Theme 2: Use Good Problems

9 9: Fish tank — Simplify complex systems

With the FISH TANK principle, Gee suggests that complex tasks and interactions (systems) should be simplified when first learned. As learners understand these, more complexity can be introduced. This is related to, and builds on, the Cycle of Expertise principle.

FISH TANK strategies in teaching

  • Do not just start with a fish tank. Start by presenting the complete complex system, and explicitly (ideally with students’ help) break it down into the simpler fish tanks in order to study and learn.
  • As complexity is introduced, remember to revisit earlier components, and see the effects that new components have on the system.
  • Use simulations if possible. Give students the ability to add, subtract, and adjust inputs that affect complexity.
  • Let students create multimedia or game versions that explain course concepts. This will force them to create their own sandboxes, and make decisions on what is important to keep to understand/explain the concept, and what is okay to remove.
  • Short writing exercises that require students explain concepts in small chunks (e.g. tweets), also requires they examine and manipulate concepts to reduce complexity.
  • Add a few strategies that might work in your course, and see others’ ideas here.

FISH TANK strategies in Canvas

  • Start with a difficult, but very low-stakes pre-test that introduces the full complexity of what they will be able to understand by the end of the course.
  • Tie the pre-test closely to Outcomes and Rubrics.
  • Explicitly revisit that complex pre-test (and the learning outcomes) in lessons, quizzes, and assignments throughout the course, so they can map their progress in understanding the increased complexity.
  • Create assignments that focus on key concepts. Design larger projects that require synthesis.
  • Give them the same pre-test at the end of the course, so they can show mastery.
  • Add a few strategies that might work in your course, and see others’ ideas here.


Knowledge Check


9: Fish tank — Simplify complex systems Copyright © by John Martin, Karin Spader, Julie Johnson. All Rights Reserved.

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