14 August 2014

The Pedagogy of Confusion

Never mind the feedback we get from students, confusion can be a good thing, according to recent pedagogical research described in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Counterintuitively, clarity limits what students learn:
"It seems that, if you just present the correct information, five things happen," he [Derek Muller] said. "One, students think they know it. Two, they don’t pay their utmost attention. Three, they don’t recognize that what was presented differs from what they were already thinking. Four, they don’t learn a thing. And five, perhaps most troublingly, they get more confident in the ideas they were thinking before."
Nothing surprising here, particularly not for anyone whose classroom practices have been influenced by Ken Bains's pivotal What the Best College Teachers Do (Harvard UP, 2004).  Students take information on board more effectively when they grasp that there are flaws, gaps, misconceptions in their understanding.  Since students rarely know what they don't know, a good instructor will find ways to stimulate their awareness.  The problem is, students resist the notion that their coarse-grained understanding of the world is wrong.  They expect education to feel like an ongoing and consistent affirmation of what they already know, and they are poorly equipped to cope when it doesn't.

In my teaching of Enlightenment era literature, I create an atmosphere of productive confusion by setting students to work on the first day on a poem from the period that fails to display the powdered-wig-decorum that they expect.  Joseph Warton's "The Dying Indian" or the unknown Ephelia's "Maidenhead" work well for this exercise, but they don't come easily to students.  They find it frustrating.  I usually have to gloss a few key words, advise them to read sentence-by-sentence rather than line-by-line, and set them to work in groups with clearly defined goals before they can make sense of either poem.   More than that, I have to be on: monitoring the groups closely, listening for that moment when productive confusion shades into irritability, deciding when to decipher a line for them rather than letting them work it out for themselves, picking the moment when the small-group work has ceased to be productive and it's time to guide the class to shared clarity.  I don't always get it right, and even when I do, there will be individual students for whom my explanations come too late (after they've already tuned out) or too soon (before they've time to arrive at the limits of their comprehension).

According to The Chronicle of Higher Ed,
Technology could provide a solution. Mr. D’Mello and Mr. Graesser have been experimenting with 'affect-aware technology'—software that attempts to read facial cues and adapt to a student’s level of confusion. The technology is still in the early stages, but Mr. D’Mello says reading emotional signals in humans could be an important next step for software that responds to the needs of individual learners.
A better solution?  A different model of what learning looks like. Even for the majority of students who respond well to the exercise, I have to start a semester-long process of selling the idea that discomfort and uncertainty are necessary parts of learning: this is not a view of learning that comes easily to them.  Increasingly test-centered education has taught many students that knowledge consists of arriving at predetermined correct answers, and that good teachers deliver them to those correct answers.  They've experienced wrong answers (or difficulty in framing an answer or productive confusion about the questions being asked) as pedagogical design flaws, not as intrinsic features of the process of trying to understand the world.

Some part of the world is always going up in flames, but as I write this towards the end of the summer of 2014 there's an urgency about teaching students to grapple with confusion.  Chasms are opening all around us, from the methane holes in Siberia to the fractured suburbs of St. Louis.  For all our sakes, our students need skills in confronting confusion.  They need practice in pushing past their unacknowledged longing for order so that they can recognize its distorting effects.  

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