Should School Be More Confusing?

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?

For this entire month, I’ve been focused on reading works that are at least 2,000 years old or older. As part of this series on vintage learning, I wanted to uncover old ideas that we should reconsider in our current context. I wanted to listen to voices that have been hushed by distance and context.

It’s a week into it and I’m already noticing a trend. Most of these works are confusing. It’s not an issue of text complexity, archaic language, or cultural knowledge of ancient civilizations. Rather, these texts are deliberately confusing. Whether it’s a parable, a story, or a Socratic dialogue, there is an idea that confusion is a vital part of learning.

Confusion has a few surprising benefits. It pushes you to slow down and think deeper. In the process. 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 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. 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). 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.

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?

Nine 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.

When we use confusion strategically, students will be frustrated. Some of them will get angry. But they will also be engaged. They will slow down and think deeper about the content. The end result is a more humble, nuanced, and ultimately deeper learning of the content.

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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.

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3 responses

  1. I once heard Dr. W. Edwards Deming say of someone, “He went away confused. In other words, he learned something.” You’ve got some great ideas here – nice work!


  2. So maybe something like this:

    Or embracing ambiguity as this year’s fellows discuss:

    Love your list at the end.

  3. […]   […]

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