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/


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