Toby Fyfe, President of The Institute on Governance ( discusses the difficulties political parties encounter when they engage with complex problems that defy simple solutions, yet he urges them to do so as a non-partisan responsibility.

Getting Started

Appropriate Subject Area(s):

Social studies, current events, media literacy

Key Question(s) to Explore:

  • Do simple solutions to complex economic and social problems usually work? Why or why not?

New Terminology:

Governance, incumbents, non-partisan

Materials Needed:

Globe article

Study and Discussion Activity

Introduction to lesson and task:

As this is being written, a significant portion of the United States Government is shut down due to lack of funds. President Trump is insisting that the now Democrat-controlled House pass an appropriations bill that includes funding for building a wall between the United States and Mexico to keep out illegal immigrants. The Democrats claim that this simple solution is partial at best and a waste of money at worst.

In Canada, many are protesting the proposed new pipeline and other energy projects, arguing for a simple solution to global warming: stop using oil. Meanwhile, the federal and provincial governments are dealing with the inescapable complexities of this issue: thousands of jobs, the risk of a destabilized economy and significant revenue loss are at stake on one hand; exporting and burning fossil fuels that exacerbate global warming on the other. Those who deny that global warming is caused, at least in part, by humans promote another simple solution: ignore environmental concerns and pump the oil.

As Toby Fyfe points out, governments face complex problems, while voters and consumers want quick, simple solutions. Students can benefit from a lesson in which they dissect proposed simple solutions to discover the complex underlying facts that challenge politicians. In this exercise, students will take turns presenting simple solutions to existing Canadian problems, and then brainstorming the complexities that confound such solutions.

Action (lesson plan and task):

Engage students in a short discussion about simple and complex problems and solutions. Ask for a show of hands: how many of you believe that most of the problems our society faces can be resolved by simple solutions that politicians are too timid to address?

Focus on those who put up their hands and challenge any of them to suggest a simple solution to addressing climate change. If there are no suggestions, prompt: let’s say the solution, as many Canadians seem to believe, is to stop taking oil out of the ground immediately. No more pumping, refining, or shipping via rail or sea.

Next, ask the rest of the class to suggest reasons why this solution may not work. Expect or prompt these kinds of responses: hundreds of thousands of Canadians would immediately lose their jobs; replacement energy via solar or wind is not yet ready to pick up the slack; loss of federal and provincial revenue would cripple their economies and threaten yet more jobs.

Next, suggest that perhaps this is not an either/or issue. Ask the class to brainstorm more complex, but perhaps better, solutions. Expect or prompt these kinds of responses: phase out oil production and consumption slowly, perhaps starting by disallowing any new drilling or mining of oil-sands; increase subsidies that incentivize the production and distribution of new technologies—electric cars, solar generation, and so on.

Finally, assign the following for homework, or for completion in-class: Note that students are to arrange to share their work with a classmate as part of the assignment.

  • Read the article by Toby Fyfe.
  • Visit the website to see what Mr. Fyfe’s organization does. Do you think he is a credible source for the content in the article? Why or why not?
  • Here is a list of a few complex problems that Mr. Fyfe has suggested challenge Canadian politicians. For each one, list one or two simple solutions as answers to the questions posed for each.
    • reconciliation with Indigenous peoples: How can governments settle long-term issues with Canadian Indigenous peoples?
    • Climate change: What should the federal government do to combat climate change?
    • Immigration: How can Canada meet its international commitments to refugees without compromising security at our borders?
  • Share your list with your classmate partner. When you receive your partner’s list, read the solutions suggested and for each, regardless of how you feel about these solutions, list as many reasons as you can that show these will not work. Use the Internet as needed.
  • Finally, in your opinion, do you think people prefer simple solutions to complex problems, and if so, why or why not?
  • Do you think politicians should present the complexities of their decisions to the public, or keep things simple, so the public can understand more easily? Why or why not?

Consolidation of Learning:

  • Students discuss their work in class or in a subsequent class. Note how many have changed their views about simple solutions to complex problems.
Success and Additional Learning

Success Criteria:

  • Students can explain why simple solutions to complex economic and social problems usually don’t work.

Confirming Activity:

  • During this election year, ask students to report on various political parties’ proposed solutions to some of the issues they discussed.