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For the last three weeks, I have been planning out this semester’s courses. I am teaching eight courses ranging from fully in-person to fully virtual but synchronous (using Zoom) to fully asynchronous and online with a combined hybrid approach mixed in. My goal is to build an empowered community in these spaces and to reduce barriers that might get in the way of the learning. A major focus of mine has been to reduce confusion by implementing elements of UX Design:

As a result, I am consistently trying to reduce cognitive load by making my courses as clear as possible. I want to reduce confusion in any way possible. It’s surprising then, that tonight I am going to go out of my way to confuse my social studies pedagogy students.

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Why Confusion Matters

Years ago, I listened to a 99% Invisible podcast where they mentioned an excavation of a ship deep underground in the San Francisco business district. I paused the podcast and pondered how a ship would end up buried deep within the city. Who put it there? How did it get there? Why did it remain buried?

In this moment, I missed teaching middle school social studies. I imagined myself sharing the scenario with my students and then ask them to ask questions and develop a logical theory for how the ship had remained buried underground. They would have critiqued one another’s theories until ultimately the class reached a consensus. In other words, we would have done a History Mystery lesson.

I did a similar History Mystery lesson with the Roman siege of Syracuse. Students had to guess how the people of Syracuse defended themselves in the initial siege by the Romans. In the first round, they asked yes or no questions of me and then formulated hypotheses in small groups. I then added new information and each group revised their hypothesis. Students eventually discovered the people of Syracuse used mirrors to catch the ships on fire (like a magnifying glass). Well, at least according to the legend. The reality is a little more complicated, which is why students can read this initial explanation and then read this article which contradicts that story and again they wade into the mystery by asking if it had actually been steam-powered cannons.

This process invites students to embrace the confusion of history. They learn that being a historian isn’t about memorizing names, dates, and other facts. Instead, it’s about confusion and discovery. It’s about posing a hypothesis and testing it out with facts. For what it’s worth, the answer to the boat mystery is fascinating. It has to do with filling in swampy land and essentially building land in an area where land didn’t already exist. But the answer becomes so much more interesting after a period of wading in confusion ahead of time.

Should School Be More Confusing?

When I was writing Vintage Innovation, I took two months and only read ancient texts. No contemporary novels. No reading up on behavioral economics. I avoided journal articles, news reports, and other forms of newer literacy. My goal was to step away from the present for  a few months and engage in a longer dialogue that spanned the centuries and millennia. I noticed that most of these texts were deliberately confusing. It was not an issue of text complexity, archaic language, or cultural knowledge of ancient civilizations. Instead, it felt deliberate. Whether it was a parable, a story, or a Socratic dialogue, there was an idea that confusion is a vital part of learning.

Confusion has a few surprising benefits. It pushes you to slow down and think deeper. The struggle to figure things out means the learning sticks. It’s why I forget entire sections of textbooks but it’s really hard to forget a confusing parable. This process often leads you into a place of nuanced understanding of truth.

Annie Murphy Paul describes it this way:

“We short-circuit this process of subconscious learning, however, when we rush in too soon with an answer. It’s better to allow that confused, confounded feeling to last a little longer—for two reasons. First, not knowing the single correct way to resolve a problem allows us to explore a wide variety of potential explanations, thereby giving us a deeper and broader sense of the issues involved. Second, the feeling of being confused, of not knowing what’s up, creates a powerful drive to figure it out. We’re motivated to look more deeply, search more vigorously for a solution, and in so doing we see and understand things we would not have, had we simply been handed the answer at the outset.”

However, schools aren’t built around confusion. We reward students for speed and accuracy (the way we average grades and set rigid deadlines). Our standardized tests place a high value in speed and accuracy rather than nuance and confusion. We value teachers who can make learning efficient, clear, and easy-to-understand.

But I wonder if we’re missing something in this push toward efficiency and simplicity. Derek Muller has published some fascinating research on science videos. When people watch simple videos with clear concepts, they tend to believe that they understand it at a deep level, but that’s not the case. They are over-confident in their understanding and unaware of what they don’t know. They’re also less engaged mentally as they watch it.

By contrast, when they watch videos with strategic confusion (especially those that push them to make and test a hypothesis) they are convinced that they know very little of the information when, in fact, they are learning it at a deeper level. They also have higher engagement and deeper retention.

Watch this video to see what I mean:

I find this fascinating because we often assume that students are failing to understand concepts because we are making them too confusing. So, we go for simpler texts and more easily digestible content. But what if this is wrong? What if real engagement looks less like a Khan Academy video and more like a Socratic Dialogue?

Four Ways Teachers Can Embrace Confusion in the Classroom

The following are a few ideas cor how we can use confusion strategically in the classroom. This is by no means an exhaustive list. In fact, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you might use strategic confusion. Feel free to share in the comments section at the bottom of this post.

#1: Present mysteries.

Provide students with scenarios that are deliberately and strategically confusing and then let them posit their own hypotheses. When I taught middle school, a student of mine wanted to know why the laptops were “icy cold” when the tables were warm. Were they actually the same temperature? Were they holding heat differently? This led to a rabbit trail that he will never forget.

It also had me thinking about the way I had been teaching science. I had allowed students to pursue their questions through independent inquiry-driven mini-projects. It’s an idea I explore in an upcoming point on inquiry-based learning. However, I think there’s also value in presenting these mysteries to students. As educators, we can gather these questions and pose them as mysteries that students can then solve. In some cases, they might solve these mysteries through experiments that they design. Other times, they might interview an expert or engage in research online. Or they might pose their hypotheses and you can help them revise it in style similar to the History Mystery. But the idea is that you can pose mysteries that students have to solve.

One of my favorite examples of this was a local teacher in Salem, Oregon, who had students solve the mystery of why toxic algae had grown in the water and ruined our water supply for a whole summer. This single day mystery led to a deeper dive into climate science and climate change. From there, she took it a step further and actually designed a problem-based learning expedition for her students.

With problem-based learning, students wrestle with a complex problem that doesn’t have a simple yes or no answer. Instead of merely solving a mystery, they are actually studying a problem and creating a solution by taking a deep dive into the nuance of an issue. Here’s a brief description of problem-based learning:

There are generally four phases in problem-based learning. First, you present the problem or scenario. Next, students develop a plan for solving the problem. Afterward, they implement the plan and then evaluate the implementation.

When done well, a problem-based learning project can help students see multiple perspectives on a given issue. They might solve a problem relating to land use or to energy consumption and they do so in a way where they gain empathy with multiple stakeholders. Here, the confusion leads to a deeper understanding of the truth. Which leads to my next point . . .

#2: Don’t shy away from confusing material.

In other words, read works that are confusing. Watch movies that perplex you. Read up on the Early Socratic Dialogues even when they don’t seem to resolve themselves easily. This can be hard when we have limited time and when students want immediate answers. However, if we want the learning to stick, we need to create moments where students can sit in the confusion for awhile.

This also means we need to avoid simplistic explanations. This can be really hard to do; especially with younger students. But I see this all the time. Kids learn that plants turn our breath into food. Not true. They learn that World War II was waged to stop the Holocaust. Also not true. These simplistic answers actually reinforce misconceptions and fail to recognize that younger students can actually handle nuance and confusion.

We also need to be careful with visuals. I see this all the time with science textbooks. A simplistic visual seems to clarify a concept but it often leads to deeper misunderstandings and a false belief that you have things figured out. Certain artist renderings of something like the water cycle can accidentally lead to oversimplified views of how systems work.

As teachers, we can provide students with the chance to see multiple perspectives and gain a nuanced perspective of things concepts, ideas, events, and processes. But this requires deeper dialogue. As I go back to the ancient sources, I’m struck by the power in confusing dialogue. It’s inefficient. It’s messy. But it pushes you into areas of thinking that you’ll miss when reading a simple chart. The same is true in a classroom. Students need to have the space and time to debate ideas and engage in deep dialogue. In a math class, this might mean students compare and contrast strategies as they discover that there are multiple ways to solve a problem.

It might also mean we need to let students struggle for a longer period of time. There’s a great excerpt in Adam Grant’s book Think Again where he explores the types of questions teachers ask during a math lesson. They tend to go too quickly from open-ended questions that can lead to discovery and toward narrower questions that help students discover the answers too quickly.  However, if we want students to become problem-solvers, they need to learn how to think slowly, wrestle with uncertainty, and learn from their mistakes.

#3: Allow for mistakes.

When we embrace confusion, we give ourselves the permission to make mistakes. Whether it’s a failed hypothesis or a mistake we make when learning a skill, we are saying, “those mistakes are new iterations toward something better.” It’s not that we embrace failure. Fail-ure is permanent and fail-ling is temporary. We want students to see that failing is a necessary part of the messy, idiosyncratic learning process:

When this happens, students are able to develop a growth mindset. In other words, we are providing slack so that they develop grit. Here students see that being “wrong” is actually what scientists, historians, engineers, and mathematicians do on a regular basis. In each of these professions, experts regularly test their answers. This takes some self-discipline, but it’s the idea of intentionally holding back on a definitive answer. It’s what happens when you have a general idea but then you decide to go back and test it instead of declaring it as the absolute answer.

It also helps for students to identify what they don’t know. Annie Paul Murphy has shared three studies that reinforce the idea that identifying confusion can actually lead to deeper learning. It’s similar to what Derek Muller mentioned in his research. It’s the idea that you will learn things at a deeper level when you make a prediction and then figure out just how wrong you actually are. This sense of confusion then fuels your engagement, inquiry, and learning.

#4: Embrace student inquiry.

Whether it’s a philosophical discussion or a hands-on science experiment, allow students to ask tons of questions and then find the answers. This is a key idea within inquiry-based learning:

The inquiry-centered approach has existed for thousands of years. Socrates and Confucius both used variations on this format. It’s a critical component of the scientific method of the early enlightenment and it was a core idea within both Dewey and Montessori’s notions of student-centered learning.

Margus Pedaste shares a model of the four phases of inquiry. It starts with orientation, which is often a discussion. From there, it moves into conceptualization, where students generate questions and define a hypothesis. This leads to investigation, where students explore, experiment, and interpret data, often in a way that is flexible and dynamic. Finally, they move to a conclusion.

The key idea is that students start with curiosity, engage in their own research, and analyze what they find in order to reach a conclusion. However, sometimes they need a little help along the way. Heather Banchi and Randy Bell define four different types of inquiry that you can view on a spectrum from teacher-centered / structured to learner-centered / open.

  • Level 1 is Confirmation Inquiry, where the teacher teaches the concepts, creates the questions, and models the process for students.
  • Level 2: is Structured Inquiry, where the teacher creates the initial questions and shares the procedures then walk through the rest of the inquiry process by collecting and analyzing data and drawing conclusions.
  • Level 3 is Guided Inquiry, where the teacher provides the research questions but students own the research or experimentation process.
  • Level 4 is Open/True Inquiry. Here students formulate their own questions, design their own experiments or research, collect their own data, and share their findings.

According to Banchi and Bell, teachers should start with levels 1 and 2 and use those as scaffolding, so that students can learn the inquiry process. However, in my experience, there is power in asking students to engage in Level 4 inquiry, where they are truly empowered to ask their own questions and engage in their own research. One of my favorite approaches is through a Wonder Day Project:

While a true Wonder Day project is open to any questions regardless of the subject area, you might need to tailor this for the subject you teach. For example, you might ask students to generate questions they have about the Civil War. One student explores whether or not there were women who fought in the way (there’s a lot of great research on this) while a different student has a question about battle strategies. But regardless of their questions, they all learn that confusion is often the impetus toward learning. Along the way, they learn how to ask great questions, engage in research, and summarize key information.

A More Confused Classroom

We don’t want students to be confused all the time. Constant confusion leads to disengagement and anger. I don’t want my students to be confused about classroom procedures. Nor do I want them to feel confused about how to navigate an online course. In these moments, the confusion is actually getting in the way of deeper learning. Similarly, I don’t want students to be so confused by challenging materials or complex problems that they feel completely overwhelmed and give up.

Instead, I want to use confusion strategically for deeper learning. Whether it’s an inquiry-based learning project, a larger problem-based project, a fun History Mystery project, or merely a chance to compare mathematical strategies, I want students to see that confusion is a vital part of the learning process. When we use confusion strategically, students will be frustrated. Some of them might even get frustrated for a moment. But they will also be engaged. They will slow down and think deeper about the content. The end result is a more humble, nuanced, and ultimately deeper learning of the content.

Looking for more? Check this out.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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