The Role of Confusion

For a number of years, I have been teaching a class on technology integration for pre-service K12 teachers. The class asks students to step outside their comfort zone and explore ways to use technology in ways that are meaningful, authentic and student centered. A few years ago I realized that student expectations were having an effect on how they perceived and responded to classes (that should be obvious, right?).  In order to help align student expectations with those of the course, I added a paragraph to the syllabus called “the role of confusion”. I only have anecdotal data, but based on my observations of students, discussions with them and how they respond to the various projects it would appear that this one change has had a fairly large impact. I have observed that students are much more willing to try new things and much less likely to give up early. In fact, on several occasions a student would email me saying they were having problems with something only to reply back a few hours later to say they figured it out. Instead of giving up and waiting for help, students persevere, which leads to more meaningful learning as well as more confidence.

I should point out that I do make a point of discussing this role of confusion with students and refer back to it often in assignments and class discussions. In other words, it is now an intentional design element of my classes. Below is the text I use. Students need to be reminded that learning takes effort, and I would encourage everyone to adopt something similar.

Students often believe that being confused is somehow a bad thing. There is a belief that learning is supposed to be easy and if you have to work hard you are somehow doing it wrong. How many times have you heard, “I barely studied for that test and still got an A” or similar comment? This is probably more a sign of a poor test than an exceptional student. The truth is that learning is hard and MUCH more than simply remembering stuff for a test. Real learning takes a great deal of effort and no one gets it right the first time, or second, or third… It’s a process in which we gradually move from a state of confusion (a necessary starting point if learning is the goal) toward less confusion. Total understanding is unlikely in just one class or semester. I teach this stuff and am still confused at times and just when I start to see the light everything changes. Get used to it. Therefore, a lot of what we do in this class isn’t about being right or wrong. It’s about embracing confusion and engaging in the process. Your discussions/assignments/projects in this class are primarily graded on engagement not perfection. Of course, this doesn’t mean any old thing is good enough. I expect to see serious attempts, critical thought and meaningful and well thought out assignments as well as a high level of engagement. Assignments are fairly open-ended giving you opportunities to tailor them to your interests. Doing things last minute will likely not show the above and your grade will reflect that. However, stepping outside your comfort zone, trying new things, etc. and finding that it didn’t work (or did) is perfect. It’s the process, not the product, that is important. I will try to expand on this throughout the course. For now, just become comfortable with the idea of being confused and accept that it’s a good thing. Confused? Good.


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