Necessary for learning? (the confusion mashup)

I’m on a jag about what confusion is and whether it’s necessary for learning.  My latest Gordian knot is about how confusion relates to pseudoteaching.

It seems that some condition of readiness has to happen before students can internalize an idea.  Obviously they will need some background knowledge, and basics like enough sleep, etc.  But even when my students have the material and social and intellectual conditions for learning, it often seems like there’s something missing.  To improve my ability to promote that readiness, I have to figure out what the heck it is.  I’m wondering if confusion is part of the answer.

Dan Goldner writes that students must have “prepared a space in their brain for new knowledge to fit into” — that they must have found some questions that they care about.

Grace points to the need for conflict in a good story.  She advocates creating a non-threatening “knowledge gap” using either cognitive dissonance or curiosity.

Dan Meyer, obviously, has made it an art form.  He calls it “perplexity” and distinguishes it from confusion (or sometimes describes it as a highly fruitful kind of confusion). If I’m reading it right, perplexity = conflict + caring about the outcome.

Rhett Allain has a great post about the “swamp of confusion” (go look — the map illustration is worth it).  He points out that a lifetime of pseudoteaching can convince students that working through confusion is impossible, or that teachers design courses to go around confusion, so that if you feel confused, either the teacher is incompetent, or you did something wrong.  He also pulls out some of the assumptions about “smartness” that people often hold about confusion: “If this IS indeed the way to go, I must be dumb or I wouldn’t be confused.”

Finally, the word “confusion” comes up in Derek Muller’s points about using videos to present misconceptions about science (videos that explained the “right answers” were clear but ineffective; videos that included common misconceptions were confusing but effective).

What I get in my classroom, which often gets called confusion, is conflict + anger.  Or possibly conflict + fear, or conflict + not caring (it’s possible that “not caring” is made out of anger, fear, and/or fatigue).  Just a guess: students get angry when they think I’ve created conflict that is unnecessary, or when they think I’ve created it carelessly.  These are worth thinking about.  Conflict can be threatening or exhausting.  Have I created the right conflict?  Is my specific method of creating conflict going to improve our learning, or did I use videos/whiteboards/particle accelerators because I think they’re fun and cool and make me look like a “with it” teacher?

Given that my students use the word “confusion” for a lot of situations where the next move is not immediately clear, I bet they would call all of these things confusion.

Which ones encourage learning?  Are any of them necessary?  Next year, I think I will ask students to make a note in their skills folder (portfolio-like thing with loose-leaf in it) to record confusions, so we can get a better grip on it.

In the meantime, I’m not having trouble with intellectual conflict.  By all the accounts above, the conflict is not just an inevitable side-effect but one of the main components of learning.  We’ve got lots of it to go around, and I hope that opening a conversation about it earlier in the semester will help students understand it as part of learning. Bringing to light our conflicts is part of what allows us to transform them into new understanding.

That leaves me with the “non-threatening” part, the “caring enough about the outcome to want to resolve it” part, and the “skills for dealing with it” part.


  1. Mylene,
    This is awesome! It’s like you simply pulled the next blog post I was planning to write about confusion right out of my head, and said it even better than I could have. I especially like the idea that Grace raised about conflict and confusion being an essential part of any story, and I wonder if somehow presenting this idea to our students might help them to better deal with confusion. I mean, you’d never pick up Harry Potter if it wasn’t written in such a way to keep you confused as to what might happen in the end, right?

    • heh. Harry Potter to the rescue. You’re right about the comparison to fiction — I will add it to my first-week toolbox.

      The point that jumps out at me about this exercise is how vague the words are. I use the word confusion to mean “conflating two non-identical ideas.” My students sometimes mean what I mean. Sometimes they mean “the moment when you realize you are conflating.” Sometimes they mean “this is an unexpected amount of work.” Sometimes they mean “I’m too tired to think straight.” (And sometimes they mean, “I’ve been pseudotaught…” but that’s for another day.)

      I never had a problem with the word confusion before, but now I’m shying away from it. Grace’s post (above) doesn’t refer to conflict and confusion but to conflict and curiosity. Teasing apart these words gives me hope that my students and I can have a more useful conversation about them.

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