Confused? Frustrated? Good!

This past week our staff attended a training for all schools starting a New Tech school in the fall. There are 18 new high schools opening across the U.S. next 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.

from Flickr

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?

3 thoughts on “Confused? Frustrated? Good!

  1. naomi epstein - editor

    This is a very interesting issue. I can see the point of utilizing the situation of some confusion / frustration, but do your worksops address the heterogeny of the classes? I’m a special needs teacher but I know that in “regular” classes there are children (even high achievers) who do not deal well frustration (and even “shut down”). The teacher must be sensitive to the fact that in the same class there may be very different reactions.
    What is the size of the classes at this school?
    looking forard to hearing more about this intriguing program!

  2. concretekax

    Thanks for pointing out this important point, Naomi. Our school has a 25:1 student to teacher ratio with some integrated classes with 50 students and 2 teachers.

    The level of frustration is a touchy thing that requires constant moderation by the teacher. The key is to allow a low level of frustration but to not let students become discouraged. The other thing about PBL is that the teacher can offer optional workshops for students who are quickly frustrated while other students plunge ahead on their own. Later more advanced workshops can be offered if other students get stuck. The workshop concept is critical because it allows the students to ask for “just in time” instruction about the topics needed. It also facilitates more individualized instruction.

  3. naomi epstein - editor

    I was thinking about this issue of frustration today at the summer course I’m teaching. The kids and I only met each other a few days ago and tomorrow is already the last day.
    Reflecting on your post made me realize the main reason I’m MUCH more wary of the level of frustration than during the school year – the kids don’t know me well enough to trust me. TRUST is important. My students at school know that I’m letting them “deal with it on their own” at the moment, I’m not leaving them or giving up on them.

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