Embracing Confusion

by Elizabeth Keller

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“I’m not good at math.
“I can’t do this.”
“I don’t get this.”
“Science is hard.”
“Why does this have to be so hard?”
“I’m not smart enough to understand this.”

Familiar refrains?  How many times do you hear this from your students?  Have you heard your own children make any of these declarations, or do you remember saying them yourself?

Even the best and brightest in our society – the rocket scientists, mathematicians, and inventors – have had to battle with these demons of self-doubt. Undoubtedly, you’ve run across people in your life who seem to breeze through learning everything — even the most difficult subjects.  Next to them you feel like a chimpanzee. “If it’s so hard for me to understand” you tell yourself, “then it must be because I’m just not capable of understanding it – ever – because I’m __________ (enter your choice of the following; tired, lazy, dumb, old, etc.).”  The lack of confidence in our ability to sort our way through confusion and make our way to clarity is the most common obstacle to mastery and insight.  You may have seen this time and again in many of the students who’ve passed through your classroom.

In short, we give up too easily and let confusion turn us away.

Part of pushing your students to challenge themselves is to understand that confusion is a huge source of discomfort and that it is perfectly natural for it to be so.  Confusion forces us to reconcile our understanding with what is going on around us so we can adapt to our constantly changing environment.  The cognitive discord caused by confusion can cause all kinds of reactions, the most common of those being to back down, or just turn and run away.

The difference between the people who successfully master challenging academic subjects and those who don’t is strikingly simple;  they tackle challenging problems without necessarily knowing HOW they’re going to solve them, but are willing to wade through the confusion of not knowing.  To many of us, confusion seems counterintuitive to the learning process and it stops us in our tracks.  If you are confused, it’s because you don’t understand. If you don’t understand, then you have not learned.  Confusion is like a great black pond we must wade through without knowing exactly how (or if) we’ll make it to the other side.

As a teacher, you have the ability to get your students past these learning hurdles; you can set the bar high and push students to exceed their expectations.  You can also show students that swimming through that murky black water of confusion is a very normal part of learning something new. Teach them not to fear confusion, but to embrace it.

Try a classroom game with your students that can get them warmed up to the subject of being confused.  The goal is to get them past the fear and make them somewhat comfortable with not knowing the answer at first—in other words, to have them marshaling the resources to start tackling their confusion one step at a time.

Gather some relatively common items that most students are likely to be familiar with.  Start with some simple objects, such as a plastic fork, rubber ball, penny, comb, key, pencil and then add items that are still familiar, but have more complex shapes and functions.  Some good items might be a calculator, cell phone, TV remote control, eyeglasses/sunglasses, household utensils (spatula, whisk, garlic press, nutcracker, bottle opener), etc.  Make up several ‘blind bags’ by putting several different items into each bag, being sure to include some simple items that will be easy to identify and some more challenging ones.  Make sure each bag has the same number of items and list the items on a separate piece of paper for each numbered bag (to make sure nothing disappears, or ‘accidental’ substitutions are made).

You’ll want to break your students up into small groups and have them work in teams.  Each group of students will get one ‘blind bag’ that contains ‘code’ they must decipher.  Students can either elect one person from their group to be the ‘tester’, or they can each take a turn trying at identifying the objects.  Make it a contest by timing them to see which group can successfully identify all of the objects they’ve been given only by feeling them. The ‘testers’ will describe the item aloud so that others in the group can help to identify the object, or write down the name of the item.  Each item that is identified should then be removed from the bag to confirm if it was identified correctly and be eliminated from the remaining pool of items.  The first group to finish can be declared the winner, or the first group with the biggest number of correctly identified items can be designated the winner.

This is a great, social, hands-on classroom activity that can be used to demonstrate how much confusion is a part of learning.  Emphasize to your students that we don’t always know the answers when we start across that murky black pond, but if we start by identifying what we do know, then we can build on that to learn what we didn’t know before.


Elizabeth Keller has been a scientist since she was six years old. She has a deep-seated love of science, studying it both inside and outside of school and then working for NASA as a scientist after finishing her graduate degree. She is the mother of four spirited daughters and lives in California.