Should school be more confusing?

Before getting started, I thought I’d let you know about my vlog (video blog) that I’ve been doing each week. Here’s my latest one on this very subject. If you like this video, please click “like” and share it with others. Also, don’t forget to subscribe to my channel. It would mean a lot to me.

I recently listened to a 99% Invisible podcast where they mentioned an excavation of a ship deep underground in the San Francisco business district. I paused the podcast and pondered how a ship would end up buried deep within the city. Who put it there? How did it get there? Why did it remain buried?

In this moment, I missed teaching middle school social studies. I imagined myself sharing the scenario with my students and then asked them to ask questions and develop a logical theory for how the ship had remained buried underground. They would have critiqued one another’s theories until ultimately the class reached a consensus.

I know, I know. I could just Google the answer. I could play the entire podcast. I could make it simpler with charts and diagrams. However, the mystery, the complexity, and the confusion would have pushed their thinking and increased their engagement with the content.

Don’t get me wrong. The answer to the boat mystery is fascinating. It has to do with filling in swampy land and essentially building land in an area where land didn’t already exist. But the answer becomes so much more interesting after a period of wading in confusion.

Should School Be More Confusing?

Often, as a teacher, it’s my job to distil down complicated ideas into lessons that are easier to understand. I don’t want to come across as confusing. And you would think that the best lessons are the least confusing. But I’ve been second-guessing this because of that podcast.

What if confusion is the answer?

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.

Confusion pushes you to slow down and think deeper. The struggle to figure things out means it sticks. It’s why I forget entire sections of textbooks but it’s really hard to forget a confusing parable. It’s why I can’t remember how to solve a matrix but I am forever shaped by that confusing, perplexing debate we had about the 4th Amendment when I was a senior in high school.

Confusion often leads you into a place of nuanced understanding. Annie Murphy Paul describes it this way:

“We short-circuit this process of subconscious learning, however, when we rush in too soon with an answer. It’s better to allow that confused, confounded feeling to last a little longer—for two reasons. 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.1 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.”

However, schools aren’t built around confusion. We reward students for speed and accuracy (the way we average grades and set rigid deadlines) rather than nuance and confusion. We value teachers who can make learning efficient, clear, and easy-to-understand.

But I wonder if we’re missing something in this push toward efficiency and simplicity. Derek Muller has published some fascinating research on science videos. When people watch simple videos with clear concepts, they tend to believe that they understand it at a deep level, but that’s not the case. They are over-confident in their understanding and unaware of what they don’t know. They’re also less engaged mentally as they watch it.

By contrast, when they watch videos with strategic confusion (especially those that push them to make and test a hypothesis) they are convinced that they know very little of the information when, in fact, they are learning it at a deeper level. They also have higher engagement and deeper retention.

Watch this video to see what I mean:

I find this fascinating because we often assume that students are failing to understand concepts because we are making them too confusing. So, we go for simpler texts and more easily digestible content. But what if this is wrong? What if real engagement looks less like a Khan Academy video and more like a Socratic Dialogue?

Ten Ways Teachers Can Embrace Confusion

  1. Present mysteries. Provide students with scenarios that are deliberately and strategically confusing and then let them posit their own hypotheses. A few years back, a student of mine wanted to know why the laptops were “icy cold” when the tables were warm. Were they actually the same temperature? Were they holding heat differently? This led to a rabbit trail that he will never forget.
  2. Allow for mistakes. Let them see that being “wrong” is actually what scientists, historians, engineers, and mathematicians do on a regular basis.
  3. Embrace student inquiry. Whether it’s a philosophical discussion or a hands-on science experiment, allow students to ask tons of questions.
  4. Don’t shy away from confusing material. In other words, read works that are confusing. Watch movies that perplex you. Read up on the Early Socratic Dialogues even when they don’t seem to resolve themselves easily.
  5. Avoid simplistic explanations. This can be really hard to do; especially with younger students. But I see this all the time. Kids learn that plants turn our breath into food. Not true. They learn that World War II was waged to stop the Holocaust (not true). These simplistic answers actually reinforce misconceptions and fail to recognize that younger students can actually handle nuance.
  6. Be careful with visuals. I see this all the time with science textbooks. A simplistic visual seems to clarify a concept but it often leads to deeper misunderstandings and a false belief that you have things figured out.
  7. Encourage dialogue. As I go back to the ancient sources, I’m struck by the power in confusing dialogue. It’s inefficient. It’s messy. But it pushes you into areas of thinking that you’ll miss when reading a simple chart. The same is true in a classroom. Students need to have the space and time to debate ideas and engage in deep dialogue.
  8. Test your answers. This takes some self-discipline, but it’s the idea of intentionally holding back on a definitive answer. It’s what happens when you have a general idea but then you decide to go back and test it instead of declaring it as the absolute answer.
  9. Identify what you don’t know. Annie Paul Murphy has shared three studies that reinforce the idea that identifying confusion can actually lead to deeper learning. It’s similar to what Derek Muller mentioned in his research. It’s the idea that you will learn things at a deeper level when you make a prediction and then figure out just how wrong you actually are. This sense of confusion then fuels your engagement, inquiry, and learning.
  10. Give students the permission to struggle. Let them play around with confusing ideas and then let them struggle. They might get frustrated, but that’s okay. Sometimes deep learning is perplexing at first.

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.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

More about John

3 responses

  1. I love your take on confusion. Wendell Berry’s poem comes to mind:

    “It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
    we have come to our real work
    and when we no longer know which way to go,
    we have begun our real journey.

    The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
    The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

  2. “Confusion” in the classroom certainly will have negative feedback on how to handle it well. However, I love how you explained it as a new, fresh teaching tool in the classroom to fuel up students’ interest to learn in an open-ended question learning environment.

  3. I liked how you threw in the 10 ways for teachers to embrace confusion. I also thought that you were correct when you said that confusion in the classroom opens up a student’s mind to think deeper thoughts.

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