Embracing confusion, learning persistence: 5 principles for making professional development hard

Complex learning tasks can provide learners with the skills they need to develop. These skills promote agency and autonomy and are critical if we want learning to “stick”.

September 04, 2018 by Mary Burns, Education Development Center
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7 minutes read
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Teachers in first year of training in their Teachers Training Center of Gagnoa (CAFOP de Gagnoa). Côte d'Ivoire, December 2015 Credit: GPE/Carine Durand
First year teacher students at the Gagnoa teacher training center. Cote d'Ivoire
GPE/Carine Durand

We know it is important to let students struggle “productively” so they can develop social emotional skills like grit, flexibility and perseverance. But what about their teachers and their social emotional skills?

Before we get to this, a quick detour to Bangkok…

Two years ago, I led a multi-day workshop on project-based learning (PBL) for a large group of teachers. Because I wanted the teachers to experience PBL from a student perspective, I tasked them with identifying an urban problem in Bangkok, where many lived and where the workshop was held.

Teachers worked in teams to gather data, identify an urban problem, and design a detailed solution to that problem. They would then present their solution the next day to a team of urban planners and engineers and the best of these was to be “rewarded” with seed funding (replicating a real-world process).

At the end of our first day, the team of consultants who was observing this activity met to debrief. The news was not good: “They are confused,” said one consultant. The others agreed. This was not an observation. It was an indictment.

All’s well that ends well

Fortunately, the PBL activity ended well. The teachers worked hard to create impressive products and presentations. Even the urban planners commented on the quality of their ideas and work. The teachers had accomplished something hard and created something good. They knew this and were immensely, and rightly, proud of themselves.

For many teachers, the workshop was a seminal experience and motivated them to change their teaching—not despite the confusion they felt, but because it. They had a hard task: they had to confront the limitations of their own expertise, and at first did not know what to do. Yet they worked through their confusion and found a way to succeed.  They wanted this for their students.

Confusion defined

Confusion is an intellectual and emotional state. It is the feeling of cognitive disequilibrium and emotional discomfort we experience when we encounter difficult problems; when we confront the gap between our own existing skills set and a task that must be accomplished; and when we realize that there are multiple ways—not just one way— to solve a problem or multiple pathways to a solution.

Together these cognitive and emotional elements trigger a fight or flight response in the learner—he/she may lash out, give up or persist.

Persistence, of course, is what we want. But learning how to mentor students toward that goal is hard. It is critical that teachers and professional development providers learn how to help students embrace confusion and persist through the confusion to attain success or learn from failure.

5 principles for embracing confusion

The experience in Bangkok buttressed my belief that if we want our students to be persistent and conscientious problem-solvers, as well as learn the other array of social-emotional skills so important for success in university, careers and life, then we have to help many of their teachers develop these same skills.

But the experience in Bangkok also reinforced how difficult it is for those of us who “do” professional development to provide learning opportunities for teachers that are experiential and that create adversity so teachers themselves can experience the same feelings as students, reflect on these feelings and repurpose them, and develop strategies to best help learners work through their confusion.

I’ve embraced confusion in my own work with teachers by following the five principles below. But as you’ll obviously see, I am still learning and struggling.

1. Keep it complex

We like simple. “Keeping it simple” is an exhortation we hear often in life and certainly in education circles. However, simple professional development activities can be a professional sugar high—easy and “non-nutritious” learning because learner beliefs and assumptions have not been challenged nor their paradigms shifted.

“Complexity” is often a bad word in professional learning circles. Yet, “complex” learning activities, like problem-based learning, are rich and engaging. They address issues that are “ill-structured,” that have multiple components, multiple answers and/or multiple pathways to an answer.

Complex activities are difficult—they create adversity, which learners must overcome. If designed well, complex activities value the journey and destination, the question and answer, the doing and reflecting.

In designing for complexity, we want the learner to confront a knowledge gap—recognizing the limitations of his/her knowledge or facing an array of choices about which he/she may not have a lot of information or experience.

We recognize that the learner may also experience negative emotions—feelings of uncertainty, discomfort with ambiguity or a lack of clarity, and frustration at not knowing what to do next.

This is the crucible to be overcome. It is where skilled facilitation, strategic guidance, scaffolding, prompts, reframing, and reminding learners about the larger purpose of their task can help learners work through the confusion, persist, and develop a sense of efficacy.

2. Value and reflect on the cognitive and emotional components of confusion

When we create complex activities, we have to be prepared to address the negative emotions that may inevitably result. As a professional development specialist, this can certainly be uncomfortable. But these negative feelings associated with confusion are important learning artifacts.

We can help adult learners examine their own negative feelings and the sources of this negativity, relate these feelings to what their students often feel when facing difficult academic challenges, and then work with them to develop strategies to help students regulate emotions and turn frustration into inquisitiveness and defeat into persistence.

As equally important as the negative emotions associated with confusion are the positive feelings engendered from transcending one’s own limitations— the wonder of discovering unknown reservoirs of innovation of creativity, satisfaction in accomplishing a challenging task, a greater sense of self- and collective efficacy, and pride in persisting and succeeding.

All of these positive emotions contribute to the intrinsic motivation needed to be a successful learner. Certainly, from my observations of teacher-learners who have worked through the confusion engendered by a complex learning activity, these learning experiences are far more professionally adhesive and emotionally resonant than the easier “unproductive” activities that were often a staple of my professional development repertoire.

3. Do less to get more

I always believed that scaffolded instruction was best for learning new concepts—but I overdid it. In Bangkok, I over planned and did too much of the work for teachers—I designed the team roles; I created the rubric by which their product would be judged; I often defined the problem or project they’d work on and I always defined the product of their endeavors. Essentially, I erected barriers that blocked learning opportunities for teachers that did not fit my paradigm.

I was encouraging teachers to embrace the right answer, versus asking the right question. I have since learned to open up professional development—to establish learning outcomes to which learners can aspire to and exceed —to allow the professional development—and teacher learning— to move in directions that I could not anticipate.

4. Make it risky

Like many teachers do with their students, I often found myself instinctively protecting “my” learners from failure. I did this by creating learning activities that were simple and fun, that promised easy success, but that didn’t ask too much of teachers either cognitively or emotionally.

We know from research that if we make it easy for students, they may be unable to overcome the academic adversities they will inevitably confront later in their life as a learner. I think the same is true with teachers.

I’ve come to realize increasingly, that by creating activities that are complex, that deliberately challenge teachers, that focus on the process of learning and that are not overly planned or scaffolded, we can encourage teachers to be risk takers and in turn, encourage their students to do the same.

In opening up how I do professional development, I have put teachers in positions where they fail and have to learn from that failure. I have also put myself in positions where I have failed and have had to learn from that failure. 

This is a reminder to me of the very public risks we take when we change our teaching but also of the real learning rewards that result when we learn from our failures to persevere and try again.

5. Capture the learning

The learning gains accrued by embracing and overcoming confusion are lost if we do not reflect on the process of working through confusion and how that process contributes to our own cognitive and emotional growth.

Thus, much of the lessons instilled by confusion are dependent upon deep reflection on teachers’ experiences as learners, on how teacher-learners felt when confronted by a complex task, how their students might feel, strategies to complete the task and regulate their negative emotions, and the motivating power of pride in a hard job done well.

It is important that we name and value all of these emotions and connect them to particular components of the learning activity.

Confusion is not chaos

Chaos is devoid of meaning and is nihilistic. Chaos lacks direction, support and structures.

Confusion, in contrast, is purposeful. Working through our cognitive and emotional confusion in activities that are complex and that promote agency and autonomy is critical for deep, “sticky” learning. Confusion serves as a vessel through which we can empathize with students, design activities that challenge them deeply, and identify strategies and prompts to help students to persist through such challenging learning experiences.

If we embrace confusion, versus running away from it or neutralizing it, and if we support teachers and students through this journey, the learning for teachers, and especially students, can be profound.

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