Learning to be Confused

Confusion learning

I have had students say to me directly, “I’m confused” and, I wonder to myself, if this is a good thing or have I not done my job correctly. I spend several hours planning a topic, its ins and outs, the intricacies that should make it work, all the detail. I often say to myself as I am programming, students will learn despite themselves. I don’t pride myself or live for the aha moments, but what I wouldn’t do for a well sequenced set of lessons delivered with artful timing creating a classful of learned students. All they have to do is participate.

So, I ask myself, why would a student be confused? Maybe my sequence of lessons and activities are not quite right and they need adjusting (note to self: next year…). Perhaps a student has differing learning needs. They could also be at a different part of the learning spectrum and not quite ready for what they have participated in (differentiate the lesson). I believe all of these are true and each different solution is rooted in knowing your class and where each individual student is up to. Also, there are also larger forces at play such as their emotions and their ability to resist learning. All playing a part in their confusion, I’m sure, but I feel there is something divergent in this behaviour. It’s as if an affective state of confusion can have positive effects on learning as long as students are able to resolve their confusion https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Sequences-of-Frustration-and-Confusion-and-Liu-Pataranutaporn/4be9f881dc661d0fc141384c70bdaba28f24a5bd

Maybe a state of confusion leads to learning, as Steve Kolowich reasoned in his article http://www.chronicle.com/article/Confuse-Students-to-Help-Them/148385. I should have been aware of this aspect of learning as I often tease my students by returning their question with a question. Have you ever done this? Do you do this just to annoy them or do you also believe that it makes them think? There is also the adage that “the only stupid question is the one that isn’t asked.” Also, from Albert Einstein, “the important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” Read more of his quotes about learning at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/alberteins145949.html and http://amorebeautifulquestion.com/einstein-questioning/. Is this curiosity and subsequently their questioning a byproduct of an attempt to solve their confusion? Should I be happy, would you be happy, if your students were confused? Should we be creating controlled confusion in an attempt to foster learning?

Let me put it another way. If, as the teacher, I am the font of all knowledge then I am indirectly in control of my students’ learning. They can only rote learn what I present to them or rise to the heights that I present. Only the curious will learn any more. If I want more from my students I have to tap into this curiosity, fostered by whatever fancy stuff I can produce in the classroom. And, in a modern world, my fancy stuff has difficulty competing.

Inquiry learning is my attempt to control confusion and foster curiosity. The initial stages of a topic focus on skill acquisition where specific differentiation occurs according to each student’s needs. The learning is specific and cycles through past knowledge and builds on it, following a constructivist approach to learning (5 E’s). Assessment usually involves quizzes or formal tests. This stage is usually the most lengthy and teacher directed, student work tends to be either right or wrong. Lessons follow a regular format that would not be out of place in any traditional classroom. The second stage is where they have to apply their learning to different situations. Here they go from solid ground into uncertainty. They are forced to reorganize their thoughts. They may retreat from this process with statements like, I don’t get it; I must be dumb because I don’t understand what to do. Poor student choices may also re-emerge such as off task behaviour. Confusion forces them to reorganize their thoughts in the hope that they will reach a greater clarity during and after this process. To finish a topic I have my students undertake a project or presentation that they have to create. These states of confusion and reorganization of a student’s understanding is backed up by John Murray: Confusion a necessary state in learning https://teachingcommons.stanford.edu/teaching-talk/confusion-necessary-state-learning and Rhett Allain has a nice analogy where, to reach the mountain peak of understanding, you have to go through the swamp of confusion. https://www.wired.com/2010/02/learning-goes-through-the-land-of-confusion/



Emotions and Learning

Pride of place

I often say to myself when I have a particularly difficult class, ‘as long as they don’t hate me.’ This is not in the mistaken belief that I somehow need their approval as a teacher for my lessons to be fulfilled. It is also not some self need, I don’t need to be liked. It is based on experience in the classroom alone. I have been lucky that maybe only a small number of students have disliked or hated what I do. All of which related to their personal journey. I work hard to not leave students upset, for when they are I lose them, all learning stops. The student that I chastise becomes more difficult, unable to maintain their self-control, caused through my immediate actions and their past experiences (of which I am not usually privy to and can only guess at).

I have never hated a student, not even the one who destroys each and every lesson. It is a strong emotion that doesn’t belong with any Human. Dare I say, it leads to the dark path! Humour, found through experience once again, can evaporate most angst in a student taking the sting out of situations leaving them with some self-esteem. I reflected on emotions no further, until a situation presented itself and I thought about pride. I found the following article that explained so much more and, in hindsight, explains so much about student learning.

Reinhard Pekrun, Emotions and Learning, Educational Practices Series – 24, International Academy of Education, 2014

There is more to teaching and emotions than hate and humour. And how do they work anyway? In this article they are separated into four emotional areas;

  • Achievement
  • Epistemic
  • Topic
  • Social

So far I have discussed working in the social emotional area. In my classrooms I have identified that I have also had some small influence with the Achievement and Epistemic emotions as well. This I have done by claiming to the students that the results of a particular test in itself is not important but the growth of the student over time, shown as an improvement in grades, is more important. Setting up cognitive confusion in a student’s mind and then giving them the skills to solve it tap into their epistemically emotions. A teacher can work out these emotional triggers by experiencing it through the practical application of the teaching art. But is there more to be had?

Don’t guess about their emotions, build up trustful relationships and simply ask them how they feel. Students vary and so do their emotions in similar situations so, even though it is convenient/easier to assume, each situation may need to be explored fully to understand the individual. Use this information to help them experience posemotions-and-learningitive emotions by exploring situations that invoke them. The more challenging the child the greater the effort to solve his/her deficiencies in emotions.

Positive emotional experience needs to be linked to the task of solving cognitive problems and the learning material in the lesson. Create situations where they can feel positive, their ability to solve problems and their self-confidence will improve. Focus students on what is under their control, their strengths and the ways they can improve themselves. Negative emotions need to be avoided as they can undermine learning and achievement. When they cannot be avoided, deal with them in a positive way.

What are your own emotions during a lesson? What are your students? Have you created situations where you have manipulated their emotions to best effect, eased their fear before/during/after a test? Made them feel proud about the work they have completed? We have all done it, now just do it with purpose.

22nd Century Learner

Future of education
We are social creatures and students, in particular, need socialization to become the adults that run the country in the future that we need. How many interactions do you generate/integrate into your everyday lessons? One can describe teachers as engineers of the mind, social engineers. How should this be done, what should it look like? Teachers have this responsibility but, not in the role that you may imagine. Visualise yourself in front of your class, chances are you see your best class. Did you pick your best class by accident? I think not. You make connections with it and you would do lots for this class and the students in it and they know it.
How do we socialize students? Not as a sociologist would (few if any teachers have the training to be effective in this role). We do it by utilizing the pedagogy that we all posses, the things we do every day! We do this by utilizing a persons system 1 and system 2. System 1 takes advantage of immediate responses to environmental conditions, it’s crude but quick. Media and commercialization control this as an art form. We as teachers need to tap into this, not because it is good but because this is what students bring with them. This is the game changer, two for one, half price for a limited time. If we don’t then education will be seen as irrelevant (visualise the class that causes you the most problem). Then we instruct them in deep thinking with system 2.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is not complete. Fear, anger, hate compete with all the rest to take education away from students. System 1 is activated by these, which in turn stops system 2 from working. Whatever the reason that fear, anger, hate was generated they will continue to be just consumers not thinkers? This is how we are the social engineers. We cannot afford to let these emotions into our class. There is a crisis looming and we need a paradime shift in our methods. Always smile (it’s free and it is extra).

Education is in desperate need of a paradime shift in thinking. We must utilize the same processes that both the media and commerilsation use. We must limit fear, anger, hate as this limits thinking. Using techniques and methodology that we are practicing everyday we can achieve this. How, by using a persons system 1 thinking and access to their system 2 pathways.

Future learning from the past

a traditional approach
I want kids to know the basic information that is important for people to have to live in our democratic society.
We also want kids to inquire on their own, to use problem-solving strategies when they’re confronted with problems the answers to which are not immediately known. want them to know how to behave when the answers to problems are not apparent. that’s where inquiry comes into play. In an inquiry classroom, the teacher asks questions that are more open and reflective in nature.

skills of thinking:
The center circle would be specific thinking skills. And what I mean by specific thinking skills are such things as comparing, contrasting, inferring, sequencing, predicting, hypothesizing, drawing conclusions, for example, providing evidence

solve problems and make decisions. students learn how to continue learning.
strategic kinds of decisions and problem-solving skills. involves comparison, evaluating, classifying. it’s in the problem solving and decision making and creative thinking, strategic kinds of thinking skills.

habits of mind
persisting, knowing how to ask good questions, being aware of my own thinking (or metacognition). Listening to others with understanding, striving for accuracy and precision, being wondrous, being curious, being a continual learner, wanting to know more about the process over a period of time. They are best nurtured through appropriate modeling and experiences.

Thinking skills ➡️ strategies ➡️ habits of mind

it is providing an opportunity for kids to transfer, to apply, to solve problems using the knowledge that they have. And no lesson is complete without both components, Inquiry and basic skills.

cannot measure inquiry-based learning with old-fashioned product-based assessment techniques. should have a balanced assessment program. Testing does very well to measure kids’ knowledge and skill acquisition. other forms of assessment, including such things as exhibitions, interviews, portfolios, writing samples, observations, checklists over time, having students do extended projects.

The art of questioning
inference questions demand that students fill in missing information. interpretive questions propose that they understand the consequences of information or ideas. transfer questions provoke a kind of breadth of thinking, asking students to take their knowledge to new places.

In this simplified model the outcomes are:
. content of subjects;
. content in a larger conceptual framework;
. information processing skills; and,
. nurtured habits of mind.
Teachers need to keep these four things in mind while developing plans for learning. These four outcomes are the essence of inquiry learning and should be the “essence outcomes” for modern standards of education.


Introduction to Inquiry Based Learning

One exemplary organization who focuses on inquiry is the Galileo Educational Network from Calgary, Alberta. In addition to providing research, resources and professional development on teaching and learning from an inquiry stance, the Galileo Network has also created the Galileo Inquiry Rubric. Designed with purpose of making inquiry more concrete and accessible, the Galileo rubric is intended to be used by teachers in the design and evaluation of inquiry-based teaching.

The goal of this document is to explore a modified version of Galileo Inquiry rubric, built around 8 elements of strong, inquiry-based practice:
2.Deep Understanding
3.Performances of Understanding
5.Appropriate Use of Technology
6.Connecting with Experts
7.Student Success
8.Ethical Citizenship

As as entry point, inquiry involves learners:
✦tackling real-world questions, issues and controversies
✦developing questioning, research and communication skills
✦solving problems or creating solutions
✦collaborating within and beyond the classroom
✦developing deep understanding of content knowledge
✦participating in the public creation and improvement of ideas and knowledge

Inquiry is an umbrella term that covers a number of other approaches to teaching and learning. Teaching practices that utilize a disposition of inquiry learning include:
✦problem-based learning: learning that starts with an ill-structured problem or case-study
✦project-based learning: students create a project or presentation as a demonstration of their understanding
✦design-based learning: learning through the working design of a solution to a complex problem

Specific learning processes that people engage in during inquiry-learning include:

Creating questions of their own
Obtaining supporting evidence to answer the question(s)
Explaining the evidence collected
Connecting the explanation to the knowledge obtained from the investigative process
Creating an argument and justification for the explanation

In guided inquiry, people are provided with only the research question, and the task is to design the procedure (method) and to test the question and the resulting explanations. Because this kind of inquiry is more open than a confirmation or structured inquiry, it is most successful when people have had numerous opportunities to learn and practice different ways to plan experiments and record data.

In open inquiry, people form questions, design procedures for carrying out an inquiry, and communicate their results.

Some Guiding Principles for Educators

Don’t wait for the perfect question
Place ideas at the centre
Work towards common goal of understanding
Don’t let go of the class
Remain faithful to the students’ line of inquiry
Teach directly on a need-to-know basis

these skills need to be scaffolded by the teacher or instructor until students are able to develop questions, methods, and conclusions on their own.
students have to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the results they collect themselves and decide their value. importance of understanding over knowledge.


Yes, we have to model what we think is best for society and once you are a teacher then you are judged in the public eye. If you transgress what your community deems appropriate, for best manners and deportment, then you can expect to feel their wrath. We teach these same protocols to 21st Century learners and expect them to also comply, thus teachers are a product of their own making. What happens then when our culture evolves and the societal norms change? Do we continue with ‘business as usual’ giving instruction in the same time honored way? Is that what is expected from us?

We have to model what we think is best for society. But, society needs to tell us what they want. Once Australia has decided the direction it wishes to take then we will follow with our targeted skills to get the most out of every individual. We have to inform those in power of the importance of education – with direction. Currently we are dictated to by commercialism where we see people commercialised and exploited for profit. How long has it been since you saw an advertisement or worse still, acted on its advice and purchased the item ‘just because’?

Our role in society is not to give a belief system/structure, it is to give students the skills to make informed decisions. How we go about that is by using what society presents to us. During this transition phase into the ‘brave new world’ we have to use these structures, which are accessible to the classroom. If a student presents with low engagement, truncated literacy, ADD, ADHD, a poor home life, depression or any one of many things that are becoming more prevalent in schools, we need to use their commercialised belief structure to access them.

A paradigm shift is upon us. We cannot continue with business as usual, a metamorphosis is imminent and we have to evolve. We need to sell education. This sell cannot be like a fast food outlet providing high GI food, it has to be low GI brain food that we provide and sell it in a way that does not hijack the learner and leave them with the dogma of commercialisation. Generate positive emotions to access people’s intrinsic motivation, its longer lasting and better for you. Tell them how good they are, you may be the only person today to do so. Students learn a teacher, so sell yourself as someone that values education, sell your subject, your school, education. After you have achieved this ask the community where they want to be in the 22nd Century.