We Should Embrace Confusion

The video below, from Yes to the Mess author Frank Barrett, touches on the idea of disruption of routine as a catalyst to innovation, that wimpiest of buzzwords.

Still, if your goal is to get folks – let’s say teachers and students – thinking differently and creatively about their learning, it’s an interesting line of thinking. More important than Barrett’s point about disruption, though, is the point he (mostly indirectly) makes about the role of confusion in helping people think differently.

It connected nicely with a passage from John Holt’s How Children Learn, which I’d re-visited for class this past week:

Bill Hull once said to me, “If we taught children to speak, they’d never learn.” I thought at first he was joking. By now I realize that it was a very important truth. Suppose we decided that we had to “teach” children to speak. How would we go about it? First, some committee of experts would analyze speech and break it down into a number of separate “speech skills.” We would probably say that, since speech is made up of sounds, a child must be taught to make all the sounds of his language before he can be taught to speak the language itself. Doubtless we would list these sounds, easiest and commonest ones first, harder and rarer ones next. Then we would begin to teach infants these sounds, working our way down the list. Perhaps, in order not to “confuse” the child-”con- fuse” is an evil word to many educators-we would not let the child hear much ordinary speech, but would only expose him to the sounds we were trying to teach. (emphasis mine)

John Holt. How Children Learn (Classics in Child Development) (p. 84). Kindle Edition.

Perhaps we’re getting less and less out of teachers and students (and I’m not convinced that we are) because the systems in which they operate are working at top speed to make certain they avoid confusion at all levels. Teaching scripts, standardized test instructions, online learning platforms, google search – all are designed in ways that make it as difficult as possible to be confused.

If a teacher working from a pre-packaged lesson plan never has to wrestle with how to solve the problems of student engagement or differentiated instruction because the introductory set is included and the lesson’s been pre-leveled, there’s very little thinking to be done. If I’m not confused, I’m not likely be solving problems.

Similarly, if the directions to an assignment spend a few paragraphs explaining what information I should include in the heading, how many sentences constitute a paragraph, what I should include in each of said paragraphs, and the topics from which I’m allowed to choose, it’s unlikely I’ll risk the type of thinking that could perplex or confuse me as to what my exact position regarding my topic might be.

To be certain, obtuseness that renders teaching and learning inaccessible is not helpful. At the same time, clarity that renders the two unnecessary is harmful.

To Innovate, Disrupt Your Routine – Video – Harvard Business Review.

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5 thoughts on “We Should Embrace Confusion

  1. Pingback: Short Notes: Teacher Expectations Influence Student Performance [It's True] | The Jose Vilson

  2. While I take your overall point, baby talk – which seems to happen naturally across all cultures – uses pitch, tone, stretching of sounds, etc. to introduce infants to the essential sounds and syntax of their parents’ language. While it wasn’t designed by committee, it IS fairly systematic and not at all chaotic as a teaching method. Infants don’t just listen to all the regular language around them and “pick up” how to speak – they are exposed to very specific forms of language that help them make meaning. Babbling is reinforced and learning scaffolded through repetition and additional modeling. I’ve been fascinated by this stuff since hearing Anne Fernald’s lectures on it back in the day.

    • Thanks for the great point! I think I’d add to it by pointing out we also don’t keep babies from hearing other talk or sounds while they’re learning baby talk. Such talk operates concurrently as babies are exposed to whatever other sounds/talk happen in their worlds. While emphasis may be put on those elements you mention, babies/infants/toddlers must also work to pull out that emphasis as useful over the train that may rattle by their homes at the same time each day. (Not a perfect example.) I’ve not heard of Fernald, and will check her out. Thanks, again.

  3. During the Northern Virginia Writing Project summer institute this year Sheridan Blau came and spent a morning with us. One of my favorite quotes from him that day was, “Confusion generally represents an advanced state of understanding.” We spent a lot of the morning considering and discussing how confusion plays such an important role in the learning process.

  4. Hmmmm…confusion. Your statement: “If I’m not confused, I’m not likely be solving problems.” So, a pre-cursor to problem-solving is a state of confusion? I would disagree with that. I can challenged to solve a problem, and go through multiple pathways to solve that, employing many dispositions and tools, but that in no way suggests confusion as a necessity. Learners who lack the skills and strategies for problem-solving may enter a state of confusion because of their lack of process, and as a result, most likely will stay there. I would offer that they would be challenged to emerge from that confusion; frustration and abandoning the problem at hand would be a more likely outcome, rather than learning.

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