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This explains so much academic writing
August 15, 2014 7:31 PM   Subscribe

"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." It turns out that confusion is a powerful force in education.
posted by shivohum (26 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite

Is this the rediscovery of the Socratic dialogue?
posted by eruonna at 7:37 PM on August 15 [3 favorites]

So, does the Chronicle always refer to PhD's as "Mr."?
posted by oddman at 7:37 PM on August 15

This explains many problems I had in one class where i taught math. Not that I was the clearest presenter of material, but my students were convinced they knew it already and refused to listen to an explanation. Then they inevitably didn't understand....
posted by aetg at 7:40 PM on August 15 [1 favorite]

So, does the Chronicle always refer to PhD's as "Mr."?

That's its house style, yes.
posted by thomas j wise at 7:54 PM on August 15 [2 favorites]

Well then ... How do I differentiate between a good teacher who's deliberately trying to confuse me for my own good and an plain old' ordinary bad teacher who's just confusing me?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:56 PM on August 15 [3 favorites]

I was with the piece until here:

Mr. D’Mello and Mr. Graesser have been experimenting with "affect-aware technology"—software that attempts to read facial cues and adapt to a student’s level of confusion. Especially weird since, even if the software knows who confused, it wouldn't know much about whether it's good or bad confusion, and part of creating good confusion is likely highly textured, interactive dialogue with the student -- not possible in either the control or variable videos.

Nonetheless, as someone who teaches using at least some flavor of the Socratic method, I found the article's lucidly-presented facts made me more confident in the ideas I was thinking before. Wait a minute ...
posted by zittrain at 8:02 PM on August 15 [15 favorites]

I don't know where I saw somebody say this, but it is not original to me. A response to the students who say 'When you explain it, it's so clear, but then when I get home it makes no sense.": "That's because I understand it."
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:11 PM on August 15 [4 favorites]

This is not a reinvention of the Socratic dialogue. If you read something like The Meno you will see that the Socratic questioning technique (or at least Plato's portrayal of it) does not rely on confusion. What this is a reinvention of though, is John Dewey / Montessori educational philosophy from the 1910s, basic constructivist learning theory from the 20s and 30s, and Japanese teaching theory from the 50s.

(Sorry for the phone post)
posted by yeolcoatl at 8:19 PM on August 15 [4 favorites]

The takeaway I get from this article is that, if you just present information to students without making them think about it, they don't end up actually, y'know, thinking about it. The best instructors I've had were very good at clearly elucidating concepts, but also had us walk through specific examples in class to ensure that we actually understood the application.
posted by KGMoney at 8:26 PM on August 15 [2 favorites]

Yeah, yeolcoatl, the Socratic method deployed in law schools doesn't bear much resemblance to what's on display in Meno. It often generates confusion and asks the student and his or her colleagues to try to sort it out -- understanding that whatever page they choose to write in the choose-your-own-adventure of the dialogue, there will no doubt be an answer from the prof that throws their answer into question.

Phillip Areeda gave a lecture on the topic at one point (talk about medium and message diverging) and his notes were published in the a law review -- sadly as best I can tell only available here on JSTOR, so behind a wall for most. Maybe the law review can be persuaded to free it up.
posted by zittrain at 8:50 PM on August 15 [3 favorites]

Headline: "This explains so much academic writing"

But the article is about various experiments using video.

So...make your academic *video* confusing perhaps?

Sure, I'd hypothesize that doing *anything* confusing, unusual, distorted, unexpected, etc. is going to heighten attention and therefore retention (if you somehow resolve that confusion).

Plain old videos are kinda boring in academic matter how erudite.
posted by CrowGoat at 9:35 PM on August 15 [3 favorites]

This reminds me of debates about obscurantism in French academic writing. The claim was supposedly that if you didn't have at least 10% of your writing that was incomprehensible, you weren't considered a real thinker.

There is some merit to fostering students' openness when faced with texts or ideas that are ambiguous or complex. However manufacturing confusion for the sake of some pedagogical goal is weird. Confusion is being lauded because, to sum up the 5 consequences of a clear presentation of fact that the author gives, it generates active engagement rather than passive. But there are many ways to generate active learning that don't require inducing confusion (and that won't require really complicated software to measure the level of frowning on various student faces!) - and no matter how confusing your video is, it remains a video. It's still way more passive than interacting with your students in the classroom.
posted by microcarpetus at 9:47 PM on August 15 [2 favorites]

The wisest of the Ancients considerd what is not too Explicit as the fittest for Instruction because it rouzes the faculties to act. I name Moses Solomon Esop Homer Plato

You just got Blake'd. You're welcome.
posted by uosuaq at 9:49 PM on August 15 [5 favorites]

The claim was supposedly that if you didn't have at least 10% of your writing that was incomprehensible, you weren't considered a real thinker.

If you can crank that up to 90% incomprehensible you're either Derrida on a bad day or a Zen koan.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:45 PM on August 15 [2 favorites]

There are lots of us in the academy who think that clear writing is a high desideratum (viz. natural scientists and Anglo-American philosophers). This of course isn't the same thing as writing so that the layperson can understand what is written. That too is important in the right context.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:45 AM on August 16

Let me also say that you can be clear and instill confusion as a way of teaching. I often use the following technique (which goes back to Socrates, surely): after we've discussed something and the students feel like they understand it, I'll ask a question about what we just talked about in different terms and in a way that implies something false. Invariably many students will be confused (some because they got it before and see I'm contradicting our earlier discussion and some who just don't understand what I'm asking). A few (those who really understood things the first time around) will say, "hey didn't we just talk about this and say that that's false?" Then I ask, "so, someone who feels like she understood things first time around, tell me, what is Maria talking about? Why is she saying that we've already shown this is false?" And so on.

None of that involves any lack of clarity. On the contrary. But it does confuse some students. And some who aren't confused--those who buy what I'm saying, e.g.--later come to think they shouldn't have thought things were so clear. Some of those who were confused were right to be so.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:03 AM on August 16 [9 favorites]

As an aside, I never really found Foucault to be incomprehensible. Difficult, yes of course. And I think that is partly the result of translation. But if you pay close attention its clear what he is saying. Derrida on the other hand was a waste of my fucking time.

And 'academic writing' is remarkably clear. Pick up a social science journal. It makes sense. Yes it contains jargon, but that's because jargon is useful if one wants to be specific.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 5:30 AM on August 16 [3 favorites]

Derrida's later stuff has a more appealing comprehensible:incomprehensible ratio! The same is true of other famously "incomprehensible" writers - in my experience, more recent books by Kristeva and Judith Butler are much easier to read than their more famous, earlier works, for example. I used to wonder if this was because, once these people became 'established,' they could 'relax.'

I read a very revealing interview with Spivak a few years back (don't have the link on hand, sorry). In it, she said that, as a young female academic from a non-European background, she felt compelled to write in a "difficult" style in order to "prove" she was a serious, intelligent scholar. If I remember her correctly, she was in a precarious position as a junior scholar, lacking both male and white privilege, and felt that writing in that style was necessary to ensure her survival in the context of the academy.

Spivak translated Derrida into English very early in her career. So the difficulty of reading "Of Grammatology" also has to do with the politics surrounding the production of the translation.
posted by erlking at 6:39 AM on August 16 [2 favorites]

Information Theory applies here. Not in the strongest sense, because we can't measure our conversational bandwidth or write our students' firmware, but the principles from the engineering applications of Information Theory still apply.

If you have a passive audience, it is common to use redundancy as an error correction scheme. Intentionally generating confusion, and the expectation that a student voice and resolve that confusion, is closer to a parity measure. If we get the expected questions, we know the other side is following along. If the expected questions don't occur, we know we need to back up until the need for resolving those questions is clear. And as we know, as compared to redundancy, checking parity is a much more efficient usage of bandwidth (here measured in time, and more importantly, student attention span). More information conveyed with less work needed, and in less time.
posted by idiopath at 7:26 AM on August 16 [4 favorites]

Information Theory applies here. Not in the strongest sense, because we can't measure our conversational bandwidth or write our students' firmware, but the principles from the engineering applications of Information Theory still apply.

Actually, there is a whole science of measuring the bandwidth of delivery of instructional materials, and the optimal volume of data to deliver for maximum instructional value, we call this Pedagogy. And we are literally rewriting students' firmware by the new neural connections they make as they learn.

If you're not confused while studying a complex subject, you already know it so why the hell are you studying it? Good teachers know how to take advantage of their students' confusion. The best instructor I ever had, used a technique that I used myself to great advantage when I gave lectures. In technical topics like comp sci or math, traditionally instructors use "chalk talks" and write on a blackboard, writing the expressions and diagramming them. But this takes time and creates gaps in the lecture while the instructor is writing the complex expressions or diagrams. This instructor encouraged students to ask questions during the lectures, even shouting out the questions without being called on, then he would draw a line marking off a "margin" on the right side of the blackboard, so he could make notes on questions, as "marginalia." He might incorporate questions into the current lecture as they became relevant, merely noting them so he could remind himself to cover them at the appropriate time, or he might incorporate those questions into the next lecture. The ideas that confused the students helped shape the lecture, and future lectures.

The worst lecturers I ever had, did not understand the concept of conversational bandwidth at all. They would blast through complex equations or chemical diagrams so fast that even grad students had trouble copying them down before the lecture moved on to a new topic. And we actually paid grad students to make lecture notes and xerox them for the class, since the professor didn't make handouts, and the materials were not covered in textbooks. Here is an excerpt I scanned from some lecture notes I took in about 1980. It is impossible to write this down accurately and still pay sufficient attention to the lecture to understand what the instructor is saying. You can either pay attention to the lecture, or copy down the equations on the blackboard, but not both.

In the good system, each lecture was customized to the students' confusion, it might meander although it was the instructor's job to keep it moving forward. He could create handouts to cover main concepts, but if that was all it took, you could just read a book. It is an expert instructors' broad knowledge of a topic, and his experience with students' learning it, that allowed him to customize the instructional delivery on the fly. In the bad system, the lecturer should have made handouts covering the complex equations, so students could write their own marginalia as the lecturer explained crucial concepts. But this sort of lecture seems more like a data dump, than instruction.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:34 AM on August 16 [3 favorites]

charlie don't surf:

I highly doubt the usefulness of calculating the exact entropy of a classroom environment, or breaking a lesson down into a strict measurement in bits, or encoding the content of the lesson into the frequency domain for more efficient compression.

My own silly pedantry aside, you make excellent points about the actual art of pedagogy.
posted by idiopath at 9:48 AM on August 16

Funny you should mention entropy, I was a test subject in a years-long research project that might be described as measuring classroom entropy. I studied Japanese language in a school that was very focused on developing new instructional methods, to the point where I joked that if grad students could get their MA in Japanese Pedagogy without having to bother teaching those pesky undergrad students, they'd eliminate us altogether. But we were their test subjects, learning the language almost seemed like their secondary goal, even though they were supposed to be developing better methods to teach us. Unfortunately for me and my classmates, new instructional methods developed so quickly that we were the class to use our textbooks, they were dropped in favor of new books. Each class one year behind us got a new textbook. I remember one high level class where the textbook was abandoned after 6 weeks and a new one was selected (and oh were they expensive).

But anyway.. one of the hot research subjects was about obstacles that hindered the students' education. They did constant measurements of students, sometimes gleaned from homework or class tests, sometimes through videotapes of live classes, sometimes in research interviews. Since language classes involve a lot of student repetition of the instructor, or students being called on to recite. Eventually it was determined that the biggest hindrance to the students was fear. Students were afraid to be called on, creating an emotionally charged environment during classes. Students were afraid of making errors while reciting in class in front of students. Students were afraid of being publicly humiliated by performing more poorly than their peers. Strangely enough, most of these fears were pressure from peers and teachers, although it resulted in internal strife. It could be said that the natural classroom environment caused chaotic conditions externally, that students internalized as fear, which inhibited their ability to express themselves, and even inhibited their passive internalization of the lectures.

I think this was one of the main reasons that a new pedagogical method for Japanese language was developed, it's called Four Skills. Language learning generally falls into four categories, reading, writing, listening and speaking. Those are grouped into pairs of passive comprehension and active production: reading/writing and listening/speaking. So the classes were split into reading/writing and listening/speaking. For at least the reading/writing section, students were not in fear of being called on to speak. And for the listening/speaking class, the instructors took special care to shape the classroom environment to avoid arousing fears. Some of this was done by breaking the class into small practice groups, so students wouldn't be humiliated in front of the whole class when they made errors. This was an old method of practice, but its value wasn't appreciated until it was systematically studied and measured quantitatively.

As for the FPP, it is certainly based on quantitative research in psychology and pedagogy. But it is presented poorly here as soft, feel-good impressions and vague metaphors that encourages teachers to improvise new methods, rather than model their methods on quantitatively based testing of specific ideas.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:22 AM on August 16 [3 favorites]

This reminds me of research showing that people retain information better if it is in a font that is difficult to read.
posted by yoink at 11:25 AM on August 16

confusion is a powerful force in education

The technical term is 'curriculum'. Depending on the goals of the 'education' (vagueword) it may lead to confusion or to the light. A student may be enamored of the 'nuances' of the inconsequential, whilst he drowns in a vast sea of unknowing.

Harold Pinter: To maintain [political] power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.

R. D. Laing: Human beings seem to have an almost unlimited capacity to deceive themselves, and to deceive themselves into taking their own lies for truth … the result … is that (we have) been tricked and (have) tricked ourselves out of our minds, that is to say, out of our own personal world of experience.

The often-offered argument that society knows better and can be trusted to inform us is an argument built on precarity. Without the guidance of nature and of our innate authority (neither part of the usual curriculum), even small labyrinths are a danger.

Old saying: At first my attitude toward people was to listen to their words and to trust their deeds. Now my attitude toward people is to listen to their words and observe their deeds.
posted by Twang at 12:37 PM on August 16

It's presented as some kind of counterintuitive finding, but I'm not sure that this doesn't just reduce to it being necessary to practice with something in order to really absorb it--Barbara Oakley makes really nice observations about how "aha!" moments of understanding can create illusions of competence in learners who don't then continue to rehearse things, work practice problems, and so on--but this is really a truism about learning and practice.

On the other hand, if there's genuinely a "confusingness" factor, despite the on its face theoretical ugliness of analyzing some apparently causal property as "confusingness," that justifies the wow-kownterintewitiv! rhetorical gloss, then it seems like it would be fairly straightforward to distinguish from a "clarity & practice problems" type approach.

There is also something weird about taking a survey result around these video morsels as a proxy for the whole thing of learning and teaching per se.

I did really like the body weight video though. It does a good job of presenting a puzzle and engaging you to think about that puzzle and think about thinking about that puzzle, but actually nothing about the way it stages information is "confusing" fact quire the contrary.
posted by batfish at 12:42 PM on August 16

There is really no one single true method of pedagogy! A healthy educational experience involves a balance of enthusiasm and rigor; a mixture of experimentation, speculation, and rote grinding.

That said, I prefer that the basic principles of the concept to be laid out as simply as possible in the outset. Perhaps we can save some of the guessing and confusion stuff for later in the speculative portion of the program. Problem solving is good, but I don't love it as method for getting to the main point of the argument. Some may disagree.

Side note: Academic discourse is abstruse by nature. There is specialized technical terminology to be mastered in order to get to the next level, so it could seem confusing at first. But if you are presenting a new concept for critique, it's better to come across as complex, boring and confusing, then you won't get shot down as quickly.
posted by ovvl at 3:27 PM on August 16

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