Why measure complexity?

Theo Dawson
3 min readDec 1, 2017

“Why measure growth in complexity level?”* That’s the question a new acquaintance asked me recently, and it took me by surprise.

One lesson I’ve had to learn again and again is that the only way to escape the boundaries of my own perspective is to listen hard to the perspectives of others. These perspectives are often reflected in the questions people ask. “Why measure growth?” I didn’t realize this question needed an answer. Like other questions that have surprised me, this one relates to something I take for granted — one of the fundamental assumptions that underlie my research.

Why we do it

We measure growth for three primary reasons — to make it visible, to learn how people learn, and to customize learning.

  1. By measuring growth, we make it visible. Being able to see evidence of our own growth motivates us to grow further. Contrast this with receiving grades or conventional test scores. They compare you with other people. If you get good grades, you may be motivated to strive for even better grades. But if you consistently get poor grades, you’re more likely to feel like you’re being punished for your learning efforts. By measuring growth, we provide positive motivation for every learner.
  2. A measure of growth helps us understand how people learn. At Lectica (the nonprofit that owns me), we’re constantly asking how particular growth scores relate to specific skills and knowledge, and how current skills and knowledge relate to the skills and knowledge we observe at the next level. In other words, we’re systematically and continually documenting the development of knowledge and skills, so we can answer questions like, “Is there an optimal way for people to learn this skill?”
  3. A measure of growth allows us to determine what a learner is most likely to benefit from learning next. This is important, because when we get the difficulty of the next learning challenge just right (not to easy and not too hard), we activate the brain’s inborn motivational system. This not only increases motivation in the moment, but supports a lifelong love of learning while increasing the rate of development.

These aren’t the only reasons for measuring growth in complexity level, but they are the reasons at the core of our work. Measures of complexity level can also be used to help match people to roles, as in recruitment, or deciding which political candidate is best equipped to handle the complexity of a particular office.

For a more detailed explanation of reasons for focusing on growth, see, How I was seduced into trying to fix education.

  • When we talk about measuring growth, we don’t mean the ability to get more correct answers. We measure developmental growth — growth in complexity—by examining the level of skill with which people apply their knowledge in complex real-world contexts.



Theo Dawson

Award-winning educator, scholar, & consultant, Dr. Theo Dawson, discusses a wide range of topics related to learning and development.