We need more confusion, not less! (Strategic confusion, that is.)

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.

So says the inimitable John Spencer, in a recent post titled “How to use strategic confusion for deeper learning.”

He’s right, both in his analysis of the current situation and in his recipe for fixing it. Of course there are plenty of situations where we want to reduce confusion: software design, for instance, as Spencer points out. But in education—even though students are admittedly most comfortable if they aren’t confused—we ought to increase confusion:

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.

OK, this point of view doesn’t automatically suggest an obvious solution.

But wait! Spencer does offer solutions—four of them, in fact. I’ll cite the headlines for all four, but you’ll really need to read the entire short article to comprehend the details:

  • Present mysteries.
  • Don’t shy away from confusing material.
  • Allow for mistakes.
  • Embrace student inquiry.

As my last quote from Spencer, I want to look at what we don’t want, in case there are misconceptions (confusions?) here:

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.

Categories: Teaching & Learning