them.

This is not the place to go into a deep analysis of why narrative is a particularly effective way to explore complexity, but at the present moment our students more than ever need to be taught the wisdom of Mozart’s definition of music: it’s what is between the notes. What Mozart wished to emphasize was the primacy of event over mere pattern. When we listen to music, we hear a sequence of now moments, when we distinguish the sweep of the melody as it moves from prior to present moment in the score, even as it opens prodromal hints of future notes perceived in now moments yet to come. It is the living moment of connection, making relational discoveries, that is at the heart of learning.

The experience of now understood in this way—as something conscious of, but not exhausted by, patterns outside the now—has never been more significant than in the historical moment when Common Core will be taking over our educational system. For Common Core is all based on pattern recognition, not living events. It focuses on stochastic algorithms, not human happenings.

I post this overly long and tendentious comment in the hope it will perhaps spark further suggestions of how we might intelligently institutionalize the teaching and learning of complexity across the grade levels, K to 16 and beyond. We need to provide tools for the MLA if it is going to do the work needed to improve Common Core—and our own futures as teachers.

1 Comment

  • Michael Holquist’s excellent comment closes by asking “for reflection on how a coherent Common Core might sequence increasing degrees of complexity in a K-12 curriculum.”
    When I was an elementary school student in Palo Alto, California, there was a box of staged readers in my third through fifth grade classrooms–I believe they were called the SRI Readers, but that may be wrong. The files were color coded and held readings of roughly equal difficulty for each level. After we had proven our understanding of some number at each level, we could progress to the next color. I remember wanting to move with all possible speed from light blue to gold. I do not know on what principles the designers based their estimates of difficulty, but it always made sense to me. Readings got longer, and, yes, the narratives became more complex and literary. The genres also became less familiar, and sometimes that meant varying the literary with straight historical report or a news article or sheer pieces of information.

    Michael Holquist asks us to envision a K-12 ELA curriculum that builds in increasing degrees of text complexity, as determined by a coherent set of criteria. I agree with Michael Holquist’s argument that narrative and genre hold a privileged place in this question. A coherent K-12 Common Core for ELA in reading might then involve a sequence of narratives and genres posing greater and greater degrees of difficulty.

    I would suggest a proposal for the upcoming MLA called along the lines of “Text Complexity” or “Text Complexity and Cognition: News from Literary History.”

    Difficulty includes sheer page length for many student populations. There are many dimensions to difficulty, and we will want to keep them in mind.

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