The gift of mild confusion


Imagine arriving at a train station in a completely new city and navigating your way to your hotel. If it’s a short distance most of us would just use google maps to navigate the journey and walk the quickest route. If the following day you lost your phone, there would almost certainly be some panic around how to get to the hotel even though you walked the exact same route the day before.

If you never owned a phone in the first place how would your behaviour be different? You would probably have written down directions from the hotel. You might look for landmarks or street names to help you to remember where to turn. You would also probably be more confused and disorientated than if you could just whip out your phone. It’d take you longer but you’d get there eventually. If you had to do the same journey on the second day (still phone-less) then you’d be feeling far more confident about where to go having worked it out the previous day.

2894984086_48a2f5a0e9_zTechnology has become our default. Having information at the touch of a button means that the “thinking” phase has vanished from many of our daily tasks. Learning anything new is the same as the journey – if we get told how something works then you have far less chance of remembering it the next time you have to do something similar.

My students love to memorise and just google anything that they don’t immediately know the answer to. They also love to panic whenever they’re given anything that is unfamiliar. My very British response to the situation went something like this…

‘They’re scared of new problems. Let’s give them loads of new problems .’

I learned the art of making my students confused, frustrated and generally annoyed (I definitely shouldn’t lead with that statement in an interview!). Of course, I’m still aiming for them to feel confident by the end of the topic, but the “mild confusion” stage has become an intrinsic part of my teaching style. 

For me, being a good scientist is all about thinking “hey I wonder how that works” or “that’s weird, I wonder what causes that”. The only way to get to that point is to purposefully create scenarios that you can’t immediately answer with your current understanding.

4067285877_b9b454a746_oAs students get more familiar with these scenarios I can genuinely see them becoming better scientists. I can feel the progress from unjustified guesses towards a state where students look for more than one factor that may be influencing the outcome and arguing about which factor will be the major one. In the same way, the more train stations you arrive into, the easier it becomes to navigate where to go. 

At the moment I’m thinking a lot about self-directed learning and allowing students to pace their own learning. When I’ve tried this I’ve found students just use Google to answer questions they don’t immediately understand and then they just end up back in ‘accept the answer and memorise it’ land.

How can you get students to embrace confusion when they’re in control of their own learning? 

4 thoughts on “The gift of mild confusion

  1. Nick says:

    Thanks Kirsty I couldn’t agree more. Clear thinking is the goal for students, but simple, precise and clear explanations are not always the best route to that end. As you say, often the best sign of learning is that the students are puzzled and frustrated.

    There is a classic experiment where two instructional videos were made and shown to students. The first featured an actor explaining a basic physics concept in a traditional way using drawings and animations. The second was a video of a mock conversation between a teacher and student. The student initially struggled to understand the concept, and the tutor asked questions, but never actually explained the answer – which the student eventually got. Students who watched the two videos said the first one was clear, concise, and easy to understand and the second was confusing.

    But when students were tested on their understanding of the concept students who had watched the second one actually learned more – even though they did not feel that way.

    Sometimes, what students most want is not what they most need.


    • kirstieparker9 says:

      I’ll check out the experiment you talk about – sounds interesting!

      I’m not trying to undermine the value of a good explanation but just trying to make headway on the dilemma where I want students to both embrace being confused, and be in control of their own learning. After all… who chooses to be confused when the answer is always at the touch of a button?


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