In Which It Is Resolved

My last post was on the connection between confusion in the classroom and conflict in a story. I believe that both of these things are an essential element in their respective contexts. You can’t have a story without conflict and you can’t have productive and effective learning without confusion[1].

I was really excited that I had seen this parallelism that had been eluding me for so long. And, that excitement may have spilled over a bit too much. Because it seems that I may have left the impression that I’m just super excited about getting my students confused about things.

Well, I guess that is true, to a point.

However, I don’t want my students to be confused, just to be confused. I want them to experience confusion because it is leading somewhere. To the place where every good story ventures: The CLIMAX! [dun-dun-DUUNN]

We work and slog and struggle through confusion and conflict for a specific payoff. In other words, for a learning goal (or target, or standard, or whatever your district calls it these days). If we let our students get stuck and mired down in confusion, then we haven’t finished our jobs. Just like if we make our characters experience conflict, but don’t let them slay the dragon, the saga isn’t yet complete.

We need that final climactic moment in our narrative. The moment the tension has been building towards. The point when the hero must confront his/her demons, or perish in the attempt.

In a short story we call this moment the “epiphany”. You see where I’m going with this now, don’t you?

The climax for our students, the payoff to all of their confusion and hard work, is that light bulb moment. The A-Ha! The epiphany, when the fog recedes and the light shines forth and the big idea crystallizes for them—even if only for an instant.

Without this moment, without this goal, confusion is just frustration. Conflict is unresolved. The ending to our story is unsatisfying. The book gets thrown across the room.


[1] There has been some talk, somewhere (I can’t remember where/who), about the difference between “confusion” and “perplexity”. For the record, I am not going to make a distinction between those two terms.


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4 thoughts on “In Which It Is Resolved

  1. In some cases exploratory activities are meant for kids to develop the next skill without instruction, but this post reminds me of a second option: when kids explore something and they don’t reach resolution, they then want to know! “Why am I learning this?” goes away because they’ve got a specific thing in mind from Monday’s class.

    And then, after a few days worth of thinking and learning, suddenly that mountainously difficult problem is solvable. It’s satisfying, and it’s also really clear that something was accomplished between the beginning and end.

    Related, perhaps for another day, is how teachers are hamstrung by the expectation of “daily goals” — today, the Student Will Be Able To _____. Confusion, struggle, climax, and resolution don’t line up well with 47-minute periods, and in schools or districts where daily goals are required, it becomes that much more difficult to teach this way.

    • You bring up a great point, Bowen. That learning doesn’t take place on a set schedule, despite what our administrators may want us to do. Sometimes things get left unresolved at the end of the day. And that’s okay. You can come back to it tomorrow. I think we need the freedom (and the support) to do this–to let a problem or a concept sit with students over time, with the understanding that we will address it, just not rightnow! So many teachers are driven by an “I don’t have the time” mentality, which in many cases is a valid concern due to pressures from all around (and some from within too). I feel really lucky this year that I *don’t* have that kind of pressure. I can leave off in the middle of an activity with the knowledge that my students will finish it up next time and no one is going to question me or the way I’m doing things as a result of this.

      • This reminds me of an old Yiddish saying: “Sleep faster, we need the pillows.”

  2. I think you are onto something that we sometimes handle less than artfully in constructivist classrooms — what we might call “the strategic use of confusion.”

    If I am going to be ruthlessly honest with myself, I have to admit that [not] every topic (or sub-topic, or micro-topic) is worthy of my students’ heroic struggling energies. Not every topic in the curriculum deserves that. And not every topic requires it.

    But those topics that do will yield that exhilarating light bulb moment and hopefully, a deepened relationship with the underlying mathematics — as long as I haven’t tried to act as if every minor footnote or technical quirk in the curriculum deserves an epic problem-solving quest.

    In my opinion, that’s when students lose faith in their teacher as a trustworthy guide.

    I have to remind myself that the bond of trust needs to be established first.

    The hero’s journey *always* begins with the call to adventure and the refusal of the call — at first. I think this is because the archetypal structure reflects our very human reluctance to embrace change. The meeting of the mentors arises at a moment of inherent doubt. I try to remember this fact the first few times I introduce a problem-based lesson that will require a significant struggle for my students. I am building a relationship with them, and I am asking them to trust me. They need to experience me as a trustworthy — or at least not-too-boneheaded — guide who will not waste their time or their attention.

    I think that’s why I like your analogy of storytelling for this process of deploying strategic confusion. In storytelling, the confusion *has* to be strategic. It has to be worth the reader’s (and the protagonist’s) effort and attention.

    This is also why I appreciate the idea of using a balanced approach. There are some techniques in the curriculum that deserve a little focused, procedural attention so that they won’t get in students’ way as they dive into these kinds of authentic investigations.

    It reminds me of times when, as a young piano student, I just needed a direct procedural intervention to help me lock in some new piece of technique that would enable me to take my playing to another level. I’m thinking here of something like the repeated note technique, (which is sort of like the distributive property or factoring, but for the piano). Here’s a brief 1:18 clip of the kind of thing I mean:

    Once I got the hang of this, it opened up whole new vistas in the piano repertoire. It was a simple thing, but it made all kinds of new explorations possible.

    I try to do this same thing for my students when they seem to need it — sometimes they really need a chance to get the hang of distributing a negative sign. When I give this some attention and let them tinker with it until it makes more sense to them, I find that their trust and curiosity are enhanced, not choked off.

    Thank you for framing your insights about this in this way. I believe we can find a balanced approach that will help our students discover what we* find most compelling in the problems we approach.

    – Elizabeth (aka @cheesemonkeysf on Twitter)

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