“It seems that, if you just present the correct information, five things happen,” he said. “One, students think they know it. Two, they don’t pay their utmost attention. Three, they don’t recognize that what was presented differs from what they were already thinking. Four, they don’t learn a thing. And five, perhaps most troublingly, they get more confident in the ideas they were thinking before.”

Confusion is a powerful force in education. It can send students reeling toward boredom and complacency. But being confused can also prompt students to work through impasses and arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the world.

“Common wisdom holds that confusion should be avoided during learning and rapidly resolved if and when it arises,” wrote a team of researchers in a paper published earlier this year. While this might be true when it comes to superficial tasks such as memorizing facts and figures, “Confusion is likely to promote learning at deeper levels of comprehension under appropriate conditions.”

In other words: If teachers want students to learn the really important stuff, like comprehending difficult texts and modeling complex systems, they should put their students in confusing situations.

That’s an excerpt from an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. How is it that philosophy is not raised once in this article? Confusion of the sort described here is one of the central tools of standard philosophical pedagogy, going back to Socrates. It is good to have some research on its effectiveness, but it is certainly disappointing that the connection to philosophy was not obvious enough for the article’s author to mention.

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9 years ago

I remember the exact moment of confusion that made me want to become a philosopher. On the first day of Ethical Theories, our professor asked what Mill meant on page one by “summum bonum.” He even gave us a hint: it’s “highest good” in English. The class spent fifteen minutes trying to give an answer before giving up.

I raised my hand pretty early on: the highest good is whatever is better than anything else. The professor nodded, but then said that sounded more like “most good.” More attempts were similarly swatted down. I was nonplussed. Apparently I couldn’t understand even a page of Mill’s writing—but last night I’d blown through two chapters without feeling lost.

That experience (and many others from that class) showed me that I understood philosophy far less well than I’d assumed. It was confusing at first, but in the end, it was the most important experience I’ve ever had in a classroom.