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.
Technology 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.
As 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?