Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Quick Cynefin Example


I need a quick Cynefin example to use in a session with educators who are not necessarily academics so I need simple language to demonstrate complex ideas 🙂

Here is the example. It may be off base, so please tell me if so. It relates to a student who is struggling with reading

  1. If the student reads well up close but badly from afar, this is a SIMPLE problem with an OBVIOUS solution. Get theirceyes checked and get them glasses. Or move them to sit forward in class closer to the board.
  2. If the student reads equally badly up close and afar, and also has spelling issues, consider Dyslexia, which is less well-known in Egypt and not usually an opthalmologist’s domain, but an expert can analyze, figure out if iti s dyslexia and what degree it is, and ther are ways to gelp the person become a better reader with time, usually. This waa a complicated  problem that needed expert opinion and analysis, but once the expert works on it, they can figure out a solution with time.
  3. If the student learned to read and passed tests one year then the next year were unable to read, this seems like an unknown problem with unclear solutions. It could be any number of social, cultural, psychlogical or physical things, and will require probing. It is a complex problem requiring us to try different things to understand and solve it, and an expert cannot work alone on it because it needs to involve other people (stakeholders) to solve it
  4. If an entir class of students suddenly cannot read and they have an exam tomorrow this is a chaotic situatuon (in this case probably sci fi hehe) and you would not know where to start but you try all kinds of things coz there is no time to probe first…

I am less confident about the 4th one. Do these sound reasonable or am I conflating things? 

Thanks in advance for feedback. I am not using any of the examples usually used with Cynefin coz they didn’t feel right. But I will look them over now.


  1. Hi Maha,

    Instead of trying to respond to yours, I’ve got a few of my own that might help you refine yours. Here are a few ways I think about these:

    Education example:

    Simple- Taking attendance. It is a procedure that is scripted and can be done the same way every day. If a school suddenly stops taking attendance they will slip over the cliff into chaos. No funding, angry parents, ditching teens.

    Complicated- Curriculum selection or assessment design. Experts disagree but you need experts to decide. Research base is important.

    Complex- Intervention design for learners who are underserved. Safe fail experiments are important and you may have to try a few things to reach different learners because of the inherent complexity of learning, learners, etc…

    Chaos- 7th grade boys find out there will be a fire drill in advance. Instead of walking out the school during the drill, they lay on the ground choking because of non-existent smoke. Some of them run around pretending to look for kids who are trapped and cannot escape the imaginary fire. This confuses all students and staff for about 10 minutes.

    Reading specific example:

    Simple- Do you have texts? Do you have a teacher? Did you plan for this in the student’s schedule? If no, you’ve got chaos.

    Complicated- What reading curriculum should we use in 7th grade? 7th grade reading scores are famously wild to study. Experts will disagree but research and experts must be consulted.

    Complex- Intervention design for learners who are underserved. Safe fail experiments are important and you may have to try a few things to reach different learners because of the inherent complexity of learning, learners, etc…

    Chaos- Teacher insists students can’t learn or read, there are no text resources, students hate the teacher and claim to hate reading.

    Systems example:

    Simple- gumball machine. If it is broken you jiggle the handle or wedge a fork in to the hole that dispenses the gumballs.

    Complicated- a Ferrari. Two different mechanics will sell you different things or recommend different approaches to maintenance but in the end the Ferrari is engineered one way. You can codify the construction of a Ferrari.

    Complex- botany experiments in the rainforest. You conduct them one year and get one set of results but when you try to replicate them you get different results the next year. Species go extinct all the time and the biome is constantly in flux.

    Chaos- A natural disaster where everyone looks to the city or military for instructions about evacuation. Leaders have to take command and give orders even when outcomes are unclear.

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