Confused? I hope so.

I’ve been spending a fair bit of time in lessons this week – just dropping in and out of classes for a few minutes.  It’s good to see what’s happening in the various areas, to talk to students about how they are finding things and take the pulse of learning in High School.

But it’s not easy to do.  You might think that if the teaching is clear, and the students attentive, all should be well.  But in fact, that’s not always the case.  Learning is a very messy process, and hard to know about – not just because students vary, hormones intervene, blood sugar changes over the course of the day – but simply because while clear thinking is the goal for students, simple, precise and clear explanations are not always the best route to that end.  In fact, often the best sign of learning is that the students are puzzled and frustrated.

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Confusing students in just the right way to eventually deepen their understanding is an art. The art of excellent teaching, no less.

This is not as counterintuitive as it sounds!   To see why, see this puzzle and then have a think about what will happen (best to do in a group if you can).  Then watch from the start to  1.10 of this video to see the answer, resist the temptation to watch further and observe your own mental state.  Most non-physicists are surprised; some students think it’s a hoax.  When this is shown in class, there is often confusion and debate, and disagreement.  The class can erupt into chaos and noise, with conversation stretching to other examples – birds, aeroplanes, javelins.  It’s interesting to contrast this with the traditional quiet, attentive class where the focus on the laws of motion (or whatever) is laser-like, and the students are hanging on the teacher’s every word.

 It’s hard to be sure, but my guess is that the latter lesson is not nearly as effective as the former.  And the reason is that, as Steve Kolowich puts it, we need to confuse students to help them learn.  Kolowich draws on a classic experiment where two instructional videos were made and shown to students.  The first featured an actor explaining a basic physics concept in a traditional way using drawings and animations.   The second was a video of a mock conversation between a teacher and student. The student initially struggled to understand the concept, and the tutor asked questions, but never actually explained the answer – which the student eventually got.  Students who watched the two videos said the first one was clear, concise, and easy to understand and the second was confusing.

But when students were tested on their understanding of the concept  – that is, on their actual learning, students who had watched the second one actually learned more – even though they did not feel that way!  So a little confusion can prompt students to think harder and improve their understanding of complex matters, even if it’s a bit uncomfortable for them.   That’s actually not a surprise – we know that learners construct meaning by making connections between knowledge and concepts.  That is, learning happens as a result of students making their own meaning – not being told it, or given it, or getting it by dictation, or copying.  And what better way to make  meaning than by being puzzled, confused and not being told the answer so you have to debate with your peers?

Of course total confusion is not a good thing – clarity around what we are doing, and why we are doing it is important.  But that’s instrumental – the really important intellectual clarity needs to be hard-won, and like so many valuable things, may come over time, through struggling with difficult ideas.

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By Nicholas Alchin | Twitter @nicholas_alchin

About Nicholas Alchin

Nicholas Alchin (@nicholas_alchin) is Deputy Head and High School Principal at the United World College of SE Asia, East Campus. A sino-celtic Brit who drifted into working on building sites, drifted into the actuarial world, then chose education, he has lived and taught in values-based schools in UK, Switzerland, Kenya and Singapore. He has also held a number of roles with the IB and writes and speaks widely on educational matters. He enjoys travelling with wife Ellie, and kids Tom (11), Millie (14) and Ruth (17); also running, reading, writing, and baking bread.
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