Confusion a necessary state in learning

Confusion a necessary state in learning

Photo: Kevin Dooley

In this article from Harvard's Bureau of Study Counsel, Dr. Abigail Lipson, director of the Bureau, discusses the role of confusion in learning, and how the clarity of knowledge ultimately leads to confusion, and why this confusion is necessary for advancing to new knowledge and clarity.

When we learn things, we feel a sense of clarity, our new knowledge standing firm in contrast to the haze of all that is still mysterious to us. “Our clarity, however, doesn’t last. Inevitably, we identify new details that don’t fit the pattern; or we find more that our leads lead only to more leads; or we realize that we have more to say if only we can find a way to say it. We are confused again, striving for clarity again, and seeking new understandings. And each new understanding we achieve is only a ‘momentary stay against confusion’” (a phrase Robert Frost used to describe the effect of poetry).

The key here is to understand that the long stretches of confusion between moments of clarity should be seen as positive and necessary, not as intellectual bogs to slog through, but as undiscovered worlds and roads to explore and immerse ourselves in. It is contentment with our initial clarity, and not confusion, that leaves us stuck.

Which some people prefer. Lipson acknowledges that many people, when faced with the prospect of confusion, will simply retreat back to their original sense of clarity rather than brave the unsettled frontier ahead. Lipson contends, though, that at a certain point, a mind will be overwhelmed by data and will be forced to venture into confusion, whether they like it or not.

Lipson sees the pattern as such: Initial state - Resistance - Disruption - Reorganization - Final state. Your initial clarity comes under attack by new experiences and data. You resist until the point of disruption, when you are forced from your solid ground and into a realm of uncertainty and confusion. You are then forced to reorganize your thoughts, and retest your ideas, to learn and grow until you can resettle your mind into a final state of new and enhanced clarity.

Lipson’s ultimate point is this: We must avoid, as both teachers and learners, simply saying that clarity is good and confusion is bad: “Clarity is good in many ways, but our efforts to cling to it sometimes lead us to resist or avoid opportunities for learning and growth. And confusion is bad in many ways, but is also a source of joy in life and a necessary prerequisite for certain kinds of development.”

When have you encountered confusion in learning?  How do you help your students reach clarity?

John Murray is an undergraduate majoring in English.

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