Confuse Them So They Learn

I recently did a lesson on the basics of reading and writing in Geometry.  You know, dry, dull stuff...what's a point, line, ray, segment, how do you write an angle, what types of angles are there, and so on.

While preparing all of this information I was thinking:

How can I expose misconceptions about such material so they learn it?

Remember, just seeing the facts is comfortable for students, but not only do they not learn, they somehow find confirmation that their held misconceptions are in fact correct.  It's not as wild as you think, and it's not limited to kids.  I took a psychology class in college and was unknowingly part of an experiment.  I was asked a question, a seemingly throw-away type.  But it's trickier than it looks and nearly everybody answers wrong.  But it was of such little consequence that I did not remember my answer (you weren't supposed to).  Then, I was shown the correct answer and asked if that's what I had said.

Turns out the vast majority of people mis-remember that they answered correctly.  That is, they answered it wrong, but it's hard for us to imagine we're wrong, and they latch on the to the idea they were right...even when it's quite obvious they weren't.

This is so powerful that to be wrong and be aware of it, being confronted with things we don't understand and such, is very uncomfortable and unpleasant.  Yet, that's what is needed for learning to occur.  (And I'm talking the type of knowledge where understanding is paramount to success.)

My assertions are that what Derek Muller has unconverted here goes beyond science and film.

Students are not void of knowledge in your content.  They have ideas.  Teaching them is more like part repair work on the frame of a house before roofing.  Presenting students with correct information will not shore up their misunderstandings.

Also, students need to experience some level of cognitive discord.  In education, nearly all of the "best practices" work hard to do the opposite of this.  There are things like Content/Language Objectives, or SWBAT, word walls and graphic organizers.  I'm not saying those things don't have their place, but that's it, they have a place when balanced with quality instruction that explores misconceptions and such.

When you can deliver a lesson that explores the misconceptions the students will be confused.  But if it is student lead, they won't be lost.  The amount of mental effort required is much higher than a typical delivery of information and note-taking style.  However, they'll learn!

So, how to create this tension and expose misconception over some pretty dull information?

Start by asking questions and exploring answers.  Do not use your authority in the subject to state if an answer is right or wrong, initially.  Instead, have students share their thinking on what other students are saying.

For example, a particularly nasty question that dealt with the boring definition-based lesson I just gave was, "What is an angle?"  To someone versed in geometry, this isn't a big deal.  But to a kid who hasn't taken geometry, this is monumentally difficult to describe.   The best response I received was, "Measuring the space between two lines."  So, of course, I drew to parallel lines and asked for explanation.


Now, this is just something I wonder, but is it possible that on these boring, just the facts, type lessons that exposing misconception is more important than ever?

Regardless of how that fleshes out, challenge yourself to challenge the thinking of students by exposing misconception through dialogue.  Be brave enough to explore misconception and encourage students to seek understanding by challenging the think of themselves and others.  If students understand the purpose of your methods, they'll play along.

Give it a shot, let me know how it goes.

Once again, thank you for your time.

Why Good Lessons Fail

Ever had a lesson you were THRILLED about?  You loved it, it was fantastic, interesting, crisp, approachable and ... wonderful in every possible fashion.  And yet, when you delivered that lesson, it flopped!

What gives?  What was wrong with the lesson?

In reality, there was probably nothing wrong with the lesson.  Sure, all can be improved, but the lesson wasn't the problem, the delivery was.  It seems there exists an inverse relationship between how much I love a lesson and how well received it is.  The more I love it, the more students hate it!

What it really boils down to is engagement.  We are so sure that what we have to say will blow minds, that we forget our number one task ... making sure we are teaching students, not just covering material.  We assume that because we find it interesting and fascinating, and because we had such a grand time putting the lesson together that they'll gravitate towards it.

But gravitate towards it in favor of what?  What captures the attention of students?  Drama at lunch, fights with family members, changes in weather, they might be tired from staying up and watching the new season of Stranger Things on Netflix ... we don't know.  But whatever has their attention, we must wrestle it away.

In a normal lesson we are usually vigilant and on top of distractions and such.  We work hard to make the lesson itself interesting.  But in a lesson that needs no such adornments, we fail to sell it.

So regardless of whether you think it's great, they need to be sold on the fact!

There are a couple things that you can do, at any point in time, if they're not engaged.  These work for average and poor lessons, not just the great ones that we hope will inspire a future generation of (whatever it is you teach).

Before I share with you three ways to quickly grab their attention, let me say that once you have it, you can just jump right back into the lesson.  You'll have their attention, they'll not even notice that suddenly they're learning stuff!

My favorite, go-to, method of grabbing attention is with a quick, cheesy, usually Dad-Joke.  I sometimes look up a bunch of them, print them off and have them at the ready.  There are a few that I have on the ready at any given moment, but since I don't often tell them outside of the classroom, I forget.

Make it short and dumb, they'll be captured, even if they complain.  Then, back to the lesson.

And with all of these, you just jump right into the attention getting performance, you can do it mid-sentence if you please.

The second method is with a quick story about something interesting.  It can be that you wanted some cereal for breakfast and there was only a splash of milk left in the fridge!  So you couldn't even have dry cereal, just slightly less than soggy junk -- How FRUSTRATING!?!?!  Get some feedback and jump right back in.

The last method I use is direct.  I simply tell them they're distracted and that they need to do their best to focus.  I'll sell why (perhaps the material is dry but will be very important and interesting in context later, or some other reason).  I'll share that I feel the same way, burned out and tired, but explain that we all have a job to do.  "Let's just get through these next few parts and we're done for the day, if we do them well.  If not, we'll have to revisit this again in the near future."

Whatever methods you use, mix it up.  If you become too predictable with these they'll fail to gather attention.  So, "Stay frosty," like the line in Aliens suggests.

Anyhow, I hope these are helpful tips.  Just remember, no how great your lesson is, engagement is still the most important part of the lesson.  Without it, they'll not learn anything!