Make ‘Em Say, “Huh?”: The Value of Confusion

“Confusion is a state of understanding.” – Sheridan Blau

I only recently discovered Vicki Vinton’s wonderful blog, To Make A Prairie, and my life is already better! I came across this post on confusion, and my heart sang out. I had just come from a coffee date with a friend, M, and I was still reeling from the tales she had told me.

At M’s school, no student is supposed to be confused, ever. Teachers are expected to “assess student understanding” every 15 minutes, and if students are “not getting it,” teachers are expected to teach the same information again the next lesson. I imagine that this seems like a beautiful vision to many people (probably few of them teachers) – a utopian classroom where everyone understands everything and no students ever feel out of their depth.

Of course, if you know your dystopia (and you should), you know that 1984 and Brave New World and The Hunger Games all feature nightmares of society that came to pass because of similar attempts at perfection. And if you allow yourself some speculative fiction and ask yourself, “If this goes on…” you will likely come to the conclusion that eliminating confusion from the learning process is not only impossible, but a terrible idea.

Confusion gets a bad rap. We think of “I don’t know,” as dirty words, a forbidden admission. We hate to say it, and we hate to hear it. And as teacher evaluation systems attempt to link a teacher’s effectiveness to test-based measures of student progress, “I don’t know” starts to sound like, “You failed.”

I think part of the problem is that people like to think of learning as a linear process that looks something like this:


In a linear process like this, confusion is equal to failure. If a learner cannot progress to, “Now I know!” after being taught a lesson, then the teacher has failed the learner, and the learner has failed himself. The linear model does not account for what happens in between the lesson and “successful” learning. Thinking linearly, we can’t appreciate that learners are touching down on “I think I know,” or “I know this much.” A straight line like this does not account for the learner connecting new information to existing understandings, wondering how these fit together, and experimenting with revised ideas. Neither does it acknowledge that learners are likely to return to “I don’t know,” during a moment of anxiety, like when they are questioned in class or given a test. Learning on a straight line, there’s no appreciation for the deepening of thought, or the reality that understanding is layered; it changes as the learner changes, evolves as she reflects and revisits.

The truth of learning, though, is that it is a recursive, ongoing process. Philosophers debated the concepts of knowledge and learning for a reason: because it is messy and twisty, and very much not a straight line. It probably looks more like this:


Moving from “I don’t know,” to “Now I know,” isn’t going to happen in a neat series of steps. Great minds are always quoted saying something along these lines: learning comes from failure, mistakes create knowledge, grit means not quitting when things are tough. Ad campaigns infect us with slogans derived from these beliefs: impossible is nothing, says Nike. Such advertising works for a reason.

The idea that learning is a shapelier process than a 1-2-3 sequence may seem off-putting to those who seek to evaluate it. And for those who hope to dictate how teachers should teach, acknowledging that learning is not uniform or straightforward is probably pretty scary (at least annoying). It would certainly take more work. The checklist systems many evaluators favor would not be as useful in an environment that welcomed confusion. But one could argue that those checklist systems are already failing, because they can award high marks to lessons that do not encourage students to grapple with their learning, work through their confusion, even learn to understand that confusion is not failure, but progress.

Last week, during my after-school class, some of my students sat by the wall where I display the quotes we have discussed in class, rereading past quotes and remarking on their favorites. Mohamadou turned to me. “My favorite is, ‘Do not spoil what you have by wishing for what you have not.'” he paused, turning over the remaining words in his mind. “‘Remember that what you have today…was once…what you only hoped for.’ Something like that. That’s a good one.” I smiled at that, remembering the day they came in to find the Epicurus quote on the board (right before Thanksgiving, of course). I remember their crumpled faces, their lips moving silently as they reread and reread. Had I snapped a photo, it would have been the very picture of confusion. But they worked. Hard. They waded into their uncertainty and sloshed through the mire, and they found a way through. I was so proud of them, and I knew I was doing something right, because they were so proud of themselves. They had faced that confusion, and they didn’t turn back. And Mohamadou sits in my classroom months later, reciting (almost perfectly) these words that presented such a puzzle, required such a feat.

If we teach students to fear or avoid confusion, then what are we teaching? What are they learning? If students learn that they can’t ever be confused, then almost anything will become too big a challenge to attempt.

What role does confusion play in your classroom? Share your thoughts in the comments!



2 thoughts on “Make ‘Em Say, “Huh?”: The Value of Confusion

  1. Saw that someone got to my blog through yours and thought I’d check yours out. And unsurprisingly I loved this post—and the really great graphic! Glad we’ve found each other.

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