Stress, Ambiguity, and Confusion are Good for You?

You betcha.creative confusion

When I sit down to create lessons for teachers, or help them create lessons for students, one of my most frequent points is how they are creating “good stress,” within their students. Without pressing, most know what I mean inherently: there is an amount or type of mental strain that permits the mind to flex around a new issue or concept in order to overcome it and create new knowledge.

Stealing this from George Siemens (whom I have been robbing a lot from lately)

bit of stress, a bit of ambiguity, and a bit of confusion are healthy
contributors to learning. As long as we have a feedback loop where
learners can contribute and faculty can respond and adapt, we have the
basics in place.

Connections are the starting point of all learning. It’s so
obvious…and therefore so often overlooked. We really need to think
about types of connections learners have with each other and
content…and ways that we can extend the learning experience by
critically analyzing and forming those initial connections.

In two places in the above quote, Siemens mentions the word “connections,” and when we sat down to begin designing the additional language arts course for next year that was focused on critical thinking and writing across the curriculum, I thought back to my days at Eric Smith School in Ramsey. They had a school-wide standards system called “The Quality Standards.” It was partially a gaff among the staff at the triteness of the name, but in actuality, it was sound. The standards were:

  1. Following Directions
  2. Presentation
  3. Supporting Details
  4. Connections
  5. Higher Level Thinking
  6. Evaluation and Revision

Designing this class forced me to think back to the most effective of those standards, and by far it was connections, and the name for the class was born. In light of reading Siemens post, and in conversations with the teachers of the class, I can see that the term fits. We need students to create links, both mentally and digitally, from what they know already, to what they are trying to know. We are stressing “cognitive leaps” and learning by doing as often as we can, but there are inherent problems with that.

The last time I had the group of teachers together who will be teaching the class this fall, I stressed the first two weeks of instruction. Sure, what a shocker; however, we are asking these students in grades 6-8 to do some things that there are not going to be used to. For example, by the time they reach middle school, a good percentage of students have already perfected the question “will this be on the test?” and have figured out that there is a formula to getting good grades: find the answer the teacher wants, and give it–case closed. Now, we are going to have them walk into a classroom this fall and tell them that there is no right answer, only the answer you can defend in writing and in your ability to argue it. Talk about cognitive dissonance.

One of our group had shared with me a document (which I am trying to get a copy of at the moment) that was a letter to parents informing them of what to expect from this class. When we are trying to move students away from “schooliness” and do some in-country “unschoolingsnails and scotch” we are going to hit some rough spots, from both students who are not used to being confused or stressed about school, and their parents who haven’t seen their child struggle with school before. As always, we will deal with those situations as they arise.

Image Credits: “Creative Commons = Creative Confusion?” from Joe Pemberton’s photostream

“Confusion” from Lithoglyphic’s photostream


6 thoughts on “Stress, Ambiguity, and Confusion are Good for You?

  1. Patrick wrote:
    We need students to create links, both mentally and digitally, from what they know already, to what they are trying to know. We are stressing “cognitive leaps” and learning by doing as often as we can, but there are inherent problems with that.

    Oh man, Pat—All I can say is every time I read about the courses that you’re helping to design, I end up more and more jealous of what you’re getting to do!

    This statement was absolutely brilliant—stressing the cognitive leaps and connections that students must make between content and ideas is nothing short of best practice and pedagogy.

    I know that my mental work is always the most energizing when I can find links between topics of interest to me—and I also know that those links leave me better prepared to function in a world where overlap and “tweeners” are the most successful employees.

    Doesn’t Pink talk about this in A Whole New Mind?

    Here’s a quote:

    “While detailed knowledge of a single area once guaranteed success, today the top rewards go to those who can operate with equal aplomb in starkly different realms. I call these people “boundary crossers.” They develop expertise in multiple spheres, they speak in different languages, and they find joy in the rich variety of human experience. They live multi lives—because that’s more interesting, and nowadays more effective.” (Kindle Location 1692)

    So my question becomes what do you do if your courses—which are unarguably well designed and reflective of the kind of work that should be done to prepare kids for tomorrow—don’t produce immediate results on standardized tests?

    Will your school leadership rethink their decision to move in a progressive direction?

    Either way, I’m enjoying watching your progress…

  2. Great post -thanks for outlining your thinking. We have been running inquiry weeks where we collapse the curriculum and have our students respond to am overarching question -they formulate their own essential question from this that they explore using whatever means necessary. It’s always interesting watching the dynamics that unfold- the students who run with it and relish being able to direct their own learning, compared to others who struggle with the lack of structure and flounder as a result. Your course sounds exciting -I love the fact that it is going to run as a class for a term(not sure about you’re system – I’m from Australia) Good luck with it and make sure you blog about it- I’d like to hear how things work out.
    Jenny Luca.

  3. Jenny,

    I’d like to ask you about the students who flounder with the unstructured time: are they students who also tend to flounder in the time that is structured as well? What we are afraid of in the beginning is that students who overachieve are going to be very uncomfortable in a class where there is no prescribed path of tasks that you perform to get a particular grade. No spelling tests, no grammar tests, no vocabulary lists, but rather how well are you engaging other students when you have conversations and discussions? can you defend your point of view successfully? does your ability to summarize clearly stand out as a strong point?

    Glad you stopped by!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s