Is Confusion Productive?

From a group activity at CGC-Miami

From a group activity at CGC-Miami

Two weeks ago when I was at CGC Miami, we had a couple of conversations where the idea of confusion came up. One was when we discussed what happens in one’s brain when learning happens–not fMRI scans or anything, just feelings, attitudes, etc. Then we had another discussion about what learning looked like in a classroom. The word “confusion” came up in both contexts. A woman who was sitting at my table was taken aback when several of us mentioned confusion as something that we expect to see in our classrooms when learning is happening.

“It’s like yesterday,” she said (clearly, I’m paraphrasing from my memory for dramatic effect). “All of the words people use to describe learning are so negative. Learning is positive. We should be using positive words.”

Many of us began to defend confusion as an essential and productive part of the learning process. We were not, however, successful in convincing her, and ended up leaving it off of our chart, though two other groups ended up including it. It led me to the question: Is confusion always negative? Can confusion be productive in the classroom? If so, how do we coach students through confusion and through to deeper learning and understanding?

 What does learning mean and how does it relate to confusion?

I think a big part of whether or not we, as teachers or as learners, are comfortable with confusion has a lot to do with how we define learning. If we define learning as remembering a series of facts, then confusion is unacceptable. It means that we as teachers are not being clear and we need to find a better way to present the content. However, if we are defining learning as making connections, developing concepts, exploring dilemmas, and adding the skills necessary to do all of this to our repertoire. When we define learning this way, confusion is inevitable. In this definition we are making sense on concepts and ideas. We’re working in an area that might not be comfortable for us, but once we work our way through the confusion, we know and understand so much more than we did before.

I have a favorite quotation about this kind of learning. I wrote it out neatly and put it on the front of the binder I had in grad school (yes, when I went to grad school people still took notes on paper and put handouts into binders). I hung up a copy in my first classroom/office, and have continued to hang it on the wall of every classroom I’ve had since. I even include it in the first Power Point slide for my grad students on their first day of literacy intervention practicum. (PS–If my crafty sister is reading this blog, I would love a pretty cross-stitched version of this to hang in my intervention room for my birthday…hint, hint)

Generally, we touch on many apparent irrelevancies, and learning implies that at most times we are at least partially confused. Just as one cannot think one’s way into growth, there are times when we are not aware, indeed cannot be aware, that what one is doing is providing the basis for significant growth and discoveries. – John Miller Chernoff (1979)

This quotation is not from an education book. It’s from an ethnomusicology book called African Rhythm and African Sensibility that I bought for a college course called “Political Economy of the Music of the African Diaspora” (yes, I went to a hippie, artsy college. What of it?). Because of this one sentence, I have moved a book that I probably won’t reread, that has margins full of the pretentious notes of a college senior (most of which seem to be about Todorov’s Double Bind), from place to place, apartment to apartment, for over ten years.

I have found this quotation both relevant and inspiring to me on my journey as an educator (how many veteran teachers remember at some point during their first year of teaching how all sorts of seemingly disconnected ideas from student teaching and education coursework suddenly came together in an ah-ha! moment?), and relevant and inspiring to the students I teach. I originally hung this quotation up in my room as a reminder to me that being confused and being uncomfortable (which I often was during my first year of teaching) meant that I was probably laying the groundwork for learning, growth, and discoveries. I didn’t intend it to be inspiring to students–it seemed too long and too complex. But when I had a student ask me about it, and then ask if she could copy it into her notebook, I knew that (1) I had underestimated my 6th graders, and (2) that it is important to let students know that being confused sometimes is OK and that learning is all about working one’s way through confusion and out to the other side.

For confusion to be productive, we need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable

A big part of letting students know that it is OK to be confused is helping them get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Without this, it is almost impossible for confusion to be a productive part of the learning process. But how do we get students comfortable with this?

For starters we need to create a safe learning environment where it’s OK to fail. Learning needs to be seen as a process that we’re all working through at our own pace. I think standards-based grading and letting students have do overs, retakes, etc, also takes us toward this. I have definitely seen anxiety about grades keep students from diving in to something that they’re not necessarily comfortable with or stopping them from grappling with a difficult topic and jumping right into “Can you help me?”  or “What do I do next?” This is a challenge that I see not only with my middle school students, but with my graduate students as well. If students are constantly worried about getting the wrong answer and thus a bad grade, how can they work through confusion and into growth?

Students need tools to work through confusion

I really agree with CGC that we need to teach students how to learn, and for me part of that is teaching students about problem solving, perseverance, and resilience. I don’t want to get into a discussion of “grit” (for some reason, the term really annoys me), but I do want to start a conversation about teaching these skills. It’s something I’ve always found tricky, especially since in the past I’ve worked with kids classified as EBD (having emotional or behavioral disorders) that had a really low tolerance for frustration. Teaching them these skills was a much different, and much slower process (and it sometimes involved calling in the crisis para…)

There are some things that I’m absolutely sure about. In order for a student to learn these skills we need to embed them into our general curriculum. As teachers, we need to model these skills repeatedly, and think aloud about how we use positive self-talk in order to get ourselves unstuck when we’re confused or have a problem. In reading, teaching things like self-monitoring and fix-up strategies, and in math giving them tools for each of the process standards. The good people at The Math Learning Center who did our training this past June had some great ideas about hanging questions up on the wall that students can ask themselves while working through problems. There’s also a great post here with some ideas. And next week, I’ll be following up on these ideas with a post on self-regulation and Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD), which is something I’ve been doing a lot of reading about this summer.

But what about more complex problems? Or times when the information we’re taking in doesn’t make sense because it conflicts with something we know or believe to be true? How can we help our students, as the professor of the aforementioned class put it, “enter the contact zone” so learning and knowledge transformation happen? I think we need to make all of these areas come together: comfort with being uncomfortable, a focus on the learning process, a de-emphasis of grades, and explicitly teaching how to work through problems.

What do you think? Is confusion productive in the classroom? What tools have you given your students to work through confusion on their own?

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