Some words are used, almost exclusively by certain demographics, and the words, as used, don’t mean what they’re supposed to mean.
Demographic: retirees in the Milwaukee suburbs.
Usage: “I can’t find the file in the Gmail.”
Demographic: people under 20.
Usage: “We hung out all day and did random things.”
Usage: one student, after reading the instructions, blurts out: “I’m so confused!”
Have you heard this? I hear it all the time. In fact, after telling a friend about how much this utterance makes me cringe, she reported back that after a day of teaching, she’d heard it no fewer than a dozen times. Is there that much confusion in the classroom? And why can it be so upsetting to hear the phrase, “I’m so confused?”
Top 5 troubling things about this phrase, as commonly used:
- It’s too vague to empower you to help. Confused about what?
- It’s not directly addressed to you, so any intervention is a form of interruption.
- It’s not really true. “To confuse” either to swap one thing for another, erroneously (that’s probably not what’s going on), or to be utterly perplexed (also, not exactly the case).
Here’s what “I’m so confused means.”
- I am a child / teenager. I am generally disempowered in my life. I am told where to go, when to sit, when I can leave, and I need to ask permission to use the bathroom. My mind is capable of learning what you’re teaching, but it hurts – like all stretching hurts a little.
- As a teenager, I live in a world with only three categories: cool, sucks, and weird. And being lost – even temporarily – sucks. It makes me feel stupid and out of control. And since I am annoyed at you for putting me in this situation (not you, you, per se, but adults and the adult world), I’ll blurt it out in a slightly accusatory, passive aggressive way.
- I have not learned about “hurts so good” yet. While you were explaining something, I got bored and stopped listening (you actually are a little boring, but only sometimes). I looked at the clock to see how long this torture would be going on and I got lost. The problem is that I don’t know how to ask for what I want to know. I am not familiar with terms like, “I could use a refresher on…” or “I followed you until you said…”
- What I want is to feel heard and that my grievance is aired. I don’t have much hope in ever learning whatever it is you’re teaching, but if your pedagogical training and the kindness of your soul combined is able to help me out of this mire, I’d actually appreciate it. And I’ll try not to hold any of this against you.
- Indicate that you see and register the “confusion” and affirm that it’s okay to be confused.
- Remind students what the system is for getting “unconfused.” Do you have a “back-channel” or “help-desk” (I use https://todaysmeet.com/) – do you use flags or a list so students don’t have to sit there with their hand in the air?
- At the beginning of the year, teach students that productive discomfort is good, and that real learning is hard. Teach students to suspend frustration and try to solve a problem for themselves for a certain amount of time before verbally register frustration. Teach the difference between complaining vs. asking for help.
- Ask the student to recount for you everything s/he understood until the point of confusion. If s/he says, “everything,” say, “well, let’s start at the beginning.” Start to recount such incredibly basic stuff that s/he gets annoyed and vocalizes where the point of confusion is.
What to do when the Whole Class “Is Confused.”
- Don’t allow a classroom of students to groan about being confused. Students need to learn how to be “grownups” about the challenging process of learning. Collective grumbling is not a good way to communicate. Quiet the room and instruct them in the appropriate way to handle “confusion.”
- Say: “I’m hearing that some folks are confused. Use your flag / post a comment on my helpdesk / grab a red handkerchief from the box and put it at your workstation. I will come around and help you out. But this is pretty complicated stuff, so I appreciate your hanging in there.”
- Appoint people to who understand to assist students who don’t understand. This works best when you have identified and appointed “helpy” types in advance when possible – for example: “tech guru” or “math whiz.”