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.


Things I Know 279 of 365: School would be better if we weren’t playing school

We should also remember that children (like adults), and above all young children, know and understand much more than they can put into words.

– John Holt

My reading of John Holt’s How Children Learn continues to act as the water filling in the spaces between the rocks of other readings required by my course work. For all of the well-reasoned structures proposed by those readings of requirement, Holt provides a voice of contention, making the case for being people with kids rather than teachers.

He describes the type of talk you might hear from a parent talking through the process of tying shoes with his child. “And I suspect that most people who try to talk this way to children will have so much more teaching in their voices than love and pleasure that they will wind up doing more harm than good.”

It gets me thinking about the kinds of conversations I’m involved in throughout the week. I’ve started paying particular attention to the tones I take with professors and classmates and the tones they take with me.

When I’m speaking, I hear my voice as almost penitent. It’s not quite the same thing as respectful, but more a tone of not wanting to upset the order of things. In some cases, “gee whiz” is implied.

The tones I hear are distant and nice – “We are learning together,” or “I am going to teach you.”

Those aren’t tones I hear when I’m doing learning anywhere other than school.

Holt’s contention that these tones of teaching are doing more harm than good might be a bit inflated. That said, how close can we get to doing work that is real and meaningful if we are playing our roles rather than playing ourselves?

Holt brings his examination back to the topic of quizzing suggesting too much “is likely to make him begin to think that learning does not mean figuring out how things work, but getting and giving answers that please grownups.”

Right now, it leads me to more questions than answers. Are our teacher and student voices the products of assigning work too distant from the learning being done outside of school or do the roles and voices we put on to play school precluding school learning from being more aligned with life learning?