Confused? Frustrated? Good!

This past summer our staff attended a training for all schools starting a New Tech school this year. There have been 18 new high schools opened across the U.S. this year. There were also teachers from four schools in Australia who are not officially part of New Tech Network, but use a problem based learning environment. My school had already had an extensive three day training in PBL so I went into the training with a good background. Some of the other teachers had just been hired the week before so everything was new to them.

Our morning session did not make a ton of sense to me. We were being immersed into a PBL situation as students. Our task was to make an audio walking tour of historic sites in Washington DC based on Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. We were required to tie the historic sites to the beliefs of the Founding Fathers. We went through the PBL process of an entry document describing the task and found out what we know and what we needed to know. During this the question came up as to whether or not we needed to actually read the book. This question was discussed but never answered. This was the pattern of this daily session: lots of questions answered with questions and little direction.


We were often confused and frustrated. Now this was not the whole time. We completed a great group contract with our Australian partners in our group. We talked about the task and had divided it up. I attended an excellent “workshop” on how to find the ties in the symbolism between monuments and primary source documents.

On the last day our trainer laid out the scope and sequence for us of how the whole project would work in a real classroom. It was not until then that I understood the whole process and the whole week. I was confused and frustrated by design. They wanted us to feel the stress of a student “doing” PBL for the first time.

I thought the trainers were a bit unorganized and should have explained the directions better. A typical teacher (read me) would explain the whole project in detail at the beginning including how to find and interpret the appropriate resources and what tools to use. This approach tends to kill interest and motivation. But there was another reason to allow some confusion and frustration. It is what they call “just in time” instruction. How many of you all know that students tune you out when you explain something and you must re-explain it over and over again to them individually?

One of the important principles of PBL is to allow some confusion/frustration to create a need for students to seek out more information. Then you have their attention when you explain or share resources. Now you don’t want students to be frustrated too long so that they want to give up. If they are new to PBL it probably will only take 5 minutes of confusion before they are ready for more instructions.

As Dan Meyer says “Be less helpful.” I need to work on more questions and less answers from me to students. I need to put the responsibility and focus of learning back on the students. How about you? How do you use confusion/frustration to teach students?

About Michael Kaechele

I like learning, sharing, technology, math, history, and concrete.
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5 Responses to Confused? Frustrated? Good!

  1. whatedsaid says:

    Hi Mike. Welcome to Inquire Within. I love your first post and look forward to more thought provoking ones like it in the future! Sounds like a great workshop… even if it didn’t feel like it at the time.
    It’s interesting how many teachers like (and are trained to have) everything planned out to the last detail. How often do we instinctively jump in and take over control of the learning (as if we can. It’s not our learning!)? Learning involves tension and confusion and it’s much less effective if teachers do all the thinking in advance.I like the focus on questions rather than answers. Have you read Making Thinking Visible by Ron Ritchhart et al? The chapter we just read and discussed focused on questioning and listening carefully to students’ thinking so as to see where to go next, rather than listening for ‘right answers’.
    I agree about instructions! Students so often tune out and then ask about what you explained when THEY are ready to know. I’m going to try and be more conscious of that. (Will mull about the balance. It might be a whole blog post next week!)


  2. cpaterso says:

    I seriously love this post. I often tell other teachers that I think that my job is to confuse my students. We need to glorify confusion. Providing answers is over-rated.


  3. Becky Bair says:

    This is a fantastic post that came just at the right time for me! I’m dipping my toes into PBL for the first time, and my biggest struggle has been how much of an introduction to give my kids at the beginning of the projects.

    It seems like taking part in a PBL activity as a student is something that every teacher embarking on this journey should do. Just like Mike, “A typical teacher (read me) would explain the whole project in detail at the beginning including how to find and interpret the appropriate resources and what tools to use,” those words of his apply to me, too. Because I’ve never been through the stress of the situation I never would’ve thought to wait until the moment of need to share important information about resources or other materials.

    This is a great tip, and I’m looking forward to giving it a try the next time I start some PBL.


  4. Thanks for the positive feedback. As I am actually teaching PBL now it is a real struggle to find the balance between providing needed structure and letting students struggle. And the balance is different for every student. The beauty is that I do not have to “get it right” every time but that I really view where I want students to be at the end of the year instead of just now.


  5. Pingback: Musings « Feed Curiosity

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