This week, John Spencer asked the question, "Should school be more confusing?" A headline like that piques my interest. John is a former middle school teacher, and he currently teaches college classes. He is a sought-after expert in design thinking, and he promote creativity in the classroom. I see in John, like myself, the development of an education philosophy that is based on experience. We both value research, but firsthand experience with kids in classroom makes all the difference.
Spencer sees confusion as a pathway to deeper learning, citing Annie Murphy Paul along the way. Paul wrote, in a separate piece:
We all know that confusion doesn’t feel good. Because it seems like an obstacle to learning, we try to arrange educational experiences and training sessions so that learners will encounter as little confusion as possible. But as is so often the case when it comes to learning, our intuitions here are exactly wrong. Scientists have been building a body of evidence over the past few years demonstrating that confusion can lead us to learn more efficiently, more deeply, more lastingly—as long as it’s properly managed.
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.
Confusion can actually lead to deeper learning. It forces students to make hypotheses and test things out. It pushes them beyond the superficial. Confusion can be frustrating, but it can also be the mystery that creates suspense. These are the moments of excitement when the class feels most alive.
Beware, teachers and parents. When we take the confusing approach, we must also be prepared for students' reactions.
When we use confusion strategically, students will be frustrated. Some of them will get angry. But they will also be engaged. More importantly, they will be empowered. They will slow down and think deeper about the content. The end result is a more humble, nuanced, and ultimately deeper learning of the subject.